Economic sanctions aim to inflict economic harm on a targeted country, select industries within it or organizations or specific individuals with the intended goal of changing that entity’s malign behavior. For one to deem a sanction regime effective, it must inflict economic harm and subsequently change the targeted state’s behavior. As a result, sanctions can increase poverty and cause harm to citizens of the countries that suffer them.

Economic sanctions have proven effective at inflicting economic harm, however, many often overlook that sanctions not only harm the targeted state and its people but also impact the state that implements them. Sanctions reduce the revenues of U.S. companies and individuals, costing billions of dollars in forfeited opportunities or sales and thousands of jobs.

However, countries do not often implement sanctions for punishment’s sake, but rather to change the atrocious behavior of other governmental actors. However, the record shows sanctions rarely get their desired outcome and often hurt the most vulnerable parts of a civilian population. For example, sanctions imposed on Haiti led to an expensive and dangerous mass exodus to the U.S. and the military sanctions on Pakistan led their government to pursue a nuclear option because they no longer had access to U.S. weapons. The U.N. imposed sanction regime in the 1990s on Iraq is illustrative of how sanctions rarely attain their goal and primarily harm the civilian population.

UN Sanction Regime in Iraq

The U.N. implemented comprehensive sanctions on Iraq on August 6, 1990, in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait just four days earlier. The sanctions blocked all imports and exports into Iraq seeking to pressure Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait and abandon his pursuit of WMDs. After seven months of comprehensive sanctions, Hussein continued the invasion until January 16, 1991, when the U.S. declared Operation Desert Storm. The U.N. coalition forces drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 100 hours.

The economic sanctions evidently inflicted economic harm on Iraq, with the worst effects befalling the most vulnerable parts of the population. In 1993, just three years into the comprehensive sanction regime, the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that the sanctions had made severe hunger and malnutrition commonplace for most of the Iraqi population. As per WFP and FAO reported, those severe hunger and malnourishment impacted were vulnerable groups including children under 5 years old, expectant or nursing women, widows, orphans, the ill, the elderly and the disabled.

It was the military force that compelled Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, not sanctions. The Iraqi leadership had proven itself able to outmaneuver the impacts of economic sanctions. Hence Iraq’s ability to sustain a ground invasion, under intense sanctions, for seven months after just fighting a war with Iran. The sanctions did not attain their goals as Saddam Hussein remained in power after the negotiated cease-fire, an agreement he largely ignored. By 1997, 31% of Iraqi children under 5-years-old suffered from chronic malnutrition as a result of the sanctions implemented in 1990. This clearly shows how sanctions can increase poverty in the countries that experience them.

Sanctions: A Poverty-National Security Connection

An overreliance on part of the U.S. on using sanctions has eroded U.S. national security and global security in a couple of ways. Anti-democratic regimes, such as Kim Jong-un’s or the former Saddam Hussein regime, frequently scoff at the threat of sanctions because the leadership of these countries is aware they will likely be able to mitigate the effects of sanctions on themselves.

Additionally, sanctions can have the effect of driving civilian populations to be increasingly dependent on their sanctioned government. Sanctions cause scarcity and the sanctioned government is the least vulnerable to resource scarcity. Scarcity enables the sanctioned government to wrest greater control over the distribution of goods, reinforcing the targeted government’s power over its people. In short, comprehensive sanctions can increase poverty and consequently make those that poverty hit the hardest even more dependent on their malign targeted governments.

The U.S. overreliance on sanctions also threatens the superiority of the U.S. dollar. The U.S. derives a great deal of its national security from the dominance of the dollar. The overuse of sanctions leads countries to reevaluate their dependence on the dollar. As Benn Steil noted a director of international economics at the Council on Foreign relations, when one uses this tool too frequently, it becomes increasingly cost-effective for other countries to evaluate alternatives to the U.S. dollar. The unrestrained usage of sanctions increases global poverty and compromises the U.S.’ national security.

Good News: Shifting Stance on Sanctions

There has been a promising shift in the public’s perception of sanctions. In February 2022, the U.N. held a meeting on sanctions, specifically, on how to prevent their unintended consequences. Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief delivered a few salient suggestions for sanctions going forward. To ensure that sanctions do not punish civilians for the crimes of their governments, Griffiths suggested to the U.N. Security Council that before countries implement sanctions, they include humanitarian carve-outs in their plan for sanctions. This recommendation would ensure that instead of initiating humanitarian carve-outs after the realization of the obstruction of humanitarian goods, countries can avoid this obstruction by accounting for it before implementing sanctions.

Chester Lankford
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

10 Facts About the Gulf War
This January marks the 26th anniversary of the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, a conflict that displaced millions and would go on to set the pace of Middle Eastern dynamics in the twenty-first century. Here are 10 important things to know about the Gulf War.

    1. The conflict began on August 2, 1990, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of neighboring Kuwait by bombing their capital of Kuwait City and deploying 100,000 soldiers into the country. While Hussein demanded access to the country’s oil reserves, he also claimed to be supporting a popular revolution against Kuwait’s monarchy.
    2. The invasion was widely met with international criticism, drawing comments and sanctions from U.S. President George H.W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Hours after the invasion, the U.N. met in an emergency session, calling for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from Kuwait, and imposing a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq.
    3. Standing opposed to Saddam Hussein was the Allied Coalition, consisting of 39 countries and 670,000 troops, over 60 percent of them from the U.S. Their initiative, Operation Desert Storm, began in January 1991, marking the beginning of international involvement.
    4. Much of the Allied Coalition’s concern centered on their fear that Iraq might invade Saudi Arabia in an attempt to take control of their oil reserves – had Hussein garnered control of these fields, he would have controlled the majority of the world’s oil supply.
    5. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated that the Gulf War cost more than $61 billion. The United States suffered 383 fatalities, while more than 10,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the fighting. Operation Desert Storm included the largest armored assault since World War II, as well as a battlefield that was the most well-prepared in the history of warfare.
    6. Estimates on the number of civilians killed during the conflict vary widely. During the war, Iraq downplayed this figure to maintain morale and dismiss the effectiveness of the Allied Coalition’s offensives. It is now generally agreed that roughly 3,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives as a result of the war.
    7. Although a ceasefire was declared by President Bush on February 28, 1991, the economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. at the time of the invasion remained in place. A study released in 1995 indicated that as many 576,000 children may have died since the end of the war, with malnutrition running high and poised to increase.
    8. Just weeks after the ceasefire, in March 1991, uprisings against the Iraqi government erupted among Shi’a rebels in the south and northern Kurdish regions. The conflict was marked by extreme violence and mass executions of civilians, with victims burned alive, tortured, raped and murdered, often buried in mass graves – thousands more were “disappeared” after Saddam Hussein’s forces retook control of the country.
    9. By April 1991, the uprisings had been suppressed and Saddam Hussein remained in control of Iraq. At this time, almost a million refugees had spilled across the border into Iran, and 500,000 had fled north to Turkey. UNHCF mounted a massive airlift of humanitarian aid and supplies to Iran, but the need far exceeded provisions. In September, the organization launched a $35 million initiative to supply roofs for the homes of 350,000 displaced Iraqis.
    10. It is estimated that as many as five million people from 30 different countries were displaced as a result of the Gulf War. Countries throughout the world, as of June 1991, had donated an estimated $1.35 billion in aid to support the refugees of one of the largest migrations in human history.

    Although brief, the Persian Gulf War in 1991 impacted the lives of millions throughout the region and cost billions in aid. The conflict went on to set the stage for Middle Eastern relations in the new millennium, acting as a precursor to the War in Iraq that began in 2003.

    Emily Marshall

    Photo: Flickr