Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Mr Rowe

60. Is it not rather paradoxical that, from observation, it would seem that the sanctions, or the threat of it, work rather better against democratic, advanced regimes than anywhere else; our protests about the Americans and the bananas collapsed pretty swiftly? And one does have this slight feeling that the more sophisticated and advanced a nation is the faster it will run away from the thought of effective sanctions being used against it?

 (Mr Brenton) Looking down the list of countries against which the EU and the UN have directed sanctions, there are not many advanced, democratic nations on that list.

61. Exactly.

 (Mr Brenton) The sad fact is that the international recalcitrants with whom we have to deal tend to be thoroughly undemocratic and thoroughly unwilling to fall in with internationally decent modes of behaviour. Now, at that point, the international community faces a very difficult choice; the political pressure to move to the extreme, which is military action, is often completely unjustified by the case. But the international community does need to find a way of trying to influence the behaviour of difficult and threatening regimes, and sanctions have emerged as the middle way between doing nothing, which is obviously unacceptable in certain cases, and going the whole hog of military action. Now it is imperfect, it leaks, people ignore the sanctions, but it is better than nothing, and, provided you can target it and focus it on achievable objectives, it does sometimes produce the result we want, as the Libya example demonstrates.

62. That is a very interesting answer; but my question was different. My question was, is it not observable that the threat of sanctions operates more effectively against sophisticated countries with democratic regimes than it does actually against repressive regimes in third world countries?

 (Mr Brenton) I cannot think of a case where the international community has directed a threat of sanctions against an advanced, democratic country.

63. The United States threatened us pretty severely with trading bans, which I would have called sanctions under another name?

 (Mr Brenton) Okay, but I am using the word "sanctions" in the normal sense in which we use it. Trade warfare is a very different area, and, happily, outside of my parish.

64. So you would not call that a sanction?

 (Mr Brenton) No, I would not, no.

65. That is interesting.

 (Mr Brenton) I need to be very careful here, because I am heavily outside my area, but to the extent that we have a body which regulates these disputes, the World Trade Organisation, and which sanctions certain measures in response to certain trade measures taken by countries, so it all takes place within a legally recognised framework.

66. So how do you define a sanction?

 (Mr Brenton) A sanction, in the EU and in the UN, is action taken by a group of nations, or the international community, against a country which, in some sense, constitutes a threat to international peace and security.

Mr Rowe: Thank you.


67. You have been scatter-gunning these various sanctions around the international world in a fairly libertarian fashion since 1990; is this a product of the fall of the Berlin wall, now that the western world is no longer afraid of repercussions from a powerful eastern neighbour?

 (Mr Brenton) First of all, looking at this list, an awful lot of these sanctions—when people talk about sanctions, they tend to think of comprehensive trade measures; there is only one example of that, really, in the world today, which is Iraq—most of these sanctions are arms embargoes, of one sort or another, and follow the very sensible thought that if you have got an area of military conflict the worst thing to do is to allow arms to be poured into that area. But, to answer your question directly, you are absolutely right, it became much easier, following the end of the cold war, for the UN Security Council to agree to act on particular regional problems, and it stemmed from that, that it did act in the form of sanctions, in quite a lot of regional cases, and it stemmed from that that we are now thinking a little bit about whether we should be being smarter about the way we take these actions.

Chairman: We have actually got about 20 questions and we have now reached the end the second one, so I think perhaps we had better be a little more self-disciplined, if my colleagues will be, and we will go through so that we cover the ground. So, Ann Clwyd, could you continue?

Ann Clwyd

68. At the moment, UN sanctions remain in place until a decision is taken to lift them, and that means that a single, permanent member of the Security Council can veto the lifting of a sanctions regime. Do you think that there is a case for sanctions to have an expiry date?

 (Mr Brenton) I think there is a case, I do not think it is a compelling case. Obviously, the point you make, that sanctions regimes can be maintained against the general will of the international community, is a strong one, but especially in the era, which we hope is coming, of smarter sanctions, where the aim of a sanctions regime is to change the behaviour of a government, part of the force of the regime is precisely that the Government does not know how long it is going to run for. So I think it will depend on the case. But, in general, I believe that when you impose the sanctions regime it is more effective if the Government whose behaviour you are trying to influence does not know how long it is going to be subject to this pressure.

 (Mr Faint) And I think our approach is the alternative one, of trying to set up a situation where there are clear criteria, clear rules, that the regime, the government, should know what it has to deliver, in order for the sanctions to be raised; so that is a kind of exit, when you reach a certain point the sanctions will be raised.

