Research paper presented at the International Roundtable Discussion on "Economic Sanctions and their Impact on Development" organized by the NGO Committee on Development at Vienna's United Nations Office
(28 November 1996)


Ali M. Farfer
Secretary-General, Jamahir Society for Culture and Philosophy (Vienna)

As development is a comprehensive societal process, the separation between its material and immaterial, intellectual and factual components remains more or less analytical in nature. Nevertheless, it might be useful to concentrate on one particular aspect of this many-sided issue. With a view to aiding clarity and precision, I have attempted to formulate my ideas in terms of some hypotheses, which, I hope, can serve to better explain the impact sanctions may have on the development of the targeted countries.

1. Underdevelopment is a threat to international peace and security as well as to freedom and democracy at the national level. Sanctions which necessarily involve punitive and/or coercive measures against particular targeted countries are consequently bound to impede their rates of growth and development. The widening gap between the more and the less developed countries would cause power inequalities, thereby allowing for (if not inviting) domination and hegemony. It would leave the door open for powerful countries to resort to force to resolve their conflicts with smaller and less powerful countries as exemplified in the US practice vis-à-vis such countries as Libya, Panama and Grenada. This power inequality led the French philosopher Baudrillard to conclude that the US-Iraq war in 1991 did not take place because such an unbalanced conflict could not be called war.1

2. The negative impact of sanctions on national development in the targeted countries would inevitably lead these countries to take countermeasures that almost certainly involve centrally directed economic plans aimed at alleviating the problems caused by these sanctions. This tendency, if continued, would necessarily produce command economies and politics that give weight to the ruling élites vis-à-vis the popular masses. As argued by some scholars of economics and political science, "failure to generate growing incomes in developing countries would certainly threaten to undermine democracy by fostering or exacerbating harsh and divisive conditions of zero-sum social conflict."2 In a country like Libya, the very regionalized and localized political and economic basis of society (i.e. the direct-democratic system of people's conferences and people's committees) could be threatened as the sanctions become expanded in time and intensity by the UN Security Council resolutions whose renewal and occasional upgrading have become a matter of course.

This outcome is by no means a collateral effect of "legitimate" sanctions, but, rather, a natural outcome that is easy to explain through the terrible consequences of the sanctions resolutions of the UN Security Council. This would have to raise serious questions with respect to the ethical and legal aspects of such resolutions that have been taken by an international body which is supposed to defend and foster freedom, not stifle it and to encourage participatory forms of political and economic decision-making rather than taking measures that concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few.

3. Due to the nature of sanctions as a threat power, their consequences can be ambivalent, uncertain, paradoxical and conflicting as well as damaging. As some authors have observed, sanctions have been in certain cases working in the direction that has been selected by the imposing powers. In other cases, however, these sanctions proved to be a failure, as exemplified in the case of South Africa during the apartheid times. "Before the U.N. arms embargo was imposed in the early 1960's, it [was] 60 % dependent on foreign arms. [In 1986] it [became] 90 % self-sufficient, in many cases producing weapons under license from other countries as France and Israel. Similarly, South Africa has dealt with the embargo on oil exports by developing a synthetic fuels industry that manufactures oil and gas from abundant supplies of available coal."3

I would like to argue that both cases of success and failure of these sanctions should be negatively evaluated due to the indiscriminate and destructive nature of this punitive action. Sanctions, as they are retributive measures directed against the whole population of a certain country, should be discredited as an idea regardless of whatever results they might bring about. They should be equated with terrorism, slavery and serfdom. While they could lead to certain gains to those who practice them, but such gains would be reached through inflicting grave injuries upon broad sectors of human beings, human values and human rights.

