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"sanctions cycle" ... must be broken

 Source: UN Department of Public Information (DPI)
Date: 15 Nov 2000


Secretary-General, in address to International Rescue Committee, reflects on
humanitarian impact of economic sanctions

Following is the text of an address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the
dinner of the International Rescue Committee honouring John Whitehead, in
New York on 15 November:

I am delighted to join you this evening to pay tribute to my friend and ally
John Whitehead, a true internationalist, who has served his country by
serving the world, and served the world by serving his country. Throughout
his life, as this audience knows well, John has been a humanitarian of great
distinction -- as a 45-year veteran of the International Rescue Committee
board, as a diplomat, and as a citizen of the world. He is a most deserving
and distinguished winner of the International Rescue Committee Freedom
Award, and I warmly congratulate him on receiving it.

I am also especially pleased to take this opportunity to express my profound
gratitude and admiration for Mrs. Ogata's decade-long service as High
Commissioner for Refugees. Under her leadership, the Office of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) faced unprecedented
challenges and demands, and under her leadership, it met them successfully.
The next High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, will certainly have a hard act to
follow, but I am counting on the support of organizations, such as the
International Rescue Committee, to help him to do so effectively and
imaginatively. Indeed, as UNHCR's largest implementing partner, the
International Rescue Committee is a vital ally for the United Nations, and I
trust it will continue to be so. I wish to thank every member of the
International Rescue Committee for your devoted service to the world's most
vulnerable people.

Tonight, I would like to share with you some thoughts on one aspect of the
humanitarian challenge that is often a consequence of conflict. It is an
aspect which will, I believe, prove more and more difficult for the
international community to handle in the years ahead. I refer to the
humanitarian impact of economic sanctions.

One of the great tasks facing the United Nations today is to broaden and
deepen adherence to the norms and values of the United Nations Charter, and
to make the international community live up to its name. It must be truly a
community of peoples, dedicated to upholding common standards of democracy,
human rights and the rule of law.

One test of this global community is how we respond to States that
transgress the accepted rules and norms, and how we obtain compliance with
the will of the international community. Tonight, I wish to explore the use
of sanctions as a means of achieving compliance. More generally, I should
like to reflect with you on how we move from defiance to compliance, and
break what I have called the "sanctions cycle."

The international community has at its disposal a variety of instruments
which it uses to bring recalcitrant States into compliance. There is a
continuum beginning with quiet diplomacy - ranging through public pressure,
or "naming and shaming", to the imposition of arms embargoes and economic
sanctions - and ending with the use of military force. As you would expect,
the record of success is mixed. In some cases, discreet pressure behind the
scenes has worked. In others, not even the most comprehensive sanctions have
brought about compliance.

Increasingly, however, the use of sanctions has given rise to concerns.
These concerns relate, of course, to Iraq, but also to the many other States
that are the subject of sanctions today. What is clear is that we need to
improve the effectiveness of sanctions regimes if we want this instrument to
remain available in the future. After verbal condemnation, sanctions may
often be the first and easiest response employed by the Security Council to
a State in violation of international law.

Undoubtedly, sanctions have sometimes been effective -- and may be so again
in the future -- in bringing a State back to internationally accepted rules
of behavior. Usually, the objective has been to change the behaviour of a
government or regime which posed a threat to international peace and
security, and, in a conflict situation, to diminish the capacity of the
protagonists to sustain a prolonged fight. Last year's hand-over of the
Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie bombing was a case of effective sanctions,
although it took a long time to achieve this result, and until the trial is
over we shall not know whether the suspects are indeed the authors of that
terrible crime.

However, in too many instances, we are witnessing a tragic and unintended
cycle of events, in which sanctions inadvertently strengthen the hold on
power of governments or groups whose illegal behavior triggered them in the
first place. In turn, the international community reacts by prolonging
sanctions, and thereby may even be postponing the moment when the changes
sought will actually come about. It is this "sanctions cycle" that must be

Sanctions must and will remain an important instrument for compelling
compliance with the will of the international community. But, they could be
a blunt instrument, which hurts large numbers of people who are not its
primary target. The record of what one recent study called the "sanctions
decade" of the 1990s has raised serious doubts not only about the
effectiveness of sanctions, but also about their scope and severity. Too
often, innocent civilians have become victims not only of the abuses of
their own government, but also of the measures taken against it by the
international community. They are, thus, doubly victimized.

