Global Policy Forum

UN Report: Sanctions Ineffective

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By Naomi Koppel

Associated Press
August 15, 2000


Economic sanctions aimed at changing government policy are usually ineffective and often illegal under international law, according to a U.N.-commissioned report released Tuesday.

"The theory behind economic sanctions is that economic pressure on civilians will translate into pressure on the government for change. This theory is bankrupt both legally and practically," said the report by Belgian law professor Marc Bossuyt.

The worst case is Iraq, where 10 years of U.N. sanctions driven by the United States and Great Britain has led to "a humanitarian disaster comparable to the worst catastrophes of the past decades," Bossuyt said in his report for the U.N. Subcommission on Human Rights.

Bossuyt said the Security Council's decision to continue sanctions while knowing they caused an untold number of Iraqis to die was "unequivocally illegal" under international humanitarian law.

The 40-year U.S. trade blockade on Cuba, which caused its people to suffer, was also illegal on humanitarian grounds, Bossuyt said.

He said sanctions should carry a time limit to achieve an aim, and should not be targeted at civilians. Alternatives include freezing the foreign assets of the ruling elite, and bans on imports of luxury goods.

Bossuyt's report comes amid a growing movement to end the sanctions in Iraq on moral grounds. Varied calls to end the sanctions have come from the Vatican, U.S. peace activists, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and two former U.N. humanitarian coordinators, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who resigned in protest of the sanctions policy.

On Tuesday, the current head of U.N. humanitarian programs in Iraq, Benon Sevan, said an oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil for some humanitarian goods and to fund Gulf War reparations and U.N. operations can never be a substitute for normal economic activity in Iraq.

Others are more critical. In the May/June 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, American political scientists John Mueller and Karl Mueller said economic sanctions in Iraq, which they call the true "weapons of mass destruction," are far more deadly than the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that the sanctions are aimed at eradicating.

Strict trade sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait are being kept in place until U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Aid distribution under the oil-for-food program has been plagued by delays as members of the Security Council, particularly the United States, raise questions about whether items ranging from sprinkler parts to agricultural chemicals could have military uses.

As a result, some medicines and basic equipment such as chlorinators to purify drinking water are forbidden by the sanctions. Bad water has created an epidemic of dysentery and infectious diseases, resulting in thousands of child deaths. UNICEF said the number of child deaths has doubled since the sanctions.


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