Who Are You to Impose Sanctions?

Sanctions Are All the Rage

President Donald Trump has brought back the wholesale use of unilateral international sanctions as a mechanism for punishing and hampering any country that displeases him and his motley crew. Sanctions are handy resources for an aspiring world ruler because all they require to put in place is a belligerent declaration from the White House and a series of threats to enforce them. That may be why President Trump has resorted to this ploy so gaily. His gratuitous economic sanctions on oil-and-mineral-rich Venezuela prompted these observations by US economists:

In Venezuela, economic sanctions that Trump first imposed in 2017 and then vastly expanded in 2019, have resulted in increased disease and mortality and are estimated to have led to tens of thousands of excess deaths, according to a 2019 study by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs.


A recent Cambridge University forum further delimits the playing field:

… this essay examines unilateral coercive measures… While there are no incontrovertible data on the extent of these measures, one can safely say that they target in some way a full quarter of humanity. In addition to being a major attack on the principle of self-determination, unilateral measures not only adversely affect the rights to international trade and to navigation but also the basic human rights of innocent civilians. The current deterioration of the situation, with the mutation of embargoes into blockades and impositions on third parties, is a threat to peace that needs to be upgraded in strategic concern.

Cambridge.org, 6 September, 2019

Are They Conscious of the Tragedy They Sow?

Before wading into the Okeefenokee that American foreign policy experts have made of the sanctions issue, let’s look at the most critical aspect, which is regularly overlooked. Are Americans aware of the the lethal repercussions for innocent citizens inside the countries they punish with sanctions? What was Madeleine Albright’s answer when she was asked about the 500,000 children under the age of five who died due to the Amerian-organized blockade of Iraq? “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

Since that memorable declaration as US Secretary of State, Albright has been recycled in American folklore as a human-rights and peace activist, much the same as President Richard Nixon was polished up and resold as a respected elder statesman. American promoted UN Security Council sanctions against Iraq, first imposed in 1990 and later extended, were a near-total financial and trade embargo which gave the US and UK control over Iraq’s oil revenue. They were not removed until December 2010.

It took UN Secretary General Kofi Annan until 2004 to decide that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. According to The Guardian:

“Mr Annan said that the invasion was not sanctioned by the UN security council or in accordance with the UN’s founding charter. In an interview with the BBC World Service broadcast last night, he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: ‘Yes, if you wish.'” He then added unequivocally: ‘I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.'” (Source: The Guardian, 16 Sep 2004)

A 1996 report by International Progress Organization (IPO) criticized sanctions as “an illegitimate form of collective punishment of the weakest and poorest members of society, the infants, the children, the chronically ill, and the elderly”.

According to the IPO, the sanctions imposed around the world by the United States government include:

  • bans on arms-related exports
  • controls over dual-use technology exports
  • restrictions on economic assistance
  • financial restrictions:
    • requiring the United States to oppose loans by the World Bank and other international financial institutions
    • diplomatic immunity waived, to allow families of terrorist victims to file for civil damages in U.S. courts
    • tax credits for companies and individuals denied, for income earned in listed countries
    • duty-free goods exemption suspended for imports from those countries
    • authority to prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in financial transactions with the government on the list, except by license from the U.S. government
    • prohibition of U.S. Defense Department contracts above $100,000 with companies controlled by countries on the list.

According to Aaron Arnold of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a research center located within the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University,

While the United States must be in a state of war for the president to regulate trade and commerce under the Trading With the Enemy Act, the President has complete discretion to declare a national emergency under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). From a legal perspective, there have been few successful challenges of IEEPA. So far, conducting US foreign policy through a broad interpretation of national security powers has always been the prerogative of US presidents. But as European leaders scramble to save what is left of the Iran deal, many are left wondering whether a president that wields IEEPA like a hammer will see every problem like a nail. 


Alexander Main, Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, is more specific on the subject:

But one particularly brutal set of White House measures that has already caused tens of thousands of casualties abroad has been ignored by most of Trump’s critics. Since taking office, the president has unilaterally imposed a number of deadly, sweeping economic sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. These sanctions have not, by any reasonable measure, advanced the president’s stated foreign policy goals. They have, however, wreaked havoc and destruction in the lives of countless innocent human beings. 

