ODVV interview: Economic sanctions and their...
Those who follow the world news closely have heard or come across the term "economic sanctions" frequently. Several world countries have been the subject of unilateral or multilateral economic sanctions aimed at certain political goals in the recent decades. The United States of America is the biggest imposer of economic sanctions. According to the US Department of Treasury, the United States currently has sanctions programs against 19 countries. The number of entities and individuals sanctioned by the US government is almost countless.
A 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency says the human cost of the sanctions are often ignored while such measures are adopted and "human suffering is regarded as an unfortunate but necessary consequence in order to achieve the political objective."
In an interview with the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Paul Pillar said "smart sanctions" which target the political leaders without causing harm to the innocent civilians often fail to demonstrate their effectiveness. "… smart sanctions – which most often mean ones narrowly targeted to affect key decision-makers and elites in the targeted country, rather than the general population – can be used to seek the intended political result without causing hardship among innocent citizens," said Paul Pillar.
"But that usually leaves the question of whether they have enough impact to be effective. They rarely remove the belief that wider sanctions with a bigger impact might still be necessary," he added.
Paul Pillar is a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. At the CIA, he served in different positions, including the Executive Assistant to Director of Central Intelligence from 1989 to 1991.
Prof. Paul Pillar took part in an interview with ODVV and responded to some questions about economic sanctions, their humanitarian consequences, smart sanctions and the US sanctions against Iran.
Q: The United States has imposed economic sanctions against several countries. Nations such as China, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Russia, Syria, Venezuela and Iran are the target of the United States sanctions. Why does the United States use this economic and commercial leverage in such great proportions to pressure other countries
A: Economic sanctions have the attraction to US policymakers of being a middle ground between doing nothing and using military force. Given the prominence of the United States in global economic affairs and especially in the worldwide financial system, the belief is that US sanctions will be more effective than sanctions imposed by other countries. In many instances, sanctions are used at least as much as a domestic political tool as anything else – a way of expressing disapproval of some foreign regime.
Q: To what extent do you think the sanctions currently imposed by the United States and previous sanctions on countries such as Vietnam have been successful in fulfilling the political goals behind these measures?
A: The success or failure in achieving the political goals depends on many variables, including the nature of those goals, the nature and importance to the targeted country of the behavior that the sanctions are intended to change, and the nature of the political and economic system in the targeted country. Perhaps most important is the breadth of the sanctions in terms of the number of participating countries. Multilateral sanctions, such as those that once were imposed on Libya, have a greater chance of being effective than sanctions imposed only by one country, even the United States.
Q: The enforcement of economic sanctions have humanitarian consequences for the target countries, especially when these measures are so extensive that affect all aspects of a nation's economy. Do the lawmakers and governments in sanctioning countries such as the US consider the human impacts of sanctions when imposing them?
A: The human impact is not considered often enough. Sometimes this facet comes up in debate, but more often the human suffering is regarded as an unfortunate but necessary consequence in order to achieve the political objective.
Q: The term "smart sanctions" came into use in the international relations in the late 19th century. Prior to that, terms such as peaceful sanctions were used. Is it really possible for sanctions to be designed so smart and harmless that they don't leave negative humanitarian impacts and disrupt the livelihoods of ordinary citizens?
A: In theory, at least, smart sanctions – which most often mean ones narrowly targeted to affect key decisionmakers and elites in the targeted country, rather than the general population – can be used to seek the intended political result without causing hardship among innocent citizens. Such sanctions are always possible, taking the form at least of travel restrictions or the impoundment of financial accounts of the targeted individuals. But that usually leaves the question of whether they have enough impact to be effective. They rarely remove the belief that wider sanctions with a bigger impact might still be necessary.
Q: As you might be aware, the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a special rapporteur for investigating the impacts of unilateral coercive measures. Are there legal and political reasons why extensive economic sanctions are against human rights and unjustifiable?
A: It would be hard to make a case that economic sanctions in general ought to be considered a human rights violation. The costs always must be weighed against the importance of whatever is the political objective. Rather than focus on the specific technique of sanctions, it might be better to talk about the authority by which any punitive technique is to be used. There is an important difference between sanctions imposed in accordance with decisions of the UN Security Council, and ones that a state imposes unilaterally.
Q: The Obama administration had imposed an array of economic sanctions against Iran, and in this sense, was little to no different from President Trump. However, Trump is persistent on reinstating the economic sanctions against Iran contrary to the will of his European partners and in contravention of the JCPOA and the UNSC resolution 2231. Iran has referred the case to the International Court of Justice. How can Iran emerge successful out of this battle? Will the unilateralism of the United States be morally condemned?
A: The unilateralism of the Trump administration already has been politically condemned. The United States is isolated on this issue. The outcome of this struggle –the outcome that matters most – will be decided not at the ICJ but rather in the executive suites of European businesses. What remains to be seen is whether the secondary sanctions the United States tries to impose will deter enough non-US commerce with Iran that the JCPOA will not be saved.
By: Kourosh Ziabari