4. Development and democracy are characterized by a reversible relationship. Just as the level of development affects that of democracy, democratic advancement, in return, fosters further development in other areas of social life. Should sanctions negatively influence social development (which is almost certain to happen), so it must be born in mind that deficient political and economic structures will be conducive to centralized decision-making as well as to major economic problems and political unrest. Social development as a whole has to suffer direct and indirect blows by the centralized and monopolistic policies of the sanctioned governments on the one hand and the sanctioning parties and the international institutions which they manipulate on the other. Sanctions, as a form of threat, can be seen as a "creator of somewhat unstable systems, operating almost as an interruption in the large and longer process of integrative development and productive power."4

5. This line of argument should not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the big powers which dominate the United Nations Security Council and many other international institutions tend to be democratic within their national domains but authoritarian or hegemonic toward the outside world. The same tendency toward compulsion through sanctions or what some authors call the "economic powers of persuasion"5 seems to be the dominant mode of control in many capitalist societies. As Robert Dahl6 argued, people in these countries must accept their lot. What Fukuyama7 calls the "universal principle of recognition" which capitalist societies are supposed to equally provide to all ethnic groups, minorities and citizens seems to be more or less a "universal principle of compulsion." In that case, the dominant system must be taken for granted and accepted as a sacred institutional arrangement. Accordingly, democracy and freedom are to be understood as an empirical and final end result rather than a transcendental ideal which could be improved or maximized. Furthermore, democratic ideals are mixed up with the institutional arrangements serving to attain them. In this respect, sanctions could be easily seen as an extension of the compulsory element that dominates domestic life in one's own society to other societies, particularly those which try to go beyond capitalism and market democracy and seek alternative forms of social life and development.

6. Although the modern policy of sanctions emerged as an American practice that "began in 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson embargoed all U.S. trade with Europe to protest British attacks on U.S. merchant ships,"8 the recent U.S. practice in regard to the policy of sanctions seems destined to combine unilateral U.S. policy with a "collective" UN and joint U.S.-European stance against targeted countries and regions.

In his speech on the 6th of September 1996 in Stuttgart, Germany, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher contended: "Our principled commitment to free trade simply does not oblige us to do business with aggressive tyrannies like Iran and Libya. We must join forces on effective multilateral measures that deny these rogue regimes the resources they crave".9

Due to the competitive world market, most sanctions were not of multilateral nature. However, the current U.S. policies seek to utilize the unipolar international system that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union to globalize U.S. interests and politics and to instrumentalize existing international structures (mainly the UN) for pure U.S. aims and interests. This type of U.S. sponsored multilateralism could only result in producing tensions of a global nature which could arise between cultures and/or regions in the manner that has been described by Samuel P. Huntington as "clash of civilizations."

7. Furthermore, the globalization of the U.S.-sponsored and practiced policy of sanctions, if attained, will inevitably be extremely dangerous to international peace and security. This is mainly resultant from the fact that this U.S. policy of sanctions has often proven to be based on narrow and uncertain judgments about which policy can best serve U.S. interests. With the major exception of Cuba, most other U.S. sanctions have been subjected to drastic revisions that went to the extreme of giving up these sanctions altogether.

Ronald Reagan, for instance, believed that the collective sanctions imposed on South Africa during apartheid times would "mostly damage the people we want to help,"10 as though the other sanctions imposed against the remaining countries were affecting only governments. In addition, Reagan lifted in 1981 the grain embargo that was imposed by the Carter administration against the former USSR allegedly as a "response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan." The reason behind this decision was not the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (which took place only some years thereafter), but - in the words of former President Reagan - "because alternative suppliers of this widely available commodity stepped in to make up for the grain which would have been normally supplied by U.S. farmers."11

This shaky position of the U.S. sanctions policy can also be documented through the conflicting standpoints of U.S. officials and politicians in regard to its effectiveness. While continuing to practice this sanctions policy of "constructive disengagement"12, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz contended in 1982: "As a general proposition, I think the use of trade sanctions as an instrument of diplomacy is a bad idea ... Our using it here, there and elsewhere to try to affect some other country's behavior ... basically has not worked." On other occasions, the late Adlai E. Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (1961-1965) spoke out against sanctions indicating that "[p]unitive measures would only provoke intransigence and harden the existing situation." In 1985, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth W. Dam told Congress: "Sanctions ... would be counterproductive: they are more likely to strengthen resistance to change than to strengthen the forces of reform."13

