Human toll of economic sanctions too high, UN officials say

Decade-long failure of embargoes in Iraq weighing heavily in international body's discussion of better way to handle world's outlaws


Monday, April 17, 2000

He's still there.

Nearly 10 years after the United Nations hit Saddam Hussein with sweeping sanctions, the Iraqi dictator remains ruthlessly in charge.

Meanwhile, the average Iraqi is suffering. Much of the country's industry is paralyzed. Health and nutrition standards have plunged.

Two senior UN officials dealing with Iraq quit in disgust in February, saying the human toll of sanctions was too high. A third, former assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday, saw the light in 1998 and is now stumping his native Australia to drum up support for scrapping the sanctions.

The Baghdad balls-up is weighing heavily as diplomats at the UN take a searching look at a decade's worth of measures taken against global outlaws -- many of which have proved useless or even counterproductive.

"Comprehensive economic sanctions have proven to be a blunt, indiscriminate tool whose limited political gains can exact an excessively high civilian toll," Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy writes in a foreword to The Sanctions Decade, a new study published by the International Peace Academy.

Mr. Axworthy is to chair a UN Security Council meeting today on the issue.

The Canadian-financed study, which cost $100,000 (U.S.), says the UN botched several arms embargoes and sanctions programs during the 1990s. But it also argues that a few successes contain the clues on how to develop smarter, tougher sanctions.

"After a decade, they're actually on the verge of getting it right," says co-author George Lopez, a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Prof. Lopez conducted the study with peace researcher David Cortright.

Most of their two dozen recommendations fall into three areas.

First, be clear about what you're trying to achieve. Second, design sanctions with carrots for improved behaviour as well as clubs for transgressions. Finally, set up a smart, well-funded enforcement system as soon as sanctions are imposed.

And remember: Sanctions are only a means to an end.

"Sanctions are in trouble when they become the policy, as opposed to a component of larger diplomatic inducements," Prof. Lopez says.

Time after time, the Lopez-Cortright study says, sanctions have been imposed without enough forethought or follow-up. It lists several cases:

Somalia, Liberia and Rwanda: "A desperate attempt to do something in the face of disaster, but . . . a fundamentally flawed policy that did nothing to stem the tide of war and human suffering."

Sierra Leone: "Without a stronger capacity for inspection and implementation, UN and regional sanctions can never achieve the purposes for which they are imposed."

Haiti: "The actions of the United States, the Security Council and other major players suggested competing interests and uncertain purposes . . . No coherent effort was made to monitor the sanctions until very late."
In the case of Iraq, the UN imposed a trade ban, arms and oil embargoes, and an asset freeze after its forces invaded Kuwait in July of 1990. In 1991, a U.S.-led military offensive crushed the Iraqi army.

Several of the sanctions' goals have been achieved. Iraq has returned most Kuwaiti property and prisoners of war, and accepted a damage-compensation program.

It also agreed to UN inspections of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems. UN agencies say Iraq's nuclear-arms capability has been eliminated and most of its chemical-weapons industry destroyed.

After horror stories of deprivation began filtering out of Iraq, the UN began allowing Baghdad to sell oil in return for food and relief supplies. But this oil-for-food program, far from being a response to a change in Mr. Hussein's behaviour, is really an admission that the sanctions were poorly designed in the first place.

Meanwhile, the United States has repeatedly raised the bar for lifting the sanctions.

This violates a key principle of sanctions, the Lopez-Cortright study suggests, because it changes the rules of what the target country must do to have them lifted.

Prof. Lopez favours maintaining an embargo on weapons and military technology for Iran, but dropping the trade ban "as something that has accomplished its goals."

Tomorrow, Mr. Axworthy is to chair a Security Council meeting on Angola.

Prof. Lopez says that it still isn't clear how effective sanctions will be in bringing peace to Angola, but that Canada has shown it is possible to investigate violations.

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