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This article was published in the printed version of the GIMUN Chronicles, the newspaper of GIMUN’s Annual Conference 2016, last March. We thought we’d give our readers a chance to rediscover it!
By Laura Carolin Freitag
In light of the horrors of World War II, the United Nations (UN) came into existence charged with one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security. Established in the name of “We the Peoples”, the United Nations Member States promised mankind to unite their strengths in order to bring about a world free from the scourge of war; a world in which men and women could lead a secure life. Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter enunciates the tools that are at the Member States’ disposal when this mission runs into danger. Before last-resort measures are taken, economic sanctions are deployed as an important means to respond to aggressions and infringements on international peace and security. Economic sanctions can either take the form of comprehensive sanctions, which comprise of the complete withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations or of targeted sanctions. Targeted or smart sanctions are designed to affect only those who are deemed responsible for the illegality in question. They include measures such as asset freezes, visa bans and arms embargoes. Most importantly, the intention is to reduce harm inflicted upon the entire population but yet the civilian pain remains.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, economic sanctions have been increasingly imposed albeit with varying success. The underlying idea is that economic sanctions create economic hardships that lead to the population’s discontent, which then compels the political elite into compliance with international peace and security. However, it has now become some sort of a common currency that sanction regimes do not only exert pressure on the targeted state as such, but are above all to the detriment of its people. In the first place, economic sanctions affect the society, and within it its most vulnerable members, such as the children, the elderly and the poor. Economic decline threatens a population’s livelihoods; it creates unemployment, thereby driving people into poverty. Facing constrained resources, the targeted government may further aggravate the situation by cutting back public spending, which results in even greater impoverishments.
It begs the question of whether one should risk such severe humanitarian implications in return for the restoration of international peace and security. The moral quandary crops up due to the fact that economic sanctions which intend to prevent, terminate or punish offences against international peace and security injure the innocent. As a matter of justice, this is a highly problematic issue. It contradicts our way of thinking according to which punishments are handed out to the wrongdoers and spare out the blameless. In the words of the former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the question is whether “suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders.” From a philosophical standpoint, one is reminded of the theory of utilitarianism, which – in simple terms – claims that an action or a policy is morally right when it produces the most overall good. To put it another way, the rightness of an act or a policy solely depends on the goodness of its consequences. Thus, the theory of utilitarianism is consequentialist and is embedded in a view that the end justifies the means. To come full circle, the UN Charter affirms that the end of the organization’s creation and of its power is to maintain peace and security. In order to pursue that end, the UN, or rather the Security Council is endowed with means, inter alia economic sanctions. In this way and with reference to the utilitarian line of reason, economic sanctions that involve human hardships are nonetheless a legitimate means in view of the political end aspired to, which is the restoration of international peace and security.
There can be no doubt, however, that the UN stands for “We the Peoples” at one and the same time. That is why the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has begun to include humanitarian exemptions in their economic sanction regimes. In an effort to minimize civilian pain, humanitarian exemptions allow for the provision of essential goods and services destined for humanitarian purposes. At the same time, humanitarian exemptions are supposed to command basic respect for economic, social and cultural rights within the targeted country. However, cases such as Iraq, in which nearly half a million children died from the consequences of the economic sanctions, disprove the approach and demonstrate its insufficiency. For today and in the future, the UNSC and the targeted state should be mindful of their obligations towards “We the Peoples”. On the one hand, the UNSC should take the humanitarian impact more carefully into account while drafting economic sanctions. It should try to anticipate the possible harm and consequently identify a wider range of exempt goods and services. Once the economic sanctions have entered into force, the UNSC should evaluate closely and take corrective measures if the effects on the population get out of proportion. On the other hand, the targeted state must not forget about its duty to uphold the universal realization of human rights. Economic hardships cannot be used as a pretext to perform financial cutbacks at the expenses of the people’s enjoyment of their entitled rights.
Even in times of coercive action, the international community under the auspices of the United Nations should not forget that the promotion of human rights does not originate from altruism but represents in fact purest pragmatism. It is only if peace and security are guaranteed among peoples that international peace and security can be ensured among states.