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The United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is a marvel. Successor to the ill-fated League of Nations, its pioneers managed to bring together all the nations of the world in a single global enterprise. None is more worthy of gratitude for this feat than the United States of America. Its vision, weight and leadership made it happen.

The lofty principles that underpin the UN Charter continue to inspire laudable instruments of global governance. The International Court of Justice, the United Nations Development Programme and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are among them.  

But the UN has also been a severe disappointment in several areas. It is then criticised and even condemned. The brunt is unfairly borne by the Secretary General and his international colleagues. Rather than the organisation, it is the member states that are culpable.

Especially the Security Council (SC) and its permanent members. It is they who presided over the drafting of the UN Charter and the design of the organisation. It is they who choose to empower or thwart it. And it is their national and geopolitical interests that can lead to abuses and excesses.

Sanctions upon sanctions upon sanctions

A case in point is the sanctions that are applied on states and other entities. Article 41 of the UN Charter empowers the SC to apply political and economic sanctions short of war to constrain rogue states from breaking international law and using force to threaten the security of other states.

This is to be done after the alleged “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” is fully discussed under Article 39. This is hardly done. Decisions are often political in nature, based on vague and inconsistent criteria that suit the agenda of some permanent members of the SC.

One of the consequences is that a state like Israel is never sanctioned though it is a prime candidate. It has forcefully occupied foreign territory illegally for more than half a century, and it openly declares it intends to annex more.

Sanctions also cannot be applied by the UN on any veto-wielding member of the SC. Even when it fabricates “evidence”, invades another country with allies in tow, and commits war crimes on a colossal scale with impunity.

Whatever their defects and shortcomings though, sanctions applied by the UN through the SC have the legitimacy accorded by the Charter and international law.

Not so the sanctions imposed unilaterally by powerful states without UN approval. Or the so-called “secondary sanctions” imposed by the United States on third countries that do business with countries it has sanctioned unilaterally. These are illegal, extra-territorial acts committed by the US in pursuit of its own political and strategic ends. The US is able to exert such power because of its control over the international financial system and the fact that the dollar is the main currency for international trade.

The US is the country most addicted to sanctions. It is the most enthusiastic advocate in the SC, the most prone to imposing its own unilateral sanctions, and the only country that resorts to secondary sanctions.   

Kathy Gilsinan cites no less than 7,967 sanctions on states, corporations and individuals being enforced by the US at the time of her writing (The Atlantic, “A Boom Time for U.S. Sanctions”, May 3, 2019). The number continues to grow.

UN sanctions have had some notable successes, especially when backed with powerful international sentiment. South Africa gave up apartheid.  Black rule was restored in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Iraq withdrew from Kuwait.

But as various studies such as Robert Pape’s have shown, most sanctions regimes have failed to achieve their objective: to prevail upon states to change policies that allegedly threaten international security.

When targeted states resist pressures to surrender what they regard as their vital security interests, the noose is tightened further. Sanctions become less mindful of the basic needs of the population. Critical exports and imports such as oil are embargoed. Financial transactions are blocked. Third countries, banks and businesses are threatened with sanctions if they deal with the targeted states.  

No formal restrictions are imposed on the health and medical sector to comply with humanitarian requirements, but sanctions on the financial sector make payment for import of critical medical supplies difficult. Sanctions become a weapon of death.  

Countries like Iran and Venezuela are subject to a deliberate sanctions policy to cause hardship to the population in order to foment opposition and resistance against the government.

Human Rights Watch, in its report “Maximum Pressure: US Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health”, quotes US Secretary Michael Pompeo as telling CBS News on February 14, 2019, “Things are much worse for the Iranian people [with the US sanctions], and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

Prolonged sanctions suspend development. Infrastructures decay. Food supplies become scarce. Combined with sustained economic mismanagement on the part of some target governments and factors such as natural disasters, crop failure and famine as in North Korea, there is extended economic and humanitarian crisis.

Decades of incessant politically-driven demonisation of target governments and biased analysis and reporting make it difficult for the international community to empathise.

North Korea has been subjected to multiple layers of crippling sanctions for almost three-quarters of a century, since 1950. The Cuban population has borne the burden of sanctions for more than six decades, since 1958. The Iranian people, for just over forty years, since 1979. Syria began to be sanctioned in 1986, over three decades ago.

Generations in these countries and other places like the Palestinian Territories have grown up knowing nothing but sanctioned existence.

Three cases: North Korea, Cuba, Iran

North Korea lost more than 500,000 people to hunger and related diseases in the last twenty years. Near complete sanctions were not the only reason. Economic mismanagement, harsh weather, natural disasters, and drought were also responsible. But the number of dead spiked when the UN imposed sanctions in 2006 following Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. These sanctions were on top of the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US in 1950. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation food supply fell drastically and widespread and severe malnourishment followed.

