Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence


  In response to the Committee's recent announcement of its inquiry into sanctions and invitation for submission of memoranda of evidence, ActionAid is very pleased to attach, by way of submission, an updated summary of a report on sanctions in Burundi which was prepared in December 1998 for ActionAid. The report is by Mr Gregory Mthembu-Salter, a consultant based in Southern Africa who has a very extensive knowledge and experience of the politics and economics of the Great Lakes region and of East and Southern Africa more generally. The summary submitted to the Committee was updated by Gregory in April 1999. The full report represented a follow-up study to an earlier report on Burundi sanctions prepared for ActionAid by Gregory in February 1997.

  We must make it clear that the conclusions reached in the report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ActionAid. We nevertheless commend the report highly to the Committee for the high quality of the analysis, and because it raises a number of crucially important issues of concern in situations of regional—as opposed to UN—sanctions imposed against poor countries.

  We would like to pinpoint here some of the issues discussed in Gregory's report that ActionAid would particlarly urge the Committee to explore in the course of its inquiry.

  First, the Burundi case highlights the importance of looking beyond UN sanctions. ActionAid's own experience of working in countries under sanctions is dominated by our recent experience in Burundi and Sierra Leone. In both cases, comprehensive embargoes were imposed by neighbouring governments of the region. In the case of Sierra Leone, the UN only imposed its own limited sanctions some months after the regional embargo had already been imposed by the neighbouring ECOWAS states. In Burundi, regional governments took their own action, perhaps partly in the knowledge that any potential imposition of UN (or even OAU) sanctions would be seriously hampered by delay and/or lack of political will. So the UN played only a secondary role in the sanctions against Sierra Leone, and almost no role in the sanctions against Burundi. The increasing recourse to sanctions as a substitute for military action witnessed over recent years, plus the growing international emphasis on "regional solutions to regional problems" and the likely consequent decline in UN action in Africa and elsewhere, make it imperative that more account be taken of regional sanctions regimes in current debates and discussions about sanctions.

  Crucial questions have yet to be adequately addressed regarding the role of the UN system in situations of regional sanctions, including, potentially, a greater role for the UN in monitoring the imposition (and violations) of the sanctions, and in monitoring humanitarian exemption arrangements and the impacts of sanctions. Gregory's report draws attention to the importance of ensuring high standards of sanctions monitoring—something which was not achieved in Burundi. Indeed, in this case, the regional governments imposing the sanctions appear to have been among the first to violate them, illustrating the potential for a combination of vested interests and economic pressures to undermine multilateral sanctions regimes after their initial imposition. In Sierra Leone, the humanitarian exemptions eventually written into the ECOWAS embargo and included in the later UN sanctions were not honoured on the ground, with the result that no food and almost no medicine entered the country throughout the period that the rebels held power. Yet arms continued to flow across the border.

  The Burundi experience highlights the difficult political issues raised by UN and donor involvement in regional sanctions situations. Gregory argues that the international community kept relatively quiet about the sanctions against Burundi until mid-1998, despite discontent about the sanctions among Western states and humanitarian agencies, partly for fear of undermining the assertion by the region of "African solutions to African problems". But as the embargo continued, donors increased their pressure for the sanctions to be lifted. The combination of the regional inflexibility on lifting the sanctions—linked in large part to the extent to which the sanctions had themselves become embroiled in the complex politics and competing political agendas of the region—and external donor pressure to see the sanctions lifted, resulted, Gregory argues, in the sanctions being suspended at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. This, he insists, has undermined sanctions as an effective policy instrument in the region, and represents something of a blow to African diplomacy.

  The Burundi experience also raises important but difficult questions about the assistance role of the major donors and official creditors where regional sanctions have been imposed against a poor country. Gregory observes that the sanctions against Burundi had their major economic impact through the resulting de facto freeze on donor financing in the country, and the consequent escalation in internal debt and external debt arrears. Indeed, he concludes that Burundi has suffered more from reduced access to international funds than from the embargo itself. Yet, since the suspension of sanctions, there has only been a small increase in international aid to Burundi. A recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group ("Quelles conditions pour la reprise de la cooperation au Burundi?", April 1999; comments that the full resumption of assistance to Burundi will depend on a peace agreement being reached at Arusha. The report warns that donor pressure for an agreement to be signed, plus Burundi's desperation for foreign aid to resume, could result in rushed negotiations and cosmetic reforms, rather than a comprehensive peace process which addresses all the many obstacles to peace in the country.

  It should be recognised that humanitarian exemptions can never compensate on their own for the social damage and decline in social indicators caused by comprehensive embargoes against poor countries. Gregory draws attention to the deep and long-term damage caused to Burundi's economy by the combination of war, drought and sanctions. But he notes that the far-reaching social and economic consequences of reduced foreign reserves, currency depreciation, inflation, falling wage levels and negative or minimal GDP growth cannot be corrected by exempting the importation of anything.

  In this context, it is important to note that so-called "smart sanctions" such as visa restrictions and financial sanctions—an issue that has recently come to dominate much of the sanctions debate in the North—were simply not an option for those countries imposing sanctions against Burundi and Sierra Leone. Because of the logistical challenges involved and the limited ability of most states to apply such measures, sanctions are likely to continue to take the form of comprehensive trade embargoes when they are imposed by regional governments or regional organisations. As a consequence, the economic and humanitarian impacts of embargoes and humanitarian exemption arrangements will remain crucial issues that cannot be side-stepped by discussion of "smart sanctions".

  A number of recent studies on sanctions highlight, among other things, the political importance of minimising the negative humanitarian and social impacts of sanctions in the target state. We would like to commend to the Committee, in particular, a study prepared in 1998 for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade by Barry Burciul, entitled: "United Nations Sanctions: Policy Options for Canada". The report represents an impressive and comprehensive appraisal of the key political, administrative and humanitarian challenges that need to be addressed in systems of UN-sponsored sanctions. One of the report's key conclusions is that effective efforts to mitigate the humanitarian impact of sanctions are likely to increase the political effectiveness of these measures, rather than weaken them. In the light of the failure of humanitarian exemptions in Sierra Leone and the problems experienced with exemptions in Burundi, urgent attention needs to be given to improving and strengthening systems for administering and enforcing humanitarian exemptions.

  Overall, much greater effort needs to be made in future by regional governments, regional organisations, and by the UN and major donors, to ensure the highest standards of monitoring of sanctions and their impacts; to ensure that humanitarian exemption mechanisms function as intended and are not impeded in any way; to ensure that the common political objectives of those imposing the sanctions remain clear, focused, explicit and understood by the target states, and closely linked to a clear and agreed process for lifting the sanctions according to achievement of the political objectives; and to ensure that the sanctions are flanked by an effective process of constructive diplomacy.

  The Government has recently completed a review of its policy on sanctions, with the involvement of all relevant Whitehall departments. While this is to be welcomed, we are concerned that the results of this review are to remain confidential. We urge the Committee to seek detailed clarification of the Government's evolving policy on sanctions from the FCO, MoD, DFID, DTI and Treasury, and to appeal to the Government to take due account of the issues raised in this submission.

  We hope very much that this submission will assist the Committee in its inquiry into sanctions. We look forward to seeing the Committee's report on the inquiry when it is concluded.

Salil Shetty
Chief Executive, ActionAid

6 May 1999

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