69. Can there ever be a justification for secondary sanctions, that is, to impose sanctions on countries which continue trade and other relations with the target states, if I can put it that way?

 (Mr Brenton) As I have already said, there are various mechanisms around for reinforcing the effect of sanctions, trying to ensure that they are implemented, there are the UN Sanctions Committees, there are various procedures within the EU. It is difficult enough for the international community to decide to target the prime target. I think it would complicate the operation of the regime to add in lots of supplementary targets. But one rather clear area where that, in effect, has happened is the arms embargoes scattered around Rwanda, precisely because all of the countries there were involved in the conflicts in that part of Africa.

Ann Clwyd: Thank you.

Chairman: Can I ask Jenny Tonge to continue on the humanitarian impact of sanctions.

Dr Tonge

70. We have got a quote here from the Save the Children Fund, which I will not do in depth, but it implies that comprehensive economic sanctions, when in place over a prolonged period of time, will violate the legal obligations towards the development and survival of children; and we want to know, please, can sanctions ever be at odds with international humanitarian law?

 (Ms Wilmshurst) International humanitarian law, as such, applies only to situations of armed conflict, so I think the question is probably human rights law generally. I suppose it is conceivable that they could, but in a situation, as all of the ones that we have been speaking of, where humanitarian exceptions are laid down, then the states concerned, in fact, the international community, would not be in breach of obligations under any human rights instrument.

71. We have received quite a lot of evidence on the humanitarian impact of sanctions on countries such as Burundi and Iraq, from various NGOs. Do the Government, or the EU, or the UN, have any mechanism by which they assess the humanitarian impact of a sanctions regime?

 (Mr Brenton) Yes.

72. And how often do you do it?

 (Mr Brenton) It varies according to the regime, but the UN sanctions regimes, to take an example, the sanctions are regularly reviewed and all evidence relative to their working, including their humanitarian impact, feeds into that review. And one document, which I do not think we have let you have but which I think the Committee should have at its disposal, is a set of guidelines for Sanctions Committees, which were agreed at the UN at the beginning of this year, which make it quite clear that Sanctions Committees should look at the humanitarian impact of UN sanctions regimes. I think the Committee might find it useful, and I will pass it on to you.

73. And when you have imposed sanctions on a particular country, the humanitarian effects are looked at on a regular basis?

 (Mr Brenton) Yes.

 (Mr Faint) I think the other observation to make, Chairman, is that, Dr Tonge referred to two cases, in the case of Iraq, that is a sanctions regime put in place by the United Nations, but in the case of Burundi it actually was not, it was a sanctions regime put in place by regional countries. And these international mechanisms that are in place, and are summarised by the President of the Security Council in this Note, do not immediately and directly apply in cases where a sanctions regime is imposed by regional countries, and I think this is an issue with which the international community is grappling. What actually happened in the Burundi case is that, initially, there was general acceptance that the regional countries had a right to take action to try to deal with a regional problem, and then there was increasing concern, as this went on, about the humanitarian effects of the action they were actually taking, which eventually led first to some humanitarian exemptions and eventually to the lifting of the regime altogether.


74. Can I just ask Elizabeth Wilmshurst, what are the main instruments of international humanitarian law?

 (Ms Wilmshurst) International humanitarian law is the Geneva Conventions and the protocols to them; that law applies in armed conflict. But I think what was being asked by Dr Tonge was more widely human rights law, for example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is often quoted in this context.

75. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, yes; and are there other Conventions we should be bearing in mind?

 (Mr Faint) There is the Universal Declaration.

 (Ms Wilmshurst) Yes, they are the international covenants on civil and political rights, and on economic and social rights.

Chairman: It is a developing area, international law, is it not; in fact, we seem to have been rewriting it rather hurriedly in the last 50 days, have we not?

Dr Tonge

76. But it is a very difficult area, is it not, because you say, in one of the memoranda, that sanctions should only be introduced when there is not going to be a disproportionate humanitarian cost; well, how do you assess disproportionate, have you got a little tick column?

 (Mr Faint) You have to both attempt to assess it beforehand, whether the measures being contemplated are, in some sense, proportional to the offence that triggered them, but then, I agree, you cannot do that perfectly in advance, you have to monitor the effects of sanctions as you go along; and this does, on the whole, happen with international and UN sanctions, through the mechanisms that Tony Brenton mentioned.

