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Cover story: Analysis

Can sanctions be alternative to war?

NCR Staff

Sanctions at first glance seem a reasonable alternative to conventional warfare: no bombs, no ground troops, no chemical or biological weapons.

Used in a limited way, economic sanctions were credited, for example, with having expedited change in South Africa. But as the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United States via the United Nations have shown, such measures can become a quiet extension of the bombs, causing considerable death and destruction (NCR, May 21).

Although there was little written on the ethics of economic sanctions prior to the Gulf War, according to experts, the idea of economically punishing an enemy is not a new idea.

Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen and Gerard F. Powers, in an essay on the ethics of sanctions, cite President Woodrow Wilson’s argument for sanctions as an alternative to war:

“A nation boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings pressure upon the nation that, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist.”

The Christiansen and Powers essay, “Economic Sanctions and the Just-War Doctrine,” is included in the book Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World? edited by David Cortright and George A. Lopez (Westview Press, San Francisco, 1995). Christiansen is director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace. Powers is policy adviser for Europe and security policies for the office.

Wilson was not without his critics at the time. In a report after World War I, John Foster Dulles opposed economic sanctions “on the moral grounds that they tended to harm innocents, not the rulers responsible for aggression.”

That is the primary objection among peace groups and others to the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. The United Nations has estimated that an average of 4,500 children under the age of 5 have died annually as a direct result of the sanctions, which have been called the most severe in modern history. In 1996, it was estimated that some 500,000 children had already died as a result of the sanctions, for lack of food and proper medical care.

“Unlike their first cousin, war, sanctions have largely escaped serious moral analysis,” write Christiansen and Powers. “Yet as the early debate between Wilson and Dulles indicates, key ethical issues are at stake.”

Christiansen and Powers argue that comprehensive sanctions “may be legitimate” under certain conditions:

  • They are a response to grave evil;
  • they are part of a concerted diplomatic effort to avoid war and find a just resolution to the problem;
  • the sanctions avoid irreversible, grave harm to the civilian population of the target country;
  • less coercive means are pursued first;
  • the harmful effects of sanctions are proportionate to the good ends likely to be achieved;
  • sanctions are imposed by a multilateral entity.

The main objections to sanctions, write Christiansen and Powers, are, in the policy arena, serious skepticism about their effectiveness and, in the moral area, the harm inflicted on civilian populations.

Among policy analysts, they note, a frequent criticism is that sanctions not only fail to change the conduct of a government but they often solidify a population’s support of the targeted leaders.

One notable exception was South Africa. But the difference in South Africa, they write, was a real hope of democracy and the willingness of at least a portion of the population to accept the consequences of sanctions as one means of toppling apartheid.

Some argue that in instances such as Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein, the real fault lies with the regime that allows people to suffer rather than give in to international demands.

But here Christiansen and Powers assert that even when the targeted government refuses “to use resources at hand to ensure its population’s basic needs are met, the international community may only stand aside for so long. From a moral point of view, at least, a government which fails to provide for its own people under such conditions rules illegitimately. Therefore the responsibility for protection of the civilian population reverts to other legitimate authorities, particularly the sanctioning parties.”

In a practical application of the thinking, the U.S. bishops have urged the U.S. government to reshape the sanctions and end some of the restrictions, calling on the words of Pope John Paul II and noting the suffering of ordinary citizens.

In a February 1998 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Archbishop John McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the USCC’s International Policy Committee, called for “lifting controls on food, medicine and essential humanitarian goods, and reshaping but not eliminating the remaining sanctions so that they are more narrowly targeted against those who bear actual responsibility for Iraq’s actions.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999