What history teaches us about sanctions

The sanctions imposed on Belarus failed to change power in Minsk. CC BY-NC-ND / Marco Fever

The Russian invasion of Ukraine leads to unprecedented sanctions. Whether they will affect the course of the war remains to be seen. However, history shows that they have been the norm for centuries, with questionable results.

This content was posted on May 07, 2022 – 11:00 AM

In the Middle Ages, the king willingly expelled foreign wool merchants in case of a dispute with other crowned heads. He would lower or raise taxes or even ban imports, depending on how he felt about the country in question.

A physical blockade was imposed on the Confederates, as well as Germany and its allies, during the Civil War and World War I. Objective: Prevent them from getting supplies, including food, to fuel their war effort.

Economic damage for the better?

The strategy seems quite simple. States impose a sanctions regime in hopes of undermining the unfriendly country’s economy, which then ends perceived hostile actions. Just days after the first Russian tanks entered Ukraine, Western governments imposed a series of sanctions on Russia on an unprecedented scale. These include banning Russian planes from US and European airspace, banning luxury goods exports to Russia, and various sweeping measures aimed at crippling the country’s financial system.

“The European Union and its partners are working to cripple Putin’s ability to fund his war machine,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Can sanctions overthrow a regime beyond the announcement effect? “I’m skeptical,” says Dr. Erica Moret, a specialist at the Graduate Instituteexternal link from Geneva. The question is simple, the answer complicated.

The researcher sees some use in sanctions, especially when diplomacy has exhausted all options and military action is not an option. But although the scientific literature is plentiful, no study has yet been able to come to a definitive conclusion. “We have no way of proving that the political change happened because of sanctions.”

South Africa is often cited as an example of economic sanctions leading to upheaval. When asked about their contribution to the end of apartheid, upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela replied: “Oh, they are beyond doubt”. Between 1964 and the end of the regime in 1990, a total of 23 countries played the game and in particular imposed an arms and oil embargo.

In reality, as Erica Moret explains, “a number of domestic political developments” were taking place simultaneously in South Africa. For them, sanctions must be viewed as part of the equation, “effective in the same way as the other mechanisms of diplomacy, mediation and [même] the threat of military action”.

Iran, Cuba, North Korea

The Iran nuclear deal signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in 2015external link and from the European Unionexternal link is often used to demonstrate the positive effects of sanctions. This plan was intended to ensure that Iran did not develop nuclear weapons. It is widely believed that Tehran was emboldened to accept the deal by the prospect of sanctions being lifted.

Again, it was certainly part of the equation, says Erica Moret, not necessarily the whole picture. “There was also a change of government, a change of mood.”

Cuba and North Korea have endured US sanctions for more than half a century. They haven’t changed course significantly. According to some political scientists, imposing sanctions on a small, undemocratic country can make it even more isolated and intractable.

Humanitarian Concerns

In addition to the question of whether sanctions are effective, other questions arise: What exactly are the effects on a country? Who suffers from this in the first title?

In the 1990s, cases taken against Iraq in protest of the invasion of Kuwait were significant. In particular, they concerned medicines and devices for the treatment of cancer, spare parts for water supply stations, the chlorine necessary for their purification and even vaccines against various childhood diseases. Governments blocking supplies argued for their potential use in the development of weapons of mass destruction.

“It was incredibly controversial,” recalls Erica Moret. Aid agencies were so concerned that a number of senior UN officials resigned. Specifically, United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Iraq Coordinator Dennis Halliday and World Food Program Director for Iraq Juta Burghardt.

“Five thousand children die every month,” noted Dennis Halliday. Later, on the basis of a thorough review of the sanctions, Jutta Burghardt found that they qualified as genocide under international law. “There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the Security Council will result in the partial or total destruction of a nation,” she wrote in her report.external link.