>From Africa to the Middle East and to the Balkans, our experience has
provided us with a number of critical lessons:

In the case of the Bosnian war, we witnessed an arms embargo which was seen
by many States as favouring the aggressor and effectively denying a Member
State its Charter right to self-defence.

In the case of Iraq, a sanctions regime that enjoyed considerable success in
its disarmament mission has also been deemed responsible for the worsening
of a humanitarian crisis -- as its unintended consequence. I deeply regret
the continuing suffering of the Iraqi people and hope that the sanctions
imposed on Iraq can be lifted sooner rather than later. But this demands
that we find a way, somehow, to move the Iraqi Government into compliance
with Security Council Resolutions.

More generally, the concerns of neighbouring countries that bear much of the
economic and trading loss from compliance have not been adequately
addressed. As a result, those countries have had every incentive to let
sanctions become porous.
While these and other questions must be addressed, it is the humanitarian
consequences of sanctions that present the most acute, and most pressing,
challenge to the Security Council. Particularly when robust and
comprehensive sanctions are directed against authoritarian regimes, it is
usually -- and tragically -- the people who suffer, not the political elites
who have the power to change policy.

Indeed, those in power not only transfer the cost to the less privileged,
but perversely often benefit from sanctions -- by their ability to control
and profit from black market activity, by controlling the distribution of
the limited resources, and by making sanctions a pretext for eliminating
domestic opposition. Over time, the existence of a sanctions regime almost
inevitably transforms an entire society for the worse -- as
sanctions-evaders, smugglers and the like rise to the top of the
socio-economic ladder, and normal economic development is stifled.

We all know that despotism flourishes in backward and isolated societies,
while interaction with the outside world generally favours prosperity and
freedom. Is it not, therefore, unrealistic to expect to bring about positive
change through a policy of embargo and deliberate isolation of an entire

Clearly, sanctions need refining. I welcome the recent emphasis on the
so-called "smart sanctions" which prevent the travel -- or freeze the
foreign bank accounts - of individuals or classes of individuals. If we want
to punish, let us punish the guilty. And if we want to bring about change,
let us target the powerful, not the powerless. But, merely making sanctions
"smarter" will not be enough. The challenge is to achieve consensus about
the precise and specific aims of the sanctions, and then provide the
necessary means and will for them to succeed.

Finally, the imposition of sanctions needs to be seen as an instrument that
is fairly and evenly applied in good faith. This means that there must be
carrots, as well as sticks. The States against which sanctions are imposed
must believe that if their behaviour changes, the Security Council is
genuinely willing to alleviate, suspend or lift the sanctions. Otherwise,
they have no real incentive to comply. And, ultimately, compliance is the
only measure of success.

It is clear that the proliferation of sanctions regimes in the last decade
has imposed on the international community an obligation to ensure that this
instrument is employed with a clear understanding of its effects, both
intended and unintended. It is simply not good enough to adopt sanctions as
the first and easiest line of response and then hope for the best. Sanctions
are not something that you can "fire and forget." That much, at least, the
sanctions decade has taught us.

I have spoken this evening about the challenge of compliance, and of
breaking the tragic sanctions cycle, because I believe a community's
greatest test is how it upholds its norms and rules. Just as we recognize
that every community must observe and enforce certain rules, we cannot
ignore the question of how it enforces those rules. This holds true both
domestically and internationally. In theory, sanctions can be an effective
and less painful instrument for obtaining compliance with the will of the
international community. In practice, as we have learned, they too often
turn out to mean the precise opposite, and the cost is borne by those least
responsible for the crime that is being sanctioned. In good conscience, we
cannot and must not shy away from tackling this challenge.

We may not resolve this issue in a day, or in a year. But over time, I
believe we can and we must make sanctions more effective and more just.

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