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Can Sanctions Be Smarter? The Current Debate

Research reports

This is the report of the conference, Can Sanctions be Smarter?, London (16-17 December 1998).

Trade embargoes have been popular instruments of coercive diplomacy in the 1990s, for the USA, the UN and regional groupings of states. It is now recognised that comprehensive trade embargoes have significant undesirable side-effects, most notably the humanitarian suffering of the population of the targeted state. At the same time the experience and the analysis indicate that sanctions by themselves, without further resort to force, cause ‘civilian pain’ but do not appear very effective in influencing especially authoritarian regimes. The search is therefore on for ‘smarter’ sanctions. ‘Smarter’ sanctions are understood to be better targeted and/or more humane sanctions. It is not yet clear whether they

can also be more effective.

The two currently most explored avenues in that regard are humanitarian exemptions and financial sanctions. This seminar asked two key questions:

• Can humanitarian assistance provide an effective safety net to compensate for the social and economic dislocation caused or aggravated by prolonged trade embargoes?

• Financial sanctions are said to increase the effectiveness of trade sanctions. Will financial sanctions be a complement to comprehensive trade sanctions, or can they be an effective alternative?

The seminar concluded that even a generous humanitarian assistance programme cannot provide an adequate safety net to offset the economic and social dislocations that certainly prolonged comprehensive trade sanctions cause. As for financial sanctions: where trade sanctions are imposed financial sanctions should be added. Whether financial sanctions can be an alternative to comprehensive trade sanctions cannot be answered at this stage. Expert work is still underway to create more of the conditions that are required to make financial sanctions more effective.

The conclusion was that sanctions remain a necessary foreign policy instrument between diplomacy and force.

The overall recommendations to politicians and policy-makers therefore are to:

• make sanctions more humane. Humane sanctions are the result of principled sanctions policies that in their design and implementation respect the same international norms that sanctionsenders want the target regime to uphold. If trade embar-goes are imposed, a wider array and larger amount of humanitarian exemptions will be required. Yet if impact monitoring shows that these can no lon-ger mitigate the cumulative effects of the sanctions, the sanctions policy will have to be revised;

• make sanctions more targeted. More targeted sanctions derive from a better analysis of the vulnerabilities of the target regime. Psychological and financial sanctions are among the tools;

• make arms embargoes more effective, through better design and better enforcement;

• mobilise the capacity and shoulder the costs necessary to make sanctions management, enforcement and impact-monitoring effective;

• maintain an active, flexible and creative political dialogue and engagement with the target regime, and do not allow sanctions to become a substitute for other political initiatives;

• make sanctions policy more accountable, including through independent review.

Koenraad Van Brabant