Do sanctions work?

Do sanctions work?

BANKS against tanks - that seems to be the West's preferred response to Russia's military incursion into Ukraine.

Governments in Europe and North America are planning to impose financial sanctions on Russia as early as today. And, although these are targeted at just a handful of top Russian officials and rich oligarchs, Western leaders are threatening to widen the net to entire sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow proceeds to annex Ukrainian territory.

Things "could get ugly fast", warned US Secretary of State John Kerry. Russia is risking "massive" economic damage, added German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But this is just bluster, for all governments know that, although sanctions may give the appearance of action and occasionally do inflict damage, there is no evidence to suggest that sanctions ever produced the effects for which they were designed. Indeed, there are plenty of examples to indicate that sanctions make crises more intractable, and that may also prove to be the case in Ukraine.

The concept of sanctions is more than just about economics; it includes the whole gamut of measures indicating displeasure, such as reductions in aid assistance, the suspension of transport links, negative votes in international institutions, visa denials, arms embargoes and a break-up of diplomatic relations.

Sanctions are well-established in international law. The Charter of the United Nations devotes no fewer than two articles - 41 and 42 - to the "complete or partial interruption of economic relations" which can be imposed "through action by air, sea or land forces".

Yet although there have been innumerable examples of individual nations slapping sanctions on each other, the UN has traditionally been reticent about doing so at the international level. During the first half-century of the organisation's existence, sanctions were imposed on only two countries: Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called) in 1966 and South Africa in 1977.

Over the past two decades, however, UN-authorised sanctions have multiplied exponentially: a total of 16 African countries were subjected to them, as well as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Meanwhile, the European Union has transformed itself into a sanctions machine: not one meeting of EU foreign ministers is now complete without some punitive measures imposed against a supposedly brutal regime or the tweaking of hit-lists of hundreds of foreigners banned from either entering Europe, or from exiting the continent with their cash.

It's easy to see why sanctions are so popular. For, short of war, they very often are the only response available. Sanctions can also be tailored proportionately to a crisis: they can be intensified or downgraded as required, an attractive feature for diplomats.

They can also be cheap: cancelling a visa-free arrangement, for instance, inflicts little cost. And, in the age of round-the-clock media reporting, small crises in faraway places can suddenly galvanise public opinion; sanctions are perfect for addressing the "something must be done" demands which Western governments face in such situations.

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