Targeted Sanctions

The outcry over Iraq has sparked a development – not in the sanctioned countries, but in those imposing the sanctions. Led by Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, the Interlaken process led to a model of “smart sanctions”.external linkto target governments, despots, or terrorist groups rather than the civilians they oversee.

It is important for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to think about the possible negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions. While the Geneva Conventions say nothing about their harmful effects on civilian populations, the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations do not hide their concern for affected populations.

“Even today, if you’re not careful, if you don’t design your sanctions carefully, they can still have these negative effects,” warns Eva Svoboda, deputy director for international law and policy at the ICRC.

challenge for humanists

This is of particular concern to the ICRC: the sanctions risk limiting its work on the ground. “Sanctions must not sabotage, criminalize or in any way hinder the work of humanitarian organizations,” stresses Eva Svoboda.

That risk is very real with the current sanctions on Syria and Yemen – imposed since 2011 and 2014 respectively. Erica Moret and Eva Svoboda point to the “deterrent effect” that a sanctions regime can have on companies that traditionally supply equipment to aid organizations .

“Some private companies may feel that they are not authorized to do business… so if we want to source spare parts and ship them to a sanctioned location, they may be reluctant,” notes Eva Svoboda. This can mean, for example, that we can no longer maintain the water supply.”

Sanctions-related challenges include first-aid training, which the ICRC provides to local communities in conflict-affected areas, and medical treatment of the injured, including ex-combatants.

These are routine activities for the ICRC, part of its mandate under the Geneva Conventions. However, these activities are likely to be perceived as illegal in the face of sanctions aimed at cutting off all support to a terrorist country or organization.

Humanitarian Exceptions

There are also fears that consensus on the targeted sanctions reached in the Interlaken process is crumbling. After the US and NATO pulled out of Afghanistan last year, the scale of the sanctions against Kabul proved so great that many aid organizations had little success in fulfilling their missions.

Erica Moret of the Graduate Institute believes that sanctions that isolate the entire national banking system – a reality in North Korea, a threat to Afghanistan – are not necessarily a good strategy. “The suffering of the civilian population is not synonymous with political gain,” assures the researcher. There is no case where destruction [économique] of a country has translated into political benefits.”

Erica Moret judges that it might be time to relaunch a forum similar to Interlaken’s. Switzerland, which has developed expertise in targeted sanctions, could organize them again, she hopes.

What about Russia?

From then on, what about Russia? Everyone agrees on this: the sanctions are quick and comprehensive – and have a domino effect. Companies that could theoretically continue to operate in Russia are withdrawing. This is the case with MacDonald’s or H&M. Nestlé, under pressure from Ukraine, was forced to develop its own humanitarian exemptions and withdraw KitKat from sales while maintaining infant formula sales.

External Content

Everyday consumer goods such as iPhones or the Big Mac are no longer available in Russia. This may make the population think about the reasons for this situation, but is unlikely to hinder their survival.

Nor will it affect “Putin’s war machine,” which needs cash and spare parts. These will be hard to come by if they are from the United States or the European Union, but not India or China. As for the money, it keeps flowing, thanks to Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and oil, for which it has to shell out millions of euros every day.

Both Erica Moret and Eva Svoboda point out that sanctions are just a “tool in the toolbox”. But with Russia they seem to be the only ones, diplomacy is proving virtually non-existent and military intervention has been ruled out. Proponents of an immediate break with Russian gas and oil even argue that this tool is weaker than it should be.

Possible results

As Erica Moret pointed out on our recent Inside Geneva podcastexternal link (in English), “we should not see sanctions as a magic bullet that can solve the situation”.

However, she adds that “these sanctions are so unprecedented that it is difficult to predict the outcome. But for Russia, they undoubtedly increase the cost of the war.

Should we then expect an upheaval? A regime change in the Kremlin, for example? The researcher anticipates more modest, “nuanced” developments… “The return of the parties to the negotiating table, for example, or a war that slows while Russia struggles to fund it.”

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