Right or Wrong? Economic Sanctions

The UN Security Council voting on sanctions. (United Nations Photo)

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The United States increasingly invokes economic sanctions, rather than military force, as an international peacekeeping strategy. Where do economic sanctions rank on a scale that measures the appropriate use of power to attain peace?

The use of economic sanctions ought to make us uncomfortable. While we may be more comfortable with them than with war, economic sanctions are a weapon of coercive violence against a targeted nation. They often fail to achieve their intended purpose, and even more questionable is the widespread damage inflicted upon ordinary people.

Economic sanctions are not a new development in U.S. foreign policy, but they have become more frequent in recent years. The perception, and perhaps the reality, is that sanctions are less costly in terms of material resources and certainly of human lives.

‘Just war’ criteria applies

Since economic sanctions comprise an attack on a nation, just war criteria applies. For example, before imposing sanctions, the United States ought to exhaust all diplomatic options. Sanctions ought to be a last resort. Only actual war (bombing and shooting) might be worse.

Noncombatants should be protected as much as possible. Broad trade barriers often harm the general population more than is realized. Many, perhaps most, people have heard sanctions against Iraq caused widespread human suffering. Some of this may be caused by the weakening of the economy in sanctioned countries, but some of it was caused by violence inflicted by leaders of targeted nations.

This damage can be reduced by using financial sanctions against the leaders of a nation or those closely associated with them. This is intended to create economic hardship for those—politicians, business leaders and even financial institutions—who can influence power brokers and bring about change or at least negotiation. International commerce and trade create the potential for this to be effective. Not only will those with assets be affected, but also those who do business with them will be impacted as well. This approach also targets those who are most responsible for the behavior to be altered.

One type of sanction that has some benefit restricts imports of specific items to the targeted nation. For example, sanctions could be applied to the technology or materials used to build weapons. This action has the specific intent to reduce the likelihood the nation will build these weapons, often of mass destruction.

Forming a broad coalition to invoke sanctions will make them more effective. Such a coalition also will help ensure the intent is more humanitarian than it might be if only one nation used restrictions.

Are sanctions effective?

Even with all these protections, one can argue, for the most part, sanctions do not meet their intended goal or accomplish their purpose. Studies have shown few sanctions have succeeded. We must consider the high failure rate when determining appropriateness of sanctions.

Another purpose for sanctions is to send a message to the citizens of the targeting nation that its leaders are taking action. I see little substantive value in this final purpose.

Sanctions may have a place, but they need to be limited. At all times, safeguards for the masses should be in place. And caution must be exercised when considering the probability of success.

David Morgan, pastor

Trinity Baptist Church

Harker Heights, Texas

If you have a comment about this column or wish to ask a question for a future column, contact Bill Tillman, consulting ethicist for “Right or Wrong?” at btillman150@gmail.com.


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