SECRETARY-GENERAL, IN ADDRESS TO INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE, REFLECTS ON HUMANITARIAN IMPACT OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS

15 November 2000
SG/SM/7625

SECRETARY-GENERAL, IN ADDRESS TO INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE, REFLECTS ON HUMANITARIAN IMPACT OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS

15 November 2000

Press ReleaseSG/SM/7625

SECRETARY-GENERAL, IN ADDRESS TO INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE, REFLECTS ON HUMANITARIAN IMPACT OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS

20001115

Following is the text of an address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the dinner of the International Rescue Committee honouring John Whitehead, in New York on 15 November:

I am delighted to join you this evening to pay tribute to my friend and ally John Whitehead, a true internationalist, who has served his country by serving the world, and served the world by serving his country. Throughout his life, as this audience knows well, John has been a humanitarian of great distinction -- as a 45-year veteran of the International Rescue Committee board, as a diplomat, and as a citizen of the world. He is a most deserving and distinguished winner of the International Rescue Committee Freedom Award, and I warmly congratulate him on receiving it.

I am also especially pleased to take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude and admiration for Mrs. Ogata’s decade-long service as High Commissioner for Refugees. Under her leadership, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) faced unprecedented challenges and demands, and under her leadership, it met them successfully. The next High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, will certainly have a hard act to follow, but I am counting on the support of organizations, such as the International Rescue Committee, to help him to do so effectively and imaginatively. Indeed, as UNHCR’s largest implementing partner, the International Rescue Committee is a vital ally for the United Nations, and I trust it will continue to be so. I wish to thank every member of the International Rescue Committee for your devoted service to the world’s most vulnerable people

Tonight, I would like to share with you some thoughts on one aspect of the humanitarian challenge that is often a consequence of conflict. It is an aspect which will, I believe, prove more and more difficult for the international community to handle in the years ahead. I refer to the humanitarian impact of economic sanctions.

One of the great tasks facing the United Nations today is to broaden and deepen adherence to the norms and values of the United Nations Charter, and to make the international community live up to its name. It must be truly a community of peoples, dedicated to upholding common standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

One test of this global community is how we respond to States that transgress the accepted rules and norms, and how we obtain compliance with the

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will of the international community. Tonight, I wish to explore the use of sanctions as a means of achieving compliance. More generally, I should like to reflect with you on how we move from defiance to compliance, and break what I have called the “sanctions cycle.”

The international community has at its disposal a variety of instruments which it uses to bring recalcitrant States into compliance. There is a continuum beginning with quiet diplomacy –- ranging through public pressure, or “naming and shaming”, to the imposition of arms embargoes and economic sanctions –- and ending with the use of military force. As you would expect, the record of success is mixed. In some cases, discreet pressure behind the scenes has worked. In others, not even the most comprehensive sanctions have brought about compliance.

Increasingly, however, the use of sanctions has given rise to concerns. These concerns relate, of course, to Iraq, but also to the many other States that are the subject of sanctions today. What is clear is that we need to improve the effectiveness of sanctions regimes if we want this instrument to remain available in the future. After verbal condemnation, sanctions may often be the first and easiest response employed by the Security Council to a State in violation of international law.

Undoubtedly, sanctions have sometimes been effective -- and may be so again in the future -- in bringing a State back to internationally accepted rules of behavior. Usually, the objective has been to change the behaviour of a government or regime which posed a threat to international peace and security, and, in a conflict situation, to diminish the capacity of the protagonists to sustain a prolonged fight. Last year’s hand-over of the Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie bombing was a case of effective sanctions, although it took a long time to achieve this result, and until the trial is over we shall not know whether the suspects are indeed the authors of that terrible crime.

However, in too many instances, we are witnessing a tragic and unintended cycle of events, in which sanctions inadvertently strengthen the hold on power of governments or groups whose illegal behavior triggered them in the first place. In turn, the international community reacts by prolonging sanctions, and thereby may even be postponing the moment when the changes sought will actually come about. It is this “sanctions cycle” that must be broken.

