Recent events in Ukraine and Gaza have raised debates over the role of countries, in particular the ‘Great Powers,’ in conflicts around the world and what they can do to ensure the preservation of international law and human rights.
Following the devastation of the Iraq war, direct military intervention has become very unpopular, with more and more countries relying on the contributions of military aid to the perceived defendants and economic sanctions on the country perceived to be the perpetrators. However, these sanctions are not a bloodless alternative to military action. In the US, for every 1% rise in unemployment, 37,000 people die, a number that would be significantly higher in countries where more people – even in normal economic conditions – are barely living above the breadline. They are an immoral form of collective punishment that most often serves to punish innocent civilians caught in the middle of conflicts, rather than the leaders and those actually making the decisions.
Economic sanctions are a form of warfare that goes back hundreds of years. For example, Napoleon’s continental system introduced in 1806 which sought to eliminate all trade even from neutral countries to Britain. However, while the world has changed, methods of warfare have not, and the immediate reaction to Putin’s invasion was for many countries to place embargoes on the import of Russian oil and gas resulting in a 2.1% drop in Russia’s GDP in 2022. Despite this, the war in Ukraine continues with little sign of stopping and Putin is still enjoying approval ratings of over 80%, a figure confirmed by independent NGOs, raising the question: what did this achieve apart from punishing the Russian people? Cuba is another example of failed sanctions facing a complete trade embargo from the US since the revolution in 1960, the embargo remains today, as does the Communist Party of Cuba, the very thing the sanctions sought to remove.
I find it strange that the US and UK will justly criticise the actions of Israel, for example cutting off energy, food and water to the Gaza strip as immoral and opposed to humanitarian law, while also justifying their own economic sanctions and trade embargoes such as those imposed in Iraq. Economic sanctions in Iraq came to restrict the import of things such as medication and healthcare equipment.
According to Unicef and the UN Children’s fund, these sanctions are estimated to have directly led to the deaths of 1.5 million people in Iraq, primarily children, while placing little direct pressure on the regime of Saddam Husein. Surely this sort of action should face the same moral and humanitarian judgement?
The impacts of this sort of action are rarely understood with their imposition therefore facing less scrutiny and justification. Of course it is impossible to say that in every situation economic sanctions cannot be justified, there will be some restricted situations where they are the best course of action. However, what is essential for the future is that there is more awareness of the severity of this sort of action, leading to a situation where in a conflict, their justification matches the severity of their impact, not just used as a politically acceptable tool to respond to international conflict.
“Vladimir Putin – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.