My response: Economic and financial sanctions are intended to “coerce, deter, punish, or shame entities that endanger their interests or violate international norms of behavior.”(1) They are an alternative to military force—a low-cost, low-risk, middle-of-the-road course of action that lies between diplomacy and military action, which may not be feasible.
As examples, in 2014 BNP Paribas, France’s largest lender, pleaded guilty to processing billions of dollars for blacklisted Cuban, Iranian, and Sudanese entities. The bank was fined nearly $9 billion dollars, and lost the right to convert foreign currency into U.S. dollars for certain types of transactions for one year.(2)
In September 2005, U.S. Treasury officials labeled Banco Delta Asia a primary money laundering concern, alleging that the Macau-based bank was a “willing pawn for the North Korean government.” Within a week, customers withdrew $133 million, or 34 percent of BDA’s deposits. The financial shock rippled across the globe, inducing other international banks to sever ties with Pyongyang.(3)
Causal relationships are difficult to determine. Where regime change has occurred, it is difficult to tell whether sanctions themselves were responsible, or whether domestic and international factors played a role or were, in fact, the primary cause.
Programs with relatively limited objectives are generally more likely to succeed than those with major political ambitions. The target must believe that sanctions will be increased or reduced over time, depending upon the target’s behavior.(4)
Do sanctions affect the populace? Yes. Looking at Iraq as a case study, the health and conditions of the population—particularly children, women, the disabled and the elderly—declined rapidly.
An article in the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal (abstract cited below) detailed the effects of sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990.
In 1989, before sanctions, typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis, for example, had low incidence rates, relative to the conditions that existed at the time. In 1991, after sanctions were imposed, conditions had declined rapidly. People could no longer afford to buy the food and medicines they needed, nor could they afford the housing and utilities they require.(5)
Support services for medical care—ambulances, emergency services personnel, secondary and tertiary-care facilities—declined and/or closed. The remaining health facilities were in poor condition. By 1998, the number of children born with low birth weight increased significantly, as did the number of deaths of people over 50 from hypertension, diabetes and cancer.(6)
Even when sanctions are imposed by U.N. resolution, countries, citing humanitarian reasons, will break from the accord. Jordan, Turkey, Iran and Syria bypassed U.N. controls against Iraq. Smuggling became an attractive alternative.(7)
Civilian suffering at the hands of sanctions may or may not be an intended stratagem to achieve one’s goals—i.e., regime or policy change—but its effect on the target’s populace is devastating, and undeniable.