Select Committee on Economic Affairs Second Report


The fall and possible rise of comprehensive sanctions

25.  Comprehensive economic sanctions are those which seek to deny a target state all normal international financial, trade and service interactions except those exempted on humanitarian grounds. The four most prominent cases since 1945 where they have been applied are the sanctions imposed on Rhodesia, South Africa, Yugoslavia, and Iraq. In the first two cases, the object was to bring to an end white minority rule ('regime change')[8]; in the third, to end the fighting in Bosnia; and in the fourth, to secure several major objectives. Rhodesia, Yugoslavia and Iraq were subjected to mandatory UN sanctions, but South Africa was not, except for the mandatory arms embargo imposed in 1977. The case of Iraq involved a complicated and still debated mix of motives discussed below.

26.  Before turning to Iraq, we briefly summarise evidence received on the results of comprehensive sanctions imposed on Rhodesia, South Africa, and Yugoslavia.

27.  Following the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by the white minority regime in Rhodesia on 11 November 1965, Britain imposed an escalating set of economic sanctions, which culminated in a total ban on Rhodesian exports to and imports from British territories, and an embargo on all financial dealings of British subjects with Rhodesia. The Commonwealth and other countries followed Britain's lead. The United States (US) and France imposed oil embargoes in December 1965, and France restricted the imports of tobacco and sugar. The UN voted to impose mandatory sanctions on 16 December 1966, which by 1968 comprised a total ban on Rhodesian trade (except for a few humanitarian items), an embargo on capital dealings, and the severance of all communications. Following the outbreak of guerrilla warfare in 1972, and the collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1975, the white regime of Ian Smith surrendered, and Robert Mugabe became prime minister of an independent Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980. Security Council sanctions were lifted on 21 December 1979.

28.  Economic sanctions were not decisive in ending UDI. Rhodesia was able, with difficulty, to adapt its economy to the situation, and to organise "sanctions busting" through South Africa and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. The US also made an exception for imports of chrome ore, because otherwise it would have had to import it from the USSR. Nevertheless, sanctions did play a part in bringing about "regime change". In the particular circumstances of white minority rule, the humanitarian suffering which sanctions caused did not strengthen the legitimacy of the regime. Instead, it caused a sharp escalation in the level of guerrilla warfare. Sanctions combined with intensifying guerrilla warfare eroded white morale, and there was a flight of white settlers after 1975. The withdrawal of South African support for UDI in 1976 was probably decisive. Even if economic sanctions helped to create a situation that eventually ended the rebellion, the ability of 250,000 white settlers to defy the international community for 15 years is hardly striking testimony to their efficacy.

29.  Except for a ban on arms sales in 1977, South Africa was never subjected to mandatory UN economic sanctions, but rather to a steadily escalating array of sanctions recommended by the UN and imposed by groups of nations (chiefly the Commonwealth and the EU). According to Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State, FCO:

    "Sanctions against South Africa undoubtedly highlighted South Africa's isolation, and I think that that sense of isolation is … very important. The idea of being a pariah state somehow tends to focus the mind; at least, it has in some governments. The sanctions increased the cost to South Africa of borrowing money internationally, which was, of course, a factor in their eventual decision to reform, and the gradual lifting of sanctions from 1991 helped to ensure white support for reforms." (Q 286)

30.  Economic sanctions did not bring the South African economy to its knees. But the growing isolation of South Africa, of which economic sanctions were one element and the severance of sporting links another, and lack of support for its position in Europe and North America, helped convince the South African government and its domestic supporters that their attempt to maintain white supremacy was ultimately doomed to failure. As Lord Renwick indicated in his evidence, this persuaded President F.W. de Klerk, under strong pressure from the South African business community, to negotiate a peaceful and orderly transfer of power to the ANC through free elections in which people of all races would take part on equal terms (Q 276).

31.  In the case of Yugoslavia, the UN Security Council decided to impose a complete economic embargo and blockade on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in May 1992, after receiving evidence of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. The sanctions lasted for three and half years, but for much of that period they were very unevenly enforced. Over time, sanctions had a huge impact on Serbia's economy. Dr Howells said in his evidence: "I think the military action and sanctions against the Bosnian Serbs certainly paved the way for the Dayton negotiations. The sanctions seemed to lever concessions from Milosevic at Dayton." (Q 286)

32.  In our view, the decisive factors in bringing Serbia to the negotiating table at Dayton were the military defeat of Bosnian Serb nationalist forces by a Croatian and Bosnian government ground offensive, supplemented by NATO aerial bombing in August 1995. However, we agree that anxiety to get sanctions lifted was probably the most important motive in persuading President Slobodan Milosevic to negotiate the Dayton accords in 1995 as Croatia had taken all the territory it wanted, the Bosnian government was incapable of fighting on its own and the possibility of renewed NATO aerial bombing was not prominent.

33.  The sanctions applied against Iraq in the 1990s represent the last case to date in which comprehensive UN economic sanctions have been applied against a country. We have given prominence to the Iraq case because in evidence it was routinely characterised as pivotal in the evolution of sanctions policy. In particular, the perceived humanitarian costs arising from sanctions on Iraq are often cited as the key factor driving the move from general to targeted sanctions policy.

