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Economic sanctions have been employed as a tool of foreign policy by countries, international organisations and alliances for centuries. They are typically used as a non-military method of exerting pressure on a particular country or group to change their behaviour or policies.

As part of the build-up to the Peloponnesian War (432BC), Athens imposed economic sanctions on its neighbour Megara, banning Megarians from Athenian markets and harbours. The Continental System (1806-1814), initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte, aimed to cripple Britain’s economy during the Napoleonic Wars by preventing continental Europe from trading with Britain. In The Embargo Act of 1807, the United States imposed an embargo that aimed to force Britain and France to respect U.S. neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars. Interestingly, in both of these last cases, the policies backfired, causing more harm to the originator than the intended victims.

More recent examples further illustrate the often-complicated outcomes that result from the actions of sanctions. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations Security Council imposed comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq, aiming to force Saddam Hussein’s regime to withdraw. But, although the sanctions put pressure on Iraq, they also led to a widespread humanitarian crisis. The international community likewise imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, due to its disputed nuclear programme. The sanctions, which still stand, have crippled Iran’s economy, yet the nuclear issue remains unresolved. The sanctions imposed on North Korea, due to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, similarly since 2006, further demonstrate the difficulty of achieving the desired effects with sanctions. There has been no change of policy in Pyongyang, but it has caused widespread and significant damage to the individual lives of millions in the country.

The effectiveness and ethical implications of sanctions are an ongoing subject of intense and shifting debate. Arguments both in favour and against often seem logical and reasonable, depending on perspective. Here, some of these arguments are presented in brief, with the intention of informing, enhancing debate, and possibly widening all of our perspectives. Is there really a case for international economic sanctions?

Sanctions Work

Sanctions Work

Nonviolent Tool: Economic sanctions can serve as a peaceful means to exert international pressure on a particular country or regime, especially when diplomacy has failed. They enable the international community to voice disapproval and compel change without resorting to military intervention. Sanctions can deter undesirable actions, potentially prompt policy reforms, and symbolically isolate the target, highlighting its infringement of international norms.

Deterrence and Punishment: Economic sanctions can act as a form of deterrence and punishment for nations that violate international norms and laws. By imposing economic hardships, they aim to discourage similar actions in the future. Sanctions can also serve as a penalty, symbolically isolating the offending nation and signalling global disapproval of its actions, thereby potentially prompting changes in behaviour.

Promote Policy Change: Economic sanctions can help foster policy change in a target country. By creating economic distress, they can catalyse internal pressure for reform. Sanctions can stimulate popular demand for policy adjustments or negotiations, thus achieving changes that dialogue or diplomacy alone might not accomplish. They may serve as a lever to encourage shifts towards democracy, respect for human rights, or adherence to international regulations.

Symbolic Value: Economic sanctions carry significant symbolic value, serving to express international condemnation of a country’s actions or policies. By imposing sanctions, the international community can signal its collective disapproval, highlighting the isolation of the offending state. This can damage the reputation of the targeted country or regime, exerting further pressure to change its offending behaviours.

Preventive Measure: Economic sanctions can serve as a preventive tool by limiting a targeted nation’s capacity to engage in harmful activities. By restricting access to key resources, technologies or finance, they can hamper a country’s ability to develop weapons programmes, sponsor terrorism or engage in other actions deemed dangerous by the international community. This pre-emptive aspect of sanctions can, it is argued, contribute to global stability and peace.

Sanctions Don't Work

Sanctions Do Not Work

Effectiveness: The effectiveness of economic sanctions is widely debated. While they may cause economic hardship, this does not always translate into political change. The targeted regime may resist capitulating to international pressure or find ways to mitigate the impact of sanctions. In some cases, sanctions have even strengthened a regime’s hold on power by providing a foreign scapegoat for domestic problems.

Humanitarian Impact: Economic sanctions can inadvertently cause significant suffering among the civilian population of the targeted nation. They often lead to shortages of food, medicine and other essential goods, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. Despite the aim of influencing political leadership, the humanitarian costs are usually borne by ordinary people, potentially exacerbating poverty and inequality.

Risk of Escalation: Economic sanctions can inadvertently escalate tensions between nations, contributing to a cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation. The targeted state may respond by implementing its own counter-sanctions or by escalating military activities, thus potentially leading to a more serious conflict. The imposition of sanctions can, therefore, have unintended consequences, complicating diplomatic relations and reducing avenues for peaceful resolution.

Economic Cost: Imposing economic sanctions is not without cost for the instigating countries. By limiting trade with the targeted nation, they can lose profitable markets and opportunities for investment. Domestic industries that export to or import from the sanctioned country may suffer, leading to job losses or increased prices for consumers. Therefore, the decision to impose sanctions often involves a careful balance of economic and political considerations.

Sovereignty: Economic sanctions can be viewed as an infringement on a nation’s sovereignty and its right to self-determination. By dictating certain policies or actions, the countries or international bodies imposing sanctions can be perceived as overstepping their bounds. This perception can fuel resentment, increase nationalism and further complicate diplomatic relations, potentially undermining the intended goals of the sanctions.

There is undoubtedly a case for international economic sanctions as they can serve as a nonviolent tool to exert pressure, deter undesirable actions, promote policy change and symbolise international disapproval. However, their effectiveness is widely disputed. The impact on the targeted nation’s civilian population, potential escalation of tensions, economic cost to sanctioning countries, and perceived infringement on sovereignty all complicate the picture. Therefore, sanctions should be employed judiciously, considering both the potential benefits and the significant drawbacks.

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