Both UN and US sanctions have been intensified since, and especially from 2016. They severely eroded exports and choked off income derived from North Koreans working overseas. Exports to China, the country’s primary trading partner, shrunk nearly 90 percent, from $US1.65 billion in 2017 to $US195 million in 2018. According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s annual growth rate declined from plus 3.9 percent in 2016 to minus 4.1 percent in 2018, a drop of 8 percentage points.

The US embargo on arms imports into Cuba in 1958 was extended to all imports in 1962. Cuba ceased to pose any kind of a threat to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. But US sanctions have been maintained, periodically enhanced and extended to secondary sanctions on third countries. Cuba has fallen into a grave economic crisis. There are shortages of food and medicine.

The unilateral sanctions on Cuba have been condemned by the UN General Assembly every year since 1992 as a violation of international law. The vote has been near-unanimous. The last vote in 2019 saw 187 UN members supporting the resolution. The almost universal condemnation has not moved the US.

Iran is back under a harsh sanctions regime after the US withdrew unilaterally from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. Ironically, the US was one of the main architects of the JCPOA. Repeated IAEA confirmation that Iran is complying fully with the programme has been rejected by the US. EU attempts to bypass US secondary sanctions, so that Iran can return to the JCPOA even without US participation, have failed.

On 3 October, 2018, the International Court of Justice issued an interim court order to the US to end sanctions that impacted on humanitarian goods and civil aviation because they violated its 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations and Consular Rights with Iran. The US response was to withdraw from the Treaty.

The plea by Teheran and the appeals by Europe and the international community that the US respond to Iran’s desperate need for Covid-19 medical equipment and medication by relaxing sanctions have also been rejected.

Towards a more rules-compliant sanctions regime

The existing sanctions regime is seriously flawed. Abuses and excesses have been extensive and sustained. Criticism has come from many quarters. Past and present Secretaries General of the United Nations; the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights; the International Committee of the Red Cross; Medecins Sans Frontieres; and Pope John Paul II, to name a few.

Current practices, especially those that are contributing to the humanitarian crises in several countries, need urgent review. Five areas may be highlighted.

First, the UN could further clarify Charter provisions and tighten practices. Proposals to sanction countries and other entities should first be thoroughly discussed under Article 39 before resolutions are considered under Article 41. Criteria to be met before a state is sanctioned could also be set to minimise inconsistency and political selectivity.

Sanctions committees established by the SC to monitor the implementation of sanctions should be more transparent in their reports. Sanctions regimes that fail to achieve their objectives should be re-examined and other options considered.

The legality of unilateral sanctions should be addressed. The UN must take a stand against them. They bypass UN authority and belong to bygone pre-UN anarchic eras when hegemonistic states acted as they pleased.

Second, lift the sanctions on Cuba. Launch a more vocal global campaign against them. “Democracy” cannot be forced. Sixty years of external coercion have failed. Other issues have to be found to secure Cuban American votes in Florida. The financial claims that the US has against Cuba should be pursued in the courts.

Third, the US in particular but also the UN and other parties should adopt a less draconian, more discriminating sanctions policy that pays heed to the humanitarian welfare of the innocent Korean people. Food and medical supplies, and the resources to secure them, are of the utmost urgency.

The Six Party Talks is a flop. Credible third-party mediation should be sought for the North Korea issue. Europe offers several possibilities. Negotiate to satisfy the legitimate security concerns of all relevant parties. Including North Korea’s. Yes, it too has them.

The US can adopt a less doctrinaire hard-line stance. Insistence on “complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament” is no longer relevant after North Korea acquired the bomb. More realistic would be to put in place iron-clad measures to assure that Pyongyang will not expand its nuclear weapon capabilities.

Human rights and “democracy’ are not relevant to the peace agenda. They should be pursued through other, more constructive, means. Seventy years of coercion have not worked.

Fourth, re-instate the JCPOA. Alleviate sanctions pressure on Iran, especially on the vulnerable sections of its population. The US may also consider complying with the ICJ interim court order. It is fitting, because the US sees itself as the world’s leading champion of international law. Iran is in dire need of medical supplies to combat lethal diseases.

Democratic “regime change” is not a credible US sanctions policy for Iran. It was the US, working with the UK, that engineered the coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and installed the oppressive absolute monarchy of the Shah of Iran.

And fifth, the US could abandon the widespread practice of imposing “secondary sanctions.” They are illegal.

Political and economic sanctions are powerful instruments. Used responsibly, they contribute to international peace and security. Abused and enforced for decades, they become weapons of mass suffering and death. The international community, working through the UN and other fronts, can help ensure the former and prevent the latter.

Mohamed Jawhar Hassan

The writer is Senior Advisor, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya and former Chairman and Chief Executive of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia and. The views expressed are his own.

Last Update: 11/11/2021