Global Policy Forum

International Sanctions on Haiti


By Don Bohning

Miami Herald
March 1, 1999

Economic sanctions imposed on Haiti in the early 1990s in an effort to restore democratic government not only mortgaged the country's future but intensified military repression, the head of a major United Nations agency there at the time argues in a newly published book.

"In a show of support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the international community imposed comprehensive sanctions on Haiti and in so doing mortgaged the nation's future,'' Elizabeth Gibbons, head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Haiti from 1992 to 1996, writes in Sanctions in Haiti: Human Rights and Democracy Under Assault. "The anatomy of sanctions' multidimensional impact inside Haiti shows that they intensified the effects of the army's repression on the population, whose right to life was threatened by the two-edged sword of political violence and debilitating hunger,'' she writes.

Gibbons is now based in Guatemala City, where she heads UNICEF's Central America office. She wrote her book as part of the Washington Papers series for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. The multilateral sanctions were imposed by both the Organization of American States and the United Nations shortly after a Sept. 29, 1991, military coup ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The sanctions were widely supported by many Haitians, both inside and outside Haiti, including Aristide.

Paying for innocence?

"Haitians paid heavily for their innocence,'' Gibbons observes. And that, she says, "raises the bigger issue of whether international bodies, such as the OAS and the U.N., should impose sanctions against authoritarian regimes without fully explaining to the democratic opposition forces the range'' of sanctions available and the "relative success that each type is known to have had in achieving its objective.''

Gibbons says the "multilateral trade embargo (in particular the fuel embargo) proved to be the sanction regime's most counterproductive element. "Because the embargo could not differentiate between villains and victims, its effects reached far into the urban slums and rural hilltops . . . triggering, or accelerating a horrifying descent into absolute poverty for the vast majority of Haitians.''

Also, Gibbons contends, "the U.N.-OAS sanctions undermined Haiti's slender development achievement to which the international community had itself devoted millions of dollars in foreign aid. . . . Assets for Haiti's development were mortgaged for at least a generation, perhaps forever. . . .'' "The lesson of Haiti's experience is that comprehensive sanctions are not an effective means of advancing democracy,'' Gibbons says.

Another kind of sanctions

Although Gibbons writes that the "post-Cold War record has failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of multilateral sanctions in advancing peace and security,'' she says they should not be dismissed out of hand. "The type of sanctions the world does need are those that strive to target the wrongdoers while being accompanied by the credible threat of force.''

As one example, she cites the targeted and individualized sanctions imposed belatedly on Haitians "thought to be responsible for, or supportive to, the coup d'etat and the continuation of de facto government.'' In a foreword to the book, Lakhdar Brahimi, the special representative in Haiti for the U.N. secretary general from 1994 to 1996, says he suspects "that both Haitians and their foreign supporters expected sanctions to produce the desired effects quickly and believed that the 'collateral damage' would therefore be limited and of short duration,'' which did not happen.

And, Brahimi adds, "once a sanctions regime is established, it is of course, difficult, perhaps impossible, to lift it before the desired objectives are achieved. Such a move would simply be perceived by the military junta as a victory and as an acceptance of a fait accompli by the international community.''

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