The main conclusion that can be drawn from these conflicting practices and statements is that the U.S. has been practicing this sanctions policy on an experimental basis that is essentially related to strategic as well as tactical-political and economic interests. Obviously, this policy has nothing to do with any ideals or principles. Where the sanctions policy succeeds, it would be maintained, but if it should fail, then it is to be abandoned altogether.

In reality, it is a situation which involves experimentation on human subjects involving not only experimental groups of a handful of individuals as is normally the case in experimental situations. Rather, this experimentation takes place, unfortunately, on whole populations and nation-states. This is an important side of the immorality of the sanctions policy regardless of its overt and covert aims.14

8. In a world that is very much interrelated and interconnected, it is in most cases quite impossible to single out specific targets for sanctions without at the same time inflicting damages on other targets. In the case of the sanctions imposed on Libya, such sanctions have caused serious negative effects on the economic development of Libya as well as on the development of neighbouring countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Chad, Niger and Malta. Due to several geopolitical and cultural factors, these countries have always exhibited co-developmental approaches rather than a competitive race for modernization. An underpopulated developing country like Libya, despite its oil revenues, would never be able to achieve development without the labor market of its neighbours and without technological cooperation with its European and Asian partners. Sanctions that are imposed on Libya would necessarily hit all its Arab, African, Asian, and European partners.

Despite the lack of empirical studies that could provide concrete data on this matter, one can easily discover the inherent shortcomings of sanctions as an instrument of policy at the international level. "Like any tool, [sanctions] are often misused, applied ineptly on behalf of (self-defined) right purposes, or used skillfully on behalf of bad ones (as it is usually the case)".15

9. Regardless of all justifications, sanctions should be seen as an infringement on the basic human right to development. Like all other rights, development assumes freedom to choose its path and to decide its aims and means. Freedom in its widest sense means the human right to self-development, not to a development based on coercion, compulsion and threat originating from outside actors and factors.

Instead of the xenophobic belief that some other nations are somehow inferior and threatening and could only be suppressed and punished, we need, intellectually at least, to develop basic ideas of sovereign equality among citizens as well as nations. This is a task that must begin in the minds of men and women. Likewise, war, sanctions, terrorism, serfdom, domination and dictatorship should end in the same place were sovereign equality begins: namely in the minds of men and women.

It took the USA a civil war to become convinced of the evils of slavery; it has taken the same country a major war in Vietnam to learn that force and killing would never solve problems, subjugate nations or end conflicts. Hopefully, the U.S. will not require another war to become convinced that sanctions are as horrible, abhorrent and terrorist as slavery and war.

10. Instead of adopting U.S. policies of isolation (key slogan: "constructive disengagement"), sanctions and threats, international bodies like the United Nations should emphasize positive ideals of integration, dialogue, communication and understanding among peoples and nations. Only through such means can our one world achieve collective learning and organic development. Excommunication, isolation and sanctions of an interventionist super-state are all ideas that run counter to human logic, history and science.

As rightfully contended by Bertrand Russell16 in regard to the former USSR, "scientific dictatorships will perish through not being sufficiently scientific". Let us endeavour to make the U.S. a global scientific gain for humanity. Let us hope that this particular country in this unipolar international system will not be turned as well into a scientific dictatorship, a result that would be both dictatorial and unscientific.

