What right does the United States have to starve civilians to achieve political goals? Despite its obvious importance, this question is largely absent from mainstream discourse. Through economic sanctions, or economic warfare, the U.S. can unilaterally collapse economies and generate famine in foreign countries. The civilian death toll from sanctions is often equal to—and sometimes greater than—the toll from conventional warfare. Yet on both sides of the aisle, it is taken for granted that we have the “right” to impose destitution on civilian populations in order to advance our interests.
What are Sanctions?
The U.S. administers two types of sanctions: primary and secondary sanctions. Primary sanctions cut off economic relations between targeted foreign entities—states, individuals, industries, or corporations—and the American economy. Secondary sanctions, also known as “extraterritorial sanctions,” are more pernicious. Secondary sanctions impose sanctions or other penalties on third parties not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. if they refuse to cease economic relations with the entity under primary sanctions. For example, the U.S. imposed both primary and secondary sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI). Therefore, the U.S. prohibits American citizens and corporations from conducting business with the bank (primary sanctions), and imposes sanctions on any foreign state, individual, or corporation that chooses to work with the CBI (secondary sanctions).
Many legal scholars and most of the world, including the European Union, maintain that these secondary sanctions clearly violate well established principles of international law, interfere with the sovereignty of foreign governments, and are ultimately illegitimate.
However, due to the threat of being cut off from the American economy and the dollar, nations are often forced to comply, regardless of their legal or moral qualms.
Sanctions and Civilians
Through sanctions, the U.S. can, in effect, collapse foreign economies with the stroke of a pen, inflicting punishment on civilian populations. The current sanctions on Syria, for instance, established in the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019,” bar foreign entities from participating in Syria’s desperately needed reconstruction effort and obstruct the flow of humanitarian aid and other basic necessities. The sanctions were ostensibly enacted to punish the Assad regime and to promote human rights, but instead have devastated Syrian civilians.
Since the sanctions took effect, the value of the Syrian pound has collapsed. The price of food has nearly doubled. The number of Syrians at risk of starvation has increased to 60 percent, the highest rate of food insecurity since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011. Millions have been pushed “to the brink of famine.” Rates of poverty have significantly increased. In the name of ‘human rights’ and ‘protecting civilians,’ the U.S. has driven average Syrians into utter destitution. Ignatius Aphrem II, the leader of the Syriac Orthodox Church who lives in Damascus, said in 2021, “Children are literally starving because of the embargo against Syria. People are dying from the lack of medicine and adequate medical supplies. The harsh winter conditions are further increasing the suffering of the people since fuel is not available to heat their homes.”
Similarly destructive sanctions have been imposed on civilian populations around the world. In 2012, the Obama Administration enacted harsh secondary sanctions on Iran, resulting in drastic increases in unemployment, homelessness, poverty, inflation, and overall suffering. According to a 2012 report by Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban-Ki Moon, American sanctions led to a “shortage of drugs used in the treatment of various illnesses, including cancer, heart and respiratory conditions, thalassemia and multiple sclerosis.”
While Iran experienced a period of relief from sanctions following the signing of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015, this was short-lived. Though Iran abided by the terms of the agreement, in 2018 the Trump Administration abruptly pulled out of the deal, reimposed the Obama-era sanctions as well as harsher sanctions, collapsing the Iranian economy yet again. The Biden Administration maintained the Trump-era sanctions and recently even increased the sanctions—in the middle of a pandemic. As is the case with sanctions inflicted elsewhere, marginalized groups within Iran are hit the hardest. According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, the worst suffering is experienced by Iranians with “severe diseases, disabled people, Afghan refugees, women-led households and children.” Ahmad Ghavidel, president of the Iranian Hemophilia Society, said in 2012, about the sanctions: “This is a blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people by countries which claim they care about human rights.”
The civilian death toll from sanctions is immense. Economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that American sanctions on Venezuela, which blocked access to life-saving pharmaceuticals, directly led to the death of over 40,000 Venezuelans from 2017-2018. In 2020, an economist from Virginia Tech estimated that sanctions took the lives of 13,000-25,000 Iranians within the first six months of the Coronavirus pandemic. The sanctions on Iraq under the Clinton Administration led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, primarily children. And as economist and sanctions expert Mark Weisbrot pointed out earlier this year, “Sanctions currently imposed on [Afghanistan] are on track to take the lives of more civilians in the coming year than have been killed by 20 years of warfare.”1
Sanctions are About Politics, not Human Rights
Our political leaders consistently claim that we impose sanctions in order to protect civilians and promote human rights.
Despite this rhetoric, it is clear that the imposition of sanctions is totally inconsistent with these alleged values. Rather, like other tools of American foreign policy, sanctions are correlated with the interests of American elites. States that align themselves with the interests of the U.S. are spared from sanctions, and states that refuse, or choose to align themselves with an American adversary, are not. Defiance is a much better predictor of whether sanctions will be levied than a state’s human rights record.
Far from being subjected to economic sanctions, some of the worst human rights abusers in the world are close allies of the U.S. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, are two of the most authoritarian and internally repressive states in the world: journalists are murdered with impunity, children are given the death penalty, and the populace is deprived of virtually all civil liberties. They are also responsible for relentlessly bombing and blockading Yemen, committing serious war crimes and atrocities, and causing, in the words of Human Rights Watch, “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.” The Gulf States have also funded violent and destructive forces throughout the region, including ISIL, and regularly interfere with the domestic affairs of other countries in serious ways (take, for example, when the Saudis “kidnapped” the Lebanese Prime Minister for 12 days in 2017). Yet rather than being subjected to harsh and devastating sanctions like Iran, these Gulf States serve crucial American strategic interests, and therefore receive significant American support, allyship, and close economic relations, as well as billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and military aid.