77. Do you look at the effect of sanctions on particular groups, like children, or women, or people who have not got agricultural land, for instance, are going to be disproportionately affected?

 (Mr Faint) Certainly, in principle, the idea would be that, if there is reason to suppose that sanctions are impacting disproportionately on vulnerable groups, an attempt would be made to measure that effect and devise steps to ameliorate or mitigate it. This is not all that of a straightforward area, of course, you may be dealing with countries where access is not all that easy, you may be dealing with regimes which are not co-operating all that much with international monitors, but, to the best of their ability, the United Nations machine, and particularly the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, attempts to carry out these assessments when asked to do so by the Sanctions Committee or the Security Council.

Ann Clwyd

78. May I come in there, just before we move on. In the memoranda we have received, they have claimed that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions, that malnutrition and diseases have risen dramatically, there is high infant and under-five mortality rates, high maternal mortality, and so on. Is that a picture you recognise, and, if it is, would you claim that it was as a result of sanctions, or for other reasons, or a mixture of both?

 (Mr Chaplin) I think, first, one has to ask where those figures come from, and it is very difficult to get at the basis for those sorts of claims. Certainly, the latest UN report suggests that the "oil for food" programme has had some beneficial impact, so that, for example, malnutrition rates among young children have stabilised in government-controlled Iraq and have fallen quite significantly in northern Iraq; but that is not to say anyone is denying that the humanitarian situation is bad. I would not accept that they were as a result of sanctions. There are these very elaborate arrangements approved by the Security Council for humanitarian exemptions, but the fact is that the regime in Baghdad fails to co-operate with them. And there are all sorts of anomalies, for example, that Iraq, for a start, refused to accept the scheme that was offered as long ago as 1991, and even when a scheme was finally accepted by them they took another 18 months to put it into operation; so we have actually only had an "oil for food" scheme in operation in Iraq since December 1996.

There are other, rather startling anomalies in the way that, for example, Iraq exports food to Syria in significant quantities, while claiming that its people do not have enough to eat. There is a very strange sense of priorities, if one looks in detail at some of the distribution plans which they put forward for approval by the Secretary-General, which happens for every phase under the "oil for food" programme, where they, in the last case, for example, actually reduced the amount of the calorific value of the food basket but put in large sums of money for the import of bank-note counting machines and telecommunications equipment, tens of millions of dollars for those items, but less than before going on the food basket; and there are other examples of extravagant expenditure on non-humanitarian goods. And then there is the problem of distribution, even the stuff that does get into the country, as you may have seen, and I think as is mentioned in the Foreign Secretary's memorandum, that, for example, over half the medicines and medical supplies which have been supplied under this programme, worth $275million, are still sitting in warehouses. So we would argue that all the mechanisms are in place to ensure that the sort of horrific figures which are quoted about the suffering of the Iraqi people are tackled, and one can disagree, or one can debate the details, but no-one is debating the overall picture. But one can, I think, certainly point to the Iraqi regime as being ultimately responsible for that.

 (Mr Faint) I was just going to add to that; yes, it is extremely difficult to target vulnerable groups in a country which has a very recalcitrant regime which does not appear to be terribly interested in those problems. But I think it is fair to say the UK hastaken quite a leading role in trying to improve the way that the humanitarian exemptions to the Iraq sanctions regime work, and I believe we are now proposing some further improvements. One would be to increase the amount of money that is involved in the "oil for food" programme; another would be to simplify somewhat the way the UN bureaucracy goes about its work in getting approval for particular allocations; and a third is allowing a measure of local purchase to take place, which should have the effect of mitigating the effect on the local economy which can result from imports of particularly basic foods. So those are ways in which I think the sanctions regime could, in principle, be further improved; but it is never going to be perfect, especially with a very unco-operative regime at the other end.


79. The FCO says, in its memorandum to us, that humanitarian exemptions are to minimise humanitarian impact on innocent civilians but they should have clear objectives and clear exit strategies, is what I understand you are proposing to do. What account does the Foreign Office take of the Department for International Development's views, in drawing up humanitarian exemptions to sanctions regimes?

(Mr Brenton) Tony may want to add a word; but I would say full account. Sanctions regimes are designed by interested Whitehall Departments, we co-ordinate the group but DFID sit on it and have very clear views on the need to protect vulnerable groups, and their views are taken into account in whatever our proposals finally are.

 (Mr Faint) I think the Government machine would look to DFID to advise on that whole class of issues, yes.

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