Sanctions hurt the innocent. Is there a better way to right the world's wrongs?

Jonathan Freedland

Wednesday March 8, 2000

We know we live in a global age, yet something is missing. Every day we see more proof that we are living in a shrinking, shared world - linked by a form of communication that covers the entire planet, the aptly named world wide web. We live in a different kind of world, where what happens in Kansas can be known seconds later in Kent. The days of separate nations minding their own business, each one distinct and in charge behind its own borders, have gone forever. Yet we have not yet worked out the rules for this new, international game. For if we all live in one world, what can people in one country do to stop bad or evil things happening in another?

The question has gained urgency. Last week we writhed with frustration at our own inability to save the homeless, dehydrated and desperate of Mozambique. This week, thanks to a couple of skilled and committed film-makers, we will debate the rights and wrongs of our conduct in Iraq and Kosovo. All the while we keep looking at the suddenly healthy, smiling figure of Augusto Pinochet bounding from his wheelchair - and out of the clutches of British and Spanish justice.

A year ago an answer seemed within our grasp. A new mood of global governance was abroad, with the old ringfence that protected state sovereignty suddenly corroded. The House of Lords had ruled that Pinochet did not enjoy immunity simply because he had once been sovereign in his own land. And the 19 nations of Nato decided that Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo did not include the right to pursue a murderous policy of "ethnic cleansing". In those decisions one could make out the first draft of a new rulebook for the globalised world - one which understood human rights to be universal, enforced by an international community unafraid to violate the old doctrine which allowed states to do whatever they like within their own borders.

But if that was the mood of 1999, this year has seen a change of heart, with the Kosovo operation losing some of its lustre. The northern town of Mitrovice is the scene of ongoing fighting, with clashes between Albanians and international peacekeepers reaching an even bloodier pitch yesterday. On Sunday night the BBC will air a two-hour expose of the machinations behind last year's conflict: Moral Combat - Nato at War. In it, Allan Little, who covered the Balkans for most of the last decade, reveals the less lofty motivations of some of the lead players in the drama. He draws from Tony Blair the candid admission that this was a propaganda war to be fought much like an election campaign. None of this makes last year's war wrong. But it does point up the uneasy fit between morality and combat.

A harder case is the ongoing punishment of Iraq. Once again it is television - for all the interminable bleatings about dumbing down - which has put the issue on the national radar screen. John Pilger's ITV film on Monday night argued that western sanctions are failing to hit Saddam Hussein, but succeeding in hurting and killing Iraq's people, including half a million children. With harrowing footage of sick kids, Pilger argued that the UN's Oil for Food programme - which allows Baghdad to sell oil and spend the proceeds on food and medicine - is too mean. Vital drugs like diphtheria vaccines and chemotherapy medication, are on the banned list - ruled out because they could be used for Saddam's chemical weapons programme. The only result of the sanctions, charged a line-up of former UN officials who have resigned in disgust at this western-backed "genocide", is to tighten Saddam's grip on his country. He can blame Iraq's woes on a foreign enemy while the kind of educated elite who might one day have challenged his regime are being starved out of existence.

It is a powerful case but there is a defence. British and US officials insist that sanctions need not hurt the innocent: Saddam is hoarding food and medicine - and buying 10,000 bottles of whisky a month for himself and his chums - in a deliberate bid to grind down his own people, chiefly for the propaganda coup of films like Pilger's. He need only accept the latest UN resolution, open up Iraq to weapons inspectors, and the sanctions could be lifted. Above all, says foreign office minister Peter Hain, what do Pilger and co suggest as an alternative policy? How would they stop Saddam - with his proven record of aggression - from becoming an even greater, nuclear threat?

What both Iraq and Kosovo confirm is that when it comes to international action, there are no good choices, only bad and flawed ones. Every option involves compromise with immorality; for every angel whispering advice, there is a devil at his side. What possible rules can we devise to guide us through?

We might declare that we act wherever atrocity strikes. That, more or less, was the logic of the PM's Chicago speech last year setting out a Blair doctrine of humanitarian intervention. But wouldn't such a doctrine require action to save the Chechens from the Russians or Tibet from the Chinese? It would: yet not too many are advocating air strikes against Moscow or Beijing. This suggests an amendment to the rule: we act whenever atrocity strikes - unless the offending country is strong and has a nuclear arsenal. If they have the bomb, they can do what they like. This may work as a factual description of the realpolitik world we live in - but it hardly stands as an inspiring principle for the new globalised world. Besides, it would act as an instant incentive to non-nuclear countries to get the bomb quick.

Maybe a rule for non-military action is easier to come by. We know that sanctions can be an effective tool (they helped end apartheid), yet they seem repugnant in Iraq. Why? The key difference might be public opinion. In white South Africa sanctions worked because there was a body of business interests and voters who were hurt by sanctions and who could lobby their government. Public opinion was a political actor. That is not true in Baghdad and only slightly true in Belgrade. Sanctions simply impoverish a nation, creating precisely the conditions in which an alternative political class cannot prosper. In Iraq, they have become a form of collaboration with the very dictator they are meant to remove. Sanctions can only work, it seems, where there is a public opinion to influence.

That may not be much of a rule, but it could be a start. It could also act as a guide: suggesting, perhaps, that instead of punishing all Serbs we refuse travel visas and freeze the assets of named members of the Belgrade ruling elite. The US has moved toward that idea and it is a good one, targetting the people who matter rather than everyone. As for the rest of the rulebook, the demand for UN consensus before international action is a noble ideal and maybe a good starting point. Whatever rules we devise we need to get to work quickly. If our world is becoming a global village we have to decide how to police it - and soon.

Original article