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Sanctions Are an Act of War

Economic sanctions which claim to target authoritarian governments and wealthy profiteers of global conflicts only hurt innocent civilian populations.

Phyllis Bennis

Women, including those with hijabs, shouting and making peace signs.
A demonstration in the Al Adamiya neighborhood protests the United States and United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Photo by © Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images

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Economic sanctions have a long and brutal history, almost as long as the history of war itself.

What they don’t have— especially in recent memory— is a history of accomplishing their ostensible goal of changing governments’ behavior.

Over the past 30-plus years, roughly beginning with the 1990 – 1991 Gulf crisis and U.S.-led war against Iraq, Washington’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions has vastly expanded. Whether imposed directly or compelled by the United Nations under U.S. pressure, sanctions are often described as an alternative” to war — softer, less deadly, more humane.

In fact, sanctions often kill more civilians than the wars they accompany and sometimes deliberately target the most vulnerable.

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At the urging of the United States, the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq within four days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. After the short war in January – February 1991 forced Iraq’s military to withdraw from Kuwait (as the United States destroyed Iraq’s water, sewage, and power systems), the sanctions remained in place, obliterating any hope of rebuilding the shattered country. They largely prohibited the sale of oil, virtually Iraq’s only export, shredding the war-devastated country’s social fabric.

These sanctions were only lifted after the U.S. overthrow of the Iraqi government in 2003.

In 1996, after six years of sanctions, then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright was asked about reports of 500,000 children dying as a result. Without missing a beat, she replied, we think the price is worth it.” For years afterward, she expressed regret for saying it, but she never apologized for supporting measures that could kill half a million children in six years.

In 1998, I led a delegation of congressional staff to Iraq. What we heard from Iraqi doctors, health workers, and mothers was devastating. Children and babies were suffering from malnutrition and dying from treatable, waterborne diseases, like cholera and diarrhea. The needed, globally available drugs were not available in Iraq. The UN’s oil-for-food program allowed some, but insufficient, food and medicine, but barely allowed in any parts to repair infrastructure.

In Afghanistan, sanctions are “driving populations into famine,” CEPR reports. In Venezuela, sanctions are “a key driver of the country’s health crisis, including its increase in child and adult mortality.”

Too often, after humanitarian organizations, social movements, and investigative journalists have gone public with the devastating impacts of sanctions, supporters of sanctions deny the facts: They only target the government.” Food and medicine can still get in.” Maybe they didn’t work in that country, but they work in other countries.” None of these claims are accurate.

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) should play a major role in putting those false claims to rest. The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions” brings to light the brutal realities of hunger, disease, dispossession, and death that are so often the consequences of broad economic sanctions.

In Afghanistan, sanctions are driving populations into famine,” CEPR reports. In Venezuela, sanctions are a key driver of the country’s health crisis, including its increase in child and adult mortality.”

Overall, the report — based on a rigorous examination of 32 country-specific and cross-country studies— documents a remarkable level of consensus across studies that sanctions have strongly negative and often long-lasting effects on the living conditions of most people in target countries.”

The report shouldn’t need to exist. As it notes, a UN Human Rights Council resolution in 2014 expressed alarm at the disproportionate and indiscriminate human costs of unilateral sanctions and their negative effects on the civilian population.” That resolution created the position of UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights.” But the CEPR report is necessary, nearly a decade later, because a cottage industry has sown doubt.

It’s long past time to admit sanctions are not an alternative to war, but a way of waging it. It’s long past time to end them.

Especially in the 2000s, academics, think tanks, and mainstream media began challenging the numbers of people killed from sanctions, particularly in Iraq. A Washington Post piece in 2017 trumpeted a report from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) disputing UNICEF’s widely reported estimate of 500,000 children. The BMJ report asserts the Iraqi government, which cooperated with UNICEF in the study, had deliberately lied. There were differences in numbers among many reports, but no evidence of deliberate lying by the government. UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday, appointed to run the oil-for-food program in 1997, resigned in September 1998 to protest what he called the genocidal impact” of the sanctions. Hans von Sponeck, who succeeded Halliday, resigned in 2000 for the same reason. One day later, the director of the UN World Food Programme for Iraq, Jutta Burghardt, resigned as well. Not surprisingly, they were not cited in the BMJ report.

Those hard-working sleuths so eager to discredit reports of the shocking numbers of children dying from sanctions would have been better off investigating why Albright was so eager to justify the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children — whether the real figure was 250,000 or 350,000 or 500,000.

Maybe this new report will finally convince those determined to justify brutal economic sanctions to work on ending them instead. It’s long past time to admit sanctions are not an alternative to war, but a way of waging it. It’s long past time to end them.

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Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism.

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