x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sanctions are a dull tool to be used carefully

Despite all of the evidence stacked against them, sanctions remain, in many cases, the only tools international actors have to punish dangerous regimes.

Last year, as the death toll was mounting and Syria's President Bashar Al Assad was growing increasingly defiant, an aide to US President Barack Obama offered a sweeping assertion. "Sanctions," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in April 2011, "can put pressure on governments and regimes to change their behaviour." He's partly right, but what's taking so long?

Sanctions are now the main strategy to influence both Iran and Syria, but they have a mixed record of success. The collapse of apartheid South Africa is arguably the best example, but it would be a mistake to oversimplify the issue. US and UN sanctions against Libya are sometimes credited as a force behind Muammar Qaddafi's decision to normalise relations with the West (although the invasion of Iraq played a role). No doubt Myanmar, which held relatively free elections last month, will be lumped into the win column as the EU suspended sanctions against the military rulers yesterday (but again other, domestic factors were probably more decisive).

And often sanctions fail to accomplish their goals, which are usually to halt violence or influence the behaviour of "rogue" regimes. Without a narrow focus, sanctions can make matters worse.

The UN sanctions regime against Iraq after the first Gulf War is one of the best-known failures. But it is far from the only one. The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that between 1970 and 2000, US-imposed sanctions had only a 19 per cent success rate.

And yet, despite the evidence, sanctions remain in many cases the only levers of influence on which international actors can agree. The authorisation of force is unpopular; sanctions often allow governments to claim they are "doing something" to curb human-rights abuses or otherwise shape behaviour.

That inclination of sanctions for sanctions' sake should be resisted - these decisions often affect people who are entirely blameless. When sanctions are punitive, they almost always fail. As The National reports today, UAE tech distributors are concerned about new US sanctions targeting Syrian and Iranian firms that produce technology used to quash dissent.

Those sanctions, if they protect online dissidents in Syria for example, are still welcome. Effective sanction regimes need to be innovative: one of the most effective levers on Tehran has been targeting insurance for tankers carrying Iranian oil - without insurance, oil exports cease to flow.

It must be remembered that sanctions are meant to change behaviour. If they drag on for decades, harming citizens rather than influencing regimes, then sanctions have been clumsily applied.