Are the US Sanctions Legal Under International Law?

According to the United Nations, only the UN Security Council has a mandate by the international community to apply sanctions that must be complied with by all UN member states. They serve as the international community’s most powerful peaceful means to prevent threats to international peace and security or to settle them. (Source: Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter)

That is to say, according to international law all of the the US’s exquisite legislative pussyfooting around the question of sanctions is irrelevant, and the unilateral imposition of sanctions by any country is out of order. Not that the Americans are much dissuaded by legalities. They have the unique tenet of their foreign policy: “We do exactly as we please.” That works for them, even though the rest of the world may not agree.

Trump Plays the Rogue Sanctions Card

Whenever President Donald Trump gets bettered in a deal he gets miffed. His favorite response is to play the sanctions card whether it’s aimed at one of America’s competitors in the international “free market” or a country that’s straying beyond US-imposed ideological limits. The case that immediately comes to mind is the crippling US embargo on Cuba, in place since March 14, 1958 and renewed ever since, the most-brutal, longest-lasting foreign policy coercion of the 20th century that is still festering in the 21st.

A more recent example is the Huawei ban, a classic case of castigating a superior competitor for building better mousetrap. President Trump declares a US boycott on the Chinese communications technology company and immediately extends the ban to Britain, his most reliable running ally. These stings are occurring more frequently lately as American technology lags further and further behind foreign competition.

Whether it’s Chinese G-5 communications installations or the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, Trump’s kneejerk response is sanctions. Turkey, after being turned down by the US in an effort to purchase American Patriot anti-aircraft missiles, turned to Russia and signed a multi-billion-dollar deal. Despite U.S. efforts to undo that agreement, President Erdogan proceeded to acquire the S-400 system in July 2019.The first batch of S-400s were deployed in Turkey in July of 2019. Note: The S-400 missiles are superior to the Patriots and allegedly at half the price.

Not to mention the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, currently under US sanctions…

Just over a week ago, on December 14, 2020, Washington belatedly announced their sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 operation. This is how the California-based law firm, Gibson-Dunn characterized the event:

On December 14, 2020, the United States imposed sanctionss on the Republic of Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (“SSB”), the country’s defense procurement agency, and four senior officials at the agency, for knowingly engaging in a “significant transaction” with Rosoboronexport (“ROE”), Russia’s main arms export entity, in procuring the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. These measures were a long-time coming—under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (“CAATSA”) of 2017, the President has been required to impose sanctions on any person determined to have knowingly “engage[d] in a significant transaction with a person that is part of, or operates for or on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.”

Source: gibsondunn.com

Sanctions as Acts of War

Can US unilateral sanctions be considered acts of war? The jury is still out on this question but many qualified observers think the case can be made. Briefly, when unilateral sanctions result in dead and maimed civilians, mass destruction, regime change or other interruption of the life of a country, they should naturally be considered as acts of war.

Nonetheless, economic sanctions are the foreign policy option of choice for the US. While often portrayed as a softer option than outright war, they can result in equally devastating blows to the health and well-being of vulnerable countries.

Madre.org reminds us of US use of sanctions:

On January 8, 2020, Trump announced additional “punishing” sanctions on the Iranian government, framing these as a peaceful alternative to military action. But these sanctions are far from a de-escalation of this crisis. In fact, they are simply warfare under another name.

The US has applied more economic sanctions than any other country. Sanctions have been imposed on Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela — among others.

The Future of American Sanctions

–trapped midst a killer virus, a deteriorating technological superiority and rising stars on the horizon–

Sanctions are subject to international law, no clause of which authorizes the US to apply their belligerent realpolitic to other people’s countries. So how is it possible that the US should be circling the world with a sinister web of unilateral sanctions? American trans-world coercion is based on the same ugly reality as other cases of historical bullying. Without the US preponderance of military might it would not be possible.

But that dubious license bestowed by massive force may not last forever. In view of the United States’ critical situation, both at home and abroad–trapped midst a killer virus, a deteriorating technological superiority and rising stars on the horizon–their worldwide suzerainty may be entering its last days. If not, why would the lame-duck Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, be bustling around the world Mafia style, fervently delivering the Trump administration’s last threats?


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