Human rights advocates must stop calling for sanctions as a foreign policy tool

How many times do I have to read through a report on a pressing human rights issue, and upon getting to the recommendations, find sanctions in bold at the top of the list? Sanctions are often used as tools to “punish” states for their human rights violations. Yet, they are ineffective at creating change and often end up harming blameless citizens of the Global South. Human rights advocates and practitioners need to stop pushing for sanctions that only devastate economies and render populations starved and without resources like electricity and medicine.

The Council on Foreign Relations defines economic sanctions as “the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign- and security-policy purposes.” Sanctions include actions such as travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and trade restrictions. U.S. sanctions affect a third of the world’s population with more than 8,000 measures impacting 39 countries.

Sanctions are supposed to be a less extreme and costly foreign policy tool than war or military intervention. And for the United States, they certainly are. Most Americans don’t feel the effects of sanctions, and they don’t make a lot of noise in the news. But for the citizens in sanctioned countries, their economic effects are like a kind of warfare. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Venezuelans have died as a result of sanctions placed under the Trump administration.

The outcome of sanctions is never certain, and more often than not they don’t result in a behavior change. The U.S. has held sanctions against Cuba for decades, but there hasn’t been any regime change. Experts say that even the best sanctions only have a 50/50 chance of working. 

Sweeping economic sanctions from a majority of Western states, devastate a country’s economy. But that’s the idea, to make the domestic situation so bad that leaders change their behavior. The implications of this for everyday citizens is often overlooked or disregarded. Authoritarian despots rarely care what happens to the poor minorities living in their country, who are typically hit the hardest. Scarcity of resources doesn’t affect rich governing elites, it destroys the middle class and civil society groups. The rampant poverty and ensuing mass migration only creates conditions that further fuel authoritarianism as the government tightens controls on resources and distribution. 

The case of U.S. sanctions against Iran is just one example of how harmful economic sanctions can be. In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, and in the following year reinstated all nuclear related sanctions as well as “secondary sanctions” on non-US entities that conduct financial or commercial transactions with Iran.

These sanctions against Iranian banks created a serious threat to Iranians’ rights to health care and their access to essential medicine. Iran has been unable to finance humanitarian imports for necessities like medication for chemotherapy and epilepsy patients. What’s worse is that the US government was aware of these sanction’s effects on the population, and continued anyway. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people [with the U.S. sanctions], and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” The logic of sanctions is that somehow citizens bear the responsibility and should suffer for the actions of their government. Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations described the U.S. actions as “economic war and terrorism against the Iranian people.”

The sanctions against Iran have been especially harmful in the wake of the global pandemic. Without access to medicine or funding for humanitarian assistance, the Iranian people have been devastated. Particularly in the time of COVID-19, sanctions have shown just how brutal they can be.

Some human rights advocates call for Magnitsky sanctions, as more effective and less harmful than statewide sanctions. Magnitsky sanctions are a type of sanction targeted against specific individuals, rather than an entire state, employed in cases of corruption or human rights abuses. However, a sanction against a head of state security restricting their mobility to travel to the U.S. or against their family-owned business, can be just as violent as sanctions on an entire industry. Instead of preventing state violence against unarmed protestors, the regime now has support for their claims of Western interference and justification for further violent repression.

Since the passage of the Global Magnitsky Act by Congress in 2012, Magnitsky sanctions have been used increasingly by the U.S. Executive Branch. As of 2020, there are over 200 individuals under Magnitsky sanctions. It is tempting to see these sanctions as less harmful and better conceived. I even recommended Magnitsky sanctions in an article written in 2019. My view since then has changed. 

A recently published report by Freedom House on Transnational Repression (which is very insightful and highlights a growing threat to human rights) ended with a few key recommendations. The first was for the executive branch to use “targeted sanctions against rights violators, such as denying or revoking visas for entry to the United States, or freezing US-based assets.” But the report also recommended the laxing of migratory regimes, and restoring the right to seek asylum. The latter I found a much more compelling solution for bolstering and protecting human rights globally. 

Human rights advocates need to remove punitive, violent foreign policy tools from their advocacy. Recommendations should be more creative, centering on the needs of human rights victims, rather than punishing foreign leaders through financial institutions.

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