This pattern holds true of the other main American allies in the region. Israel has brutally occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip for 55 years, invaded Lebanon numerous times (killing tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians), and routinely invades and bombs the Gaza Strip, resulting in high casualties—all in blatant violation of international law. Egypt has cracked down on basic civil liberties, houses upwards of 65,000 political prisoners, and is currently “experiencing one of its worst human rights crises in many decades.” Yet, instead of being sanctioned like their Iranian, Venezuelan, or post-civil war Syrian counterparts, Israel and Egypt receive more military aid from the U.S. than any other countries in the world: on a yearly basis, Israel receives $3.8 billion while Egypt receives $1.3 billion. Both countries also enjoy strong economic ties and massive weapons deals from the U.S.
But nothing can quite illustrate the politics of sanctions—and its total lack of correlation to human rights—quite like the United States’ relationship to Turkey. The U.S. did impose sanctions on Turkey, but for noteworthy reasons. Turkey was not sanctioned for killing thousands of Kurds in Southern Turkey in the latter half of the 1990s—on the contrary, it did so with American weapons. It was not sanctioned for repressing Kurdish civil society, going so far as to outlaw the Kurdish language and colors of the Kurdish flag; nor was it sanctioned for jailing more journalists than any other country in the world. Turkey was not sanctioned for regularly bombing Iraq, or bombing, invading, and occupying parts of Northern Syria, where it has committed acts of ethnic cleansing. It was not even sanctioned for providing considerable support to the al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaeda affiliate) in order to destroy the Kurds of Northeastern Syria—the force primarily responsible for defeating ISIL. Rather, Turkey was sanctioned in 2020 for buying a Russian missile system against the wishes of the United States. For the purposes of sanctions, Turkey’s mass human rights abuses and acts of aggression were irrelevant, so long as it did not defy the U.S.
Sanctions and Bipartisanship
Despite international condemnation and the devastating toll and human suffering caused by sanctions, criticism in mainstream circles is scant. These sanctions are, unfortunately, totally bipartisan. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019—which is currently threatening Syrian civilians with mass starvation—was introduced by Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, passed with bipartisan support, and then was signed into law by President Donald Trump. The 2017 bill which drastically increased sanctions on Iran—and subsequently sharply increased poverty and a lack of access to basic, lifesaving medicines—was passed in the Senate by a 98-2 vote. Only Senators Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul voted against the bill.
Establishment politicians from both parties have routinely campaigned on their support for sanctions, most prominently Hillary Clinton. Despite widespread criticism of the Clinton Administration’s devastating sanctions policies on Iraq in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton campaigned both in 2008 and 2016 on the promise to drastically tighten sanctions on Iran. Moreover, Clinton’s 2016 campaign website boasted of the fact that she “oversaw significant accomplishments” while Secretary of State, including “building a global coalition to impose crippling sanctions against Iran,” creating the “toughest sanctions regime in history.”
Only Bernie Sanders, Rand Paul, and a handful of congressional democrats have ever defied the bipartisan consensus and expressed full-throated opposition to sanctions. In the mainstream liberal establishment, it is fully accepted that the U.S. has the right to impose these sanctions, regardless of the terrifying humanitarian toll. It is assumed, without question, that the U.S. should be allowed to collapse economies, generate famine, and drive civilian populations into destitution to achieve political—not humanitarian—goals.
But how would we feel if this assumption was universal, and we were the victims of this type of economic warfare?
Here, a thought experiment may be revealing. While unrealistic due to the immensity of American power, imagine if, in response to the unlawful American invasion and destruction of Iraq, the international community enacted broad sanctions on the U.S. Imagine that these sanctions—like the sanctions we impose—collapsed our economy; caused a severe shortage of lifesaving pharmaceuticals; increased hunger, unemployment, and destitution; and directly led to the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of Americans. To those who support sanctions as a tool of American foreign policy: would this hypothetical outcome be just?
To say yes is utterly callous. But if we say no, we are equally callous, but also hypocrites.
PHOTO: December 19, 2021 – Washington, DC: Protesters holding a banner at a rally to end starvation in Afghanistan. / AP Images / For an explanation of how existing sanctions are related to the present Afghan economic crisis, see this Human Rights Watch question-and-answer sheet.
While there may be ‘humanitarian exemptions’ to sanctions, in practice, these exemptions fail to protect civilians. As independent journalist Richard Medhurst puts it: “I spoke to the special rapporteur on sanctions and she told me what she witnessed in Venezuela. The children don’t even have pencils to write with in school because of the sanctions. Then they give you this nonsense about oh no but U.S. sanctions have exemptions for humanitarian purposes! No, they don’t! That’s just on paper. It doesn’t exist in reality. That doesn’t do anything because the NGOs cannot keep up with what the traders supply and an NGO cannot substitute for the entire imports of the country especially in countries like Lebanon or Yemen where 90 [percent] of the food is imported! The exemptions exist on paper but they’re too difficult to actually navigate. As a result most people steer clear of them. This is not a solution. It’s just … some excuse they’ve put on there to make themselves feel good. … It’s these people who think that they are somehow not savages and they’re more benevolent in their manner and that sanctioning people is okay because it’s not a bomb that’s falling on people. This allows these people to sleep at night as they continue imperialism by bullying other countries & starving them off.” ↩