The negative consequences of this sanctions policy which I have tried to outline above would not be confined to the development of some targeted countries. Likewise, this sanctions policy would impede the development of the U.N. itself. It would impede the development of universal human rights and values as well as world peace and security as a whole. The U.N. structures within this manipulated atmosphere would be susceptible to crises of image, credibility and trustworthiness. In this regard, one can identify three areas of concern that would require deepest thought and analysis:

a) Sanctions resolutions of the U.N. Security Council could confront a large international consensus that speaks against their imposition. The sanctions imposed against Libya represent an example of this situation. In addition to the fact that these resolutions were by no means unanimous within the Security Council, there have been subsequent resolutions issued by the League of Arab States, the Organization of African Unity, the Islamic Conference and the Non-aligned Movement calling for the facilitation of judicial inquiry into the Lockerbie case and advocating dialogue, negotiations, mediation as well as legal settlement to this particular issue. This problematic of having "the few imposing their decisions on the many"17 is a natural result of the small size of the Security Council which is the sole U.N. organ that can impose mandatory sanctions. Such a situation would raise serious questions about the legality, morality and democratic value of the sanctions resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and its "collective" or "multilateral" sanctions.

b) Another major problematic could arise in regard to possible illegal acts that constitute "transgressions and breach of international law" when and if they are committed by any of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members which possess the veto power that is sufficient to defeat even the thinking of imposing sanctions on such privileged states.

c) The idea of economic sanctions itself involves cultural and ideological biases that emphasize a materialistic approach to human behavior at the micro and macro levels. Resting on these materialistic assumptions, the sanctions policy tends to instrumentalize economic strategies of warfare to influence the individual and the collective behavior of the population and leadership of the targeted countries through means of threat and punishment. These materialistic assumptions, however, can by no means represent universally valid and scientifically well proven theories and paradigms.


Bartlett, Bruce, "What's Wrong With Trade Sanctions?", USA Today Magazine, 114 (May 1986), pp. 22-25.

Bhagwati, Jagdish, "Democracy and Development" in Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (eds.).

Boulding, Kenneth E., Three Faces of Power, London: Sage Publications, 1990.

Bulletin of the United States Information Service, U.S. Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London W1A 2LH, September 7, 1996.

Dahl, Robert, "Why Free Markets Are Not Enough?" in L. Diamond and M. F. Plattner (eds.).

Diamond, Larry, and Mark F. Plattner (eds.), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy Revisited. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Dumas, Lloyd (Jeff), "A Proposal for a New United Nations Council on Economic Sanctions", in David Cortright and George A. Lopez (eds.), Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World?, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

Fossedal, Gregory A., "Sanctions for Beginners", in New Republic, 193 (Oct. 21, 1985), pp. 18-21.

Fukuyama, Francis, "Capitalism and Democracy: The Missing Link", in L. Diamond and M. F. Plattner (eds.).

Hondrich, Karl Otto, Lehrmeister Krieg, Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992.

Koechler, Hans, The United Nations Sanctions Policy and International Law, Kuala Lumpur: Just World Trust, 1995.


1) Cited in Hondrich 1992, 110.
2) Bhagwati 1993, 35.
3) Bartlett, 1986.
4) William H. McNeill, cited in Boulding 1990, 11.
5) Fossedal, 1985.
6) Robert Dahl, 1993, 79.
7) Fukuyama, 1993, 100-101.
8) Bartlett, 1986.
9) Bulletin of the U.S. Information Service. U.S. Embassy, London.
10) Fossedal, op.cit.
11) Ibid.
12) Ibid.
13) All three previous quotations are to be found in Bartlett, op. cit.
14) For an elaborate discussion on this issue see Hans Koechler, The United Nations Sanctions Policy and International Law, Kuala Lumpur: Just World Trust, 1995.
15) Fossedal, op. cit. The comments in parentheses are mine.
16) Cited in J. Bhagwati (1993), "Democracy and Development" in Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (eds.), op. cit.
17) Dumas 1995, 191.

Contact address of the author:

c/o Jamahir Society for Culture and Philosophy
A-1180 Vienna/Austria, Haizingergasse 1/5
Phone +431-4781614, fax +431-4795469