TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

We need to think through the impact of sanctions



Jonathan Power

February 6, 2004

LONDON - If it is time to review the procedures that persuaded President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction then it is surely time overdue to examine the impact of sanctions. The assumption seems to be that they are a good thing, a softening up of the enemy before war in some cases, as with Iraq and Serbia, and even an alternative to war in others, as with Iran, Libya and Cuba. But, frankly, we are in a muddle about the worth of sanctions. They didn't appear to work with Saddam Hussein.

After Iraq President Woodrow Wilson, when trying to sell America the League of Nations, argued that sanctions were better than war: "A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly, remedy and there will be no need for force".  Yet, seemingly paradoxically, Wilson was the one who opposed the allies' post World War 1 sanctions on a defeated Germany, maintaining rightly that such harsh and extreme treatment- including exorbitant reparations- would backfire, producing unemployment, bitterness and resentment.

Some observers picking up this argument take it further- sanctions against Mussolini clearly didn't work after Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. But we now know that Mussolini confided to Hitler that if oil had been included in the embargo he would have had to withdraw in a week. This seems to make sense: if rhetoric is strong but action is weak, they can make things worse. Emperor Haile Selassie bitterly complained that sanctions seemed to have encouraged Italy to use poison gas to hasten the conquest. But if the sanctions are as strong as the rhetoric they may be effective, as with South Africa in the end, albeit after many years. This seems to be the case today with Libya.

Still, this doesn't make a watertight case. We can now see clearly with Iraq the ambiguity of sanctions. On the one hand they clearly made it very difficult for Saddam Hussein to import the materials he needed to continue with his work on weapons of mass destruction or to rebuild his military after his first defeat. On the other hand they helped solidify public opinion behind him because of the heavy toll they took on ordinary people- one estimate by UNICEF claims that half a million children died unnecessary deaths as a result.

Serbia is another case in point. The wars in the former Yugoslavia are rooted in large part in the economic crisis of 1979-1989 when the country was scissored between its need to repay its big foreign debt and its attempt after Tito's death to create a market economy. Unemployment, hyperinflation and a drastic fall in living standards, combined with bitter conflicts over federal and republican budgets, were the catalyst for political disintegration. Economic sanctions merely worsened the problems that helped trigger the civil wars.

Sanctions required the Serbian government to reimpose state monopolies. Sanctions also gave new life to the police and army, whose numbers before had been reduced. President Slobodan Milosevic's personal authority was enhanced because it was he who could determine which enterprises received subsidies, which workers would be unemployed and which pensions would be paid.

Imposing sanctions is one disputed tool. Removing them is another. Clearly with Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi's decision to compensate the victims of the air crashes his regime had engineered and to give up research on nuclear weapons was motivated by an unambiguous carrot- the removal of sanctions and the fulsome recognition of his regime if he keeps his side of the bargain. In contrast, Saddam Hussein was never offered a carrot. Through both Republican and Democratic administrations the U.S. was quite firm- it demanded the demise of Saddam Hussein before sanctions would be lifted. At the same time the Americans and the British insisted on keeping the sanctions screw tight, even making it difficult for medicines and equipment to be shipped to Iraqi hospitals. If the U.S. and the U.K. had kept a narrow focus on armaments' sanctions and loosened up on everything else, as well as not demanding Saddam's head on a plate, they could have probably persuaded Saddam years ago to allow the re-entry of UN arms inspectors and an unnecessary war might have been avoided.

Similarly with North Korea, if the Republican-controlled Congress had not prohibited the Clinton Administration from carrying out its side of the landmark agreement of 1994 to end economic sanctions it may well have been that Pyongyang would have kept its side of the grand bargain- to end its nuclear weapons' programne.

Sanctions need subtlety if they are to find the weak links in an antagonist's defenses and they have to be joined with incentives so as not to be counterproductive. In the world we now live in, we have to study war a little less and sanctions rather more.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name







Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997-2004