Sanctions must and will remain an important instrument for compelling compliance with the will of the international community. But, they could be a blunt instrument, which hurts large numbers of people who are not its primary target. The record of what one recent study called the “sanctions decade” of the 1990s has raised serious doubts not only about the effectiveness of sanctions, but also about their scope and severity. Too often, innocent civilians have become victims not only of the abuses of their own government, but also of the measures taken against it by the international community. They are, thus, doubly victimized.

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From Africa to the Middle East and to the Balkans, our experience has provided us with a number of critical lessons:

-- In the case of the Bosnian war, we witnessed an arms embargo which was seen by many States as favouring the aggressor and effectively denying a Member State its Charter right to self-defence.

-- In the case of Iraq, a sanctions regime that enjoyed considerable success in its disarmament mission has also been deemed responsible for the worsening of a humanitarian crisis -- as its unintended consequence. I deeply regret the continuing suffering of the Iraqi people and hope that the sanctions imposed on Iraq can be lifted sooner rather than later. But this demands that we find a way, somehow, to move the Iraqi Government into compliance with Security Council Resolutions.

More generally, the concerns of neighbouring countries that bear much of the economic and trading loss from compliance have not been adequately addressed. As a result, those countries have had every incentive to let sanctions become porous.

While these and other questions must be addressed, it is the humanitarian consequences of sanctions that present the most acute, and most pressing, challenge to the Security Council. Particularly when robust and comprehensive sanctions are directed against authoritarian regimes, it is usually -- and tragically -- the people who suffer, not the political elites who have the power to change policy.

Indeed, those in power not only transfer the cost to the less privileged, but perversely often benefit from sanctions -- by their ability to control and profit from black market activity, by controlling the distribution of the limited resources, and by making sanctions a pretext for eliminating domestic opposition. Over time, the existence of a sanctions regime almost inevitably transforms an entire society for the worse -- as sanctions-evaders, smugglers and the like rise to the top of the socio-economic ladder, and normal economic development is stifled.

We all know that despotism flourishes in backward and isolated societies, while interaction with the outside world generally favours prosperity and freedom. Is it not, therefore, unrealistic to expect to bring about positive change through a policy of embargo and deliberate isolation of an entire people?

Clearly, sanctions need refining. I welcome the recent emphasis on the so-called “smart sanctions” which prevent the travel -- or freeze the foreign bank accounts –- of individuals or classes of individuals. If we want to punish, let us punish the guilty. And if we want to bring about change, let us target the powerful, not the powerless. But, merely making sanctions “smarter” will not be enough. The challenge is to achieve consensus about the precise and specific aims of the sanctions, and then provide the necessary means and will for them to succeed.

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Finally, the imposition of sanctions needs to be seen as an instrument that is fairly and evenly applied in good faith. This means that there must be carrots, as well as sticks. The States against which sanctions are imposed must believe that if their behaviour changes, the Security Council is genuinely willing to alleviate, suspend or lift the sanctions. Otherwise, they have no real incentive to comply. And, ultimately, compliance is the only measure of success.

It is clear that the proliferation of sanctions regimes in the last decade has imposed on the international community an obligation to ensure that this instrument is employed with a clear understanding of its effects, both intended and unintended. It is simply not good enough to adopt sanctions as the first and easiest line of response and then hope for the best. Sanctions are not something that you can “fire and forget.” That much, at least, the sanctions decade has taught us.

I have spoken this evening about the challenge of compliance, and of breaking the tragic sanctions cycle, because I believe a community’s greatest test is how it upholds its norms and rules. Just as we recognize that every community must observe and enforce certain rules, we cannot ignore the question of how it enforces those rules. This holds true both domestically and internationally. In theory, sanctions can be an effective and less painful instrument for obtaining compliance with the will of the international community. In practice, as we have learned, they too often turn out to mean the precise opposite, and the cost is borne by those least responsible for the crime that is being sanctioned. In good conscience, we cannot and must not shy away from tackling this challenge.

We may not resolve this issue in a day, or in a year. But over time, I believe we can and we must make sanctions more effective and more just.

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For information media. Not an official record.