The Upside Down Debate on Broad Sanctions
Sanctions advocates are given the benefit of the doubt that their preferred coercive measures are beneficial until it can be proven that they are not.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, Alena Douhan, called for lifting unilateral sanctions on Syria:
“In the current dramatic and still-deteriorating humanitarian situation as 12 million Syrians grapple with food insecurity, I urge the immediate lifting of all unilateral sanctions that severely harm human rights and prevent any efforts for early recovery, rebuilding and reconstruction”, she said.
“No reference to good objectives of unilateral sanctions justifies the violation of fundamental human rights. The international community has an obligation of solidarity and assistance to the Syrian people”.
Douhan has been issuing warnings about the damage caused by sanctions for years, and so far the responsible governments have taken no action to relieve the Syrian people’s suffering. Syria sanctions illustrate several of the main reasons why broad sanctions are both ineffective and unjust: they punish the weakest and poorest in the society most, they cannot compel the changes in government behavior that supposedly justify their imposition, and because they affect people with no influence in Washington and Brussels they will remain in place indefinitely.
The Syrian people have no advocates with any clout in the capitals of the West, and many of the people that claim to speak on their behalf support policies that directly attack them. They are made to bear extra hardships while Western governments congratulate themselves for their moral clarity in making life harder for tens of millions of people. Under those circumstances, governments can cavalierly impose broad sanctions and then never feel any pressure to lift them.
Much of the debate over the destructive effects of sanctions often starts from the wrong place. Sanctions advocates are given the benefit of the doubt that their preferred coercive measures are beneficial until it can be proven that they are not, but the burden of proof should always be on those supporting economic warfare against an entire population. Sanctions advocates should have to to prove that the economic war they want to wage on another country will not cause more harm than good, and if they can’t or won’t do that there should be no broad sanctions imposed. The critics of sanctions shouldn’t have to wait to document the inevitable suffering that economic warfare always causes and only then have a debate over the merits of the policy. The time to consider the costs and destructiveness of a policy is before it is implemented, not years later after it has already caused irreparable harm.
U.S. Caesar Act sanctions have contributed significantly to making Syria’s economic and humanitarian crises worse. It has been clear that these sanctions and the threat of secondary sanctions against anyone trying to do business in Syria have caused considerable harm to the population. Natalie Armbruster described the effects of broad sanctions earlier this year:
So far, it has garnered few concessions and extracted no meaningful change. Though it is successfully delivering punitive justice, the U.S. sanctions strategy in Syria does not punish Assad—it punishes Syrians, whether they support the regime or not. Currently, nine in 10 Syrians live in poverty, and more than six in 10 face the risk of going hungry. U.S. sanctions exacerbate Syria's immiserated economic condition by blocking prospective economic cooperation from willing regional or international partners.
There is something truly warped in waging an economic war on a population that has endured a decade of devastating armed conflict, but that is what the U.S. has been doing to Syria for years. This economic war is dressed up with high-minded rhetoric about accountability and justice, but there is no justice to be found by driving up the prices that ordinary people pay for essential goods and starving an entire country of reconstruction funding.
Conditions in Syria have continued to deteriorate throughout the year. UNICEF recently warned that things were sure to get worse with the onset of winter:
Since [January 2022], price of fuel and basic commodities have skyrocketed. As a result, many Syrian families will be unable to cope with the upcoming winter and provide warm food and clothes for their children.
Broad sanctions are not the only cause of the Syrian people’s economic woes, but they are definitely an important cause of making everything more expensive and making life more difficult. Nothing good can come from using coercive measures that contribute to the freezing and starving of innocent people, but these measures are rarely discussed and almost never seriously debated. Congress voted for these measures and the Trump administration started enforcing them, and then few Americans have given them a second thought since then. Except for occasional dispatches, most Americans don’t hear about what our government’s sanctions are doing to the targeted population and they never see the victims of a cruel policy that runs on autopilot.
As Armbruster said in her article, “There is no strategic or moral case for sanctions if, while noble in theory, they prove to be a devastating means with no achievable or productive end.” I would go further than this and say that collective economic punishment of a population cannot be justified even if it “worked” to advance certain policy or political goals. The fact that broad sanctions are destructive and ineffective just underscores how worthless they are as a policy tool.