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Do Sanctions Work?


The United States government has long used economic sanctions -- the withdrawal of financial or trade relations -- to try to force other governments to give up their perceived bad behavior. But critics say sanctions often hurt average citizens without achieving the desired foreign policy goals.

When the Burmese military government used violence to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators last September, U.S. economic sanctions against the country had already been in place for ten years.

In February, the United States imposed new sanctions, narrowly targeting businesses and individuals linked to Burma's military rulers.

“We do know that sanctions can have an impact. And they help curtail economic activity and can further isolate the junta, which is part of getting them to recognize that they need to open up and allow the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to be able to meet with the leaders that they said that they would allow her to do,” says White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino. “And it’s been a halting progress. They say that they’re going to do things that they don't follow up on.”

A Mixed Review

The international community has used economic sanctions for decades to pressure countries to change what is seen as objectionable behavior.

Sometimes, they are considered a major success. In South Africa, for example, international sanctions are widely credited with helping to end apartheid.

Other times, they are less effective. For example, U.S. sanctions against the Cuban government have been in place for more than 40 years, but they did little to weaken former ruler Fidel Castro’s grip on power.

Critics argue that sanctions hurt ordinary people more than the leaders of a particular country.

Ted Galen Carpenter is head of foreign policy and defense studies at the Cato Institute research group in Washington. He says that in Iraq, United Nations sanctions caused widespread humanitarian suffering.

“There are various estimates of how much the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s and up to the invasion and occupation of the country in 2003 injured the children of that country, how much it increased infant and young child mortality rates. The estimates range anywhere from 100-thousand needless deaths to 500-thousand,” says Carpenter. “But however many, it was an enormous total of purely innocent people and yet it did not dislodge Saddam Hussein from power at all. So I think that is a pretty powerful argument against sanctions, particularly very broad sanctions.”

A Targeted Approach

Some foreign policy experts say it was the failure of those Iraqi sanctions that prompted the United States to seek new ways to pressure other countries to change their policies.

Michael Jacobson, a former U.S. Treasury Department official in the Bush administration, is a counter-terrorism expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says that in recent years, the United States has adopted what are often called "smart sanctions" -- targeted financial measures against individuals engaging in perceived bad behavior.

In 1995, the United States initiated a ban on trade for American firms doing business in Iran. But since 2005, the Treasury Department has designated individual Iranian officials and companies as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Michael Jacobson argues that new measures, such as freezing the assets of individuals and imposing travel restrictions, are likely to prove more effective than the broad sanctions of the past. “When you are saying something like ‘a U.S. business cannot do business with any Iranian entity,’ I think that sends a very different message than ‘a U.S. business cannot do business with this specific entity that’s involved in terrorism, that’s involved in WMD [i.e., weapons of mass destruction] proliferation,’” says Jacobson. “I think it sends a very different message. And I think not only governments, but also the private sector react differently to it.”

So far, sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program. Some analysts say that because Iran is a major oil producer and global economic player, sanctions have only a marginal impact on its leadership.

But Jacobson points to North Korea as an example where targeted financial measures have worked. He says the freezing of some 25-million dollars in North Korean funds in a Macau bank brought Pyongyang back to talks on ending its nuclear ambitions.

“I think some of the sanctions that were put in place by the U.S. and subsequently by the U.N. in 2005 against North Korea had a surprising effect,” says Jacobson. “I think the North Korean regime stepped away from the six-party talks and would not return until the issue of the BDA, the Banco Delta Asia, designation was resolved -- until they had gotten the money back from that particular designation. And I think that was one of the points at which U.S. policymakers and policymakers throughout the world realized just how powerful targeted financial measures can be.”

Prospects for Success

Other analysts say targeted sanctions are unlikely to be more successful than traditional economic sanctions at achieving their goals.

“We don’t hold out a big promise that these [targeted sanctions] are successful in achieving their goals. The success rate is about the same or maybe a little lower than the others,” says Gary Hufbauer, a sanctions expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “However, if you can somehow deprive the elite of their bank accounts, of their schools in Switzerland, their travel and so forth, at least you don’t penalize ordinary people. So the plus of that is that you don’t have the bad side of sanctions, which is widespread ill-health or malnourishment, especially of older people and children.”

Hufbauer says that no matter how they are used, sanctions generally succeed in achieving their foreign policy goals only about one third of the time. “Diplomacy is not like a football game where you have a clear win and a clear loss. Often, it is kind of in the gray intermediates. And this is one of those tools of diplomacy, which tends to be in the gray intermediates.”

Hufbauer argues that sanctions are most effective when their goals are modest -- such as freeing political prisoners -- rather than attempting to change the government.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.


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