To Sanction or Not To Sanction

This article was originally published on March 7, 2017 in the Huffington Post.


Most Canadians have no idea, but our government currently sanctions 21 different countries around the world.  Perhaps most well-known, Canada maintains sanctions against Iran because of Canadian government suspicions around Iran’s nuclear weapons intents.   But Canada also has a general export ban on Belarus for the abuses of President Alexander Lukashenko, as well as various sanctions on 19 other countries.

Government leaders might be reassured by the results of an EKOS poll last week which indicated that 91 percent of Canadians believe that sanctions are a reasonable way for Canada to censure countries for violations of international law or human rights.  But such “support” for sanctions may also obfuscate some problematic aspects of Canada’s sanctions policies.

Canadian sanctions have been applied for a variety of different reasons, sometimes as part of a multilateral UN decision, and sometimes the result of a unilateral decision by the Harper government.  Sometimes we sanction an entire country; sometimes just certain individuals.  In all, Canada applies some form of sanctions against Belarus, Burma, the Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

The strong support among Canadians for sanctions probably comes as no surprise to many.  The logic is intuitive: similar to the logic of disciplining a misbehaving student.  The student behaves badly; the school administrators take away privileges in hopes that the undesirable behaviour changes.  But underlying this logic are two assumptions: first, that the administration would treat all misbehaving students equally; and second, that the student himself wants to succeed.

With misbehaving students unfortunately, the two assumptions above are not always true.  Similarly with Canadian sanctions, the assumptions do not always hold.

In fact, Canada clearly has a double standard when it comes to the application of sanctions.  Canada maintains its sanctions against Belarus, while turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and their appalling records on human rights.  Canada even goes so far as to ink a deal worth billions with Saudi Arabia, a serial human rights abuser.  Similarly, Canada sanctions Iran for its purported nuclear intents, while repeatedly shielding known nuclear power Israel from the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A closer look at the list of countries that Canada currently sanctions is telling.  Eleven of the 21 countries are in Africa.  Nine of the 21 countries are in North Africa or the Middle East.  Almost all are poor.  With the exception of Russia, none of them are significant trading partners – and with Russia, the sanctions only relate to commercial dealings with specific Russian individuals.

So let’s face it, Canada’s use of sanctions seems to be highly tainted by politics.  Canada is no neutral administration, treating all misbehaving states equally.  Instead, Canada is like a fickle schoolyard bully, harassing the kid who’s smaller or different, and leaving his “friends” in peace.

Canada’s double standard does not go unnoticed by the countries on the receiving end of Canada’s sanctions.  In fact, that may be part of the reason that some leaders are indifferent to the imposition of Canadian sanctions.  In the worst case, this is like the student who realizes that the school administration plays favourites, and refuses to play the game.  In the best case, it’s like the misbehaving student who really doesn’t care if he succeeds.

North Korea would certainly fit into one of these categories: decades of sanctions, and the impoverishment of its people – even to the point of starvation – has done nothing to move this recalcitrant regime.  The sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq similarly had little impact on the elites it was intended to discomfort, and are believed to have led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. 

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher once explained to me that her organization focuses its studies on governments which actually have the capacity for shame.  There’s little point, for example, to publish human rights reports on a regime like ISIS which actually takes pride in the brutality and racist nature of its crimes.

Not surprisingly, given such examples, the effectiveness of sanctions against a wide range of target regimes has been the subject of academic research.  One particularly sobering study by University of Memphis researcher Dursun Peksen concluded that, “Economic coercion remains a counterproductive policy tool, even when sanctions are specifically imposed with the goal of improving human rights. [Also], multilateral sanctions have a greater overall negative impact on human rights than unilateral sanctions.”

Knowledge of the downsides of economic sanctions may be part of the reason that NDP supporters were less keen on sanctions than other Canadians

But doing nothing in the face of horrific human rights abuses doesn’t feel right either.  Indeed, the broad public outrage at Canada’s arms deal with the Saudi government suggests that Canadians reject a “business as usual” approach with a regime which is willing to sentence an Internet blogger like Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes.  But even in the unlikely event that Canada would sanction oil-exporter Saudi Arabia, such sanctions could end up looking a lot like sanctions against North Korea, and very little like the sanctions levied against Apartheid South Africa.

Of course, the boycott of South Africa in the decades prior to the fall of Apartheid is often cited as a glowing example of a sanctions success story.  The sporting boycott of South Africa was particularly onerous on that country, as South Africa was a country which took great pride in its sporting achievements.  That country’s leaders’ desire to be viewed as “legitimate” in the eyes of the West also no doubt played a role.

Similar conditions may be at play today in the case of Israel.  The EKOS poll cited above also found that 66 percent of Canadians felt that, in the context of Israel’s ongoing human rights violations, sanctions against that country would be reasonable.  Israel craves to be counted among the world’s liberal Western democracies, and international hesitation to confer that title is of great consternation to many Israeli leaders.

To sanction or not to sanction.  Canada clearly needs to look more closely at its own motives, as well as the motivations driving the countries and foreign leaders that it targets for sanctions.  Otherwise, Canadian sanctions will continue to be another data point in Peksen’s study proving that sanctions are a wholly “counterproductive policy tool.”

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