Whose Sanctions?

Among the many tools in the foreign relations arsenal is the sanction, a supposedly nonviolent and effective way of pressuring nations into giving in on key concessions. Sanctions are supposed to be used as a punishment, as a way of encouraging foreign governments to ‘get in line,’ as a way to protest human rights violations and other legal abuses. The United States in particular seems to be an immense fan of sanctions, engaging in them on a regular basis and encouraging bodies like the UN to vote for them.

Yet, what do sanctions really do? Ostensibly, they pressure governments into giving in on a point of negotiation: a nation threatened with sanctions might withdraw a proposed law, agree to a treaty, or follow other desired directives. In this sense, the sanction acts as little more than bullying and a threat, forcing independent nations to do what other countries want them to. Even when sanctions are used for things like pressuring countries to drop anti-gay legislation, this practice makes me uncomfortable, as it’s highly imperialistic in nature, obliging nations to bow at the feet of others.

The sanction is also supposed to be a form of penalty or comment. Nations may be threatened with sanctions if they refuse to stop engaging in a given activity, like human rights abuses, developing nuclear weapons, and so forth. Similarly, the sanction here is being used as a rather abusive tool: do what I want, or I’ll take your toys away. Except, of course, that sanctions aren’t about toys, and the stakes are much, much higher than sandbox politics.

The thing is that when nations are slapped with sanctions, the move hurts some people more than others. Those in the most marginalised groups of society are the ones hurt the most, because they have the least ability to meet their needs in normal times, let alone during periods of sanctions. As food prices go up, so too do prices for other basic needs, like health care. The longer the sanctions remain in place, the harder it is to survive, and the more likely it is that people will slowly crack under the pressure.

Not the people in charge, the ones engaging (or not engaging) in the activities that supposedly merit sanctions, but low-income people, people who belong to marginalised ethnic and religious groups. Sanctions feed human rights violations, in addition to being imperialist and autocratic, because they create significant gulfs in countries that may already be stratified when it comes to who can get what they need to live, and who cannot.

But, nations that favour sanctions protest, the whole point is that they allow through food and medicine, including aid for people in need of it. They would never want to punish innocent people. They focus instead on oil embargoes, or refusals to allow consumer goods into a country, or refusals to trade with a country. Yet, the promise of protecting the marginalised never seems to materialise, and instead, sanctions remain punishingly in place, harming those who are least able to do something about them. Indeed, their social position is such that they’re often unable to even begin to go about pressuring government officials and others to take steps to end the sanctions.

Sanctions are cruel, and pointless, and while it can be frustrating to deal with an international stage where some countries are clearly abusing their citizens and residents, where some countries are clearly behaving unethically, trying to strongarm them into compliance simply isn’t going to work. Moreover, sanctioning nations are hardly innocent; there are grounds, I would argue, for sanctioning the United States over its treatment of immigrants, for example, yet no nation has made a move to do so. Is it because we’re too big to sanction? Because no one wants to pay attention to, or admit, the human rights abuses going on within US borders?

The persistent reliance on sanctions is a testimony to colonial attitudes. Surely, we can just force the natives to do what we want by means of simplistic deprivation of resources and stern lectures about how they need to become civilised! Undoubtedly, people will fall in line with the program once we educate them about how they should behave, and why they need to be more compliant and respectful of their masters!

For sanctions, in many ways, are about mastery and exertions of power. Notable that they’re often used against countries developing controversial weapons systems. While I favour unilateral bans on the use of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons due to the extreme dangers involved, I don’t fault some nations for wanting to develop them anyway. They know that other countries have them or are developing them, and they know that some of those countries are very hostile, and have no interest in abiding by bans or respecting their neighbours.

No nation wants to leave itself exposed to annihilation, or to a war that would be tremendously costly and horrific before it ended. Are we really surprised, then, that many nations continue to engage in the development of such weapons even though the world as a whole claims to want to put such weapons systems to an end? How can the United States, a country that owns, experiments with, and undoubtedly develops nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, act like an authority on the subject, insist that other countries, including those with whom we have poor diplomatic relations, refrain from this kind of weapons research?

How can we position ourselves as authorities on what is true and right to begin with, and why do we think punishing the most vulnerable of society is an effective way of engaging in international politics?