34.  The experience of comprehensive sanctions on Iraq has led many to argue that they should never be used again. For example, Mr Carne Ross, First Secretary at the UK Permanent Mission to the UN from 1999 to 2003, stated: "I do not think that comprehensive economic sanctions should ever be imposed, on any country, ever again, because of what they did to the Iraqi people" (Q 128). Similarly, Mr Hans von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq between 1998 and 2000 argued that humanitarian exemptions were sufficient to "limit the severity of the human costs of comprehensive economic sanctions sufficiently to make its use legitimate". (p 169)

35.  Nevertheless, the Government suggests that comprehensive sanctions have worked and could work again in the future. Mr Pattison told us:

    "The trend towards smarter sanctions … has continued to develop … That does not mean, I think, that comprehensive sanctions can be completely ruled out. In the British Government in our review of sanctions policy conducted in 1998 and reported to Parliament in 1999, we were very careful not to rule it out." (Q 3)

Similarly, Dr Kim Howells stated:

    "I do not think we can abandon the weapon of comprehensive sanctions because there will be situations in the future, as I suspect there may even be at the moment, where comprehensive sanctions probably could do more good than damage." (Q 299)

Dr Howells and Mr Pattison both cited the case of Yugoslavia and Dayton discussed above in support of this position. (Q 13, Q 286)

Iraq: Extensive compliance despite conflicting objectives

36.  Following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, in August 1990, the UN demanded in Security Council Resolution (SCR) 660 that Iraq should withdraw unilaterally and unconditionally, and in SCR 661 it imposed comprehensive sanctions in support of SCR 660. In November 1990, sanctions were supplemented by the threat of force in SCR 678, authorising the use of "all necessary means" to uphold and implement SCR 660. Although the sanctions began to inflict significant costs on the Iraqi economy, and were supplemented by the threat of force, Iraq did not withdraw and a US-led UN coalition finally expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait in February 1991. This episode thus reflected a failure of sanctions and military threats.

37.  After the Iraqis had been expelled from Kuwait, the Security Council set out in SCR 687 conditions for lifting sanctions. Under the terms of the resolution, Iraq was required to renounce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and ballistic missiles with a range of over 150 km, and co-operate fully on weapons issues with the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) and accept permanent monitoring and verification of its compliance (set out in SCR 715). Iraq was also required to recognize Kuwait and its borders, accept a monitored and demilitarized zone, accept liability for losses and damages caused by the invasion, return property stolen from Kuwait, repatriate Kuwaiti and other nationals taken prisoner, and renounce terrorism. These were the conditions only for the lifting of sanctions on exports by Iraq and related financial transactions (SCR 687, paragraph 22). The conditions for lifting the sanctions on non-military imports by Iraq were left undefined (SCR 687, paragraph 21).

38.  Iraq accepted the establishment of a permanent monitoring and verification system; recognised Kuwait and its borders; accepted the demilitarised zone; paid billions of dollars of compensation for the costs associated with invading Kuwait via a 30% deduction from funds raised by UN-authorised Oil-For-Food (OFF) programme oil sales but without accepting formal liability; returned some of the property it took from Kuwait; and claimed to have repatriated all those it had captured, though some dispute over this remained.[9] In relation to what was widely seen as the most important issue, Iraq eliminated its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) stocks and production programmes unilaterally in 1991, although it was not possible to verify fully the regime's claim to have done so until after the invasion.[10] This explains why, as Hans Blix, Director General of the IAEA 1981-1997 and then Executive Chairman of the UN Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) 2000-2003, stated: "The long period of inspections from 1992 to the end of 1998 had yielded much insight into the Iraqi weapons programs but no significant finds of hidden weapons".[11] Hence it can be concluded that Iraq complied with most of what was demanded of it, even though the conditions imposed for the lifting of sanctions were extremely demanding.

39.  The UN became aware in 1992 of the fact of unilateral destruction of WMD. From that point on, the issue for the weapons inspectors was acquiring the documentary and physical evidence necessary to confirm that no hidden capabilities remained.[12] Iraq secretly retained a documentary archive to make reconstituting its WMD programmes easier once sanctions were lifted. A high level defection led to the loss of this archive to UN weapons inspectors in 1995 and continuing Iraqi obstructiveness fuelled suspicions, which turned out to be inaccurate, that they were hiding substantial capabilities. In fact, Iraq's obstructiveness seemed to be influenced by various factors unrelated to hiding forbidden weapons capabilities.[13] The units which had been concealing the archive were also those responsible for presidential security and so Iraq would not permit a full investigation of their activities; and there was a suspicion that the US would be able to prevent the lifting of the sanctions no matter what the regime did. Both of these factors were linked to the fact that successive US administrations had publicly and privately advocated regime change in Iraq, either through a military coup or, in the end, through invasion.

40.  What brought about this extensive if incomplete Iraqi disarmament and compliance? Mr Singleton, Dr Alexander, Mr Vines and Mr Ross all agreed in their evidence that the economic sanctions caused so much damage to the Iraqi economy that they prevented the revival of Iraq's WMD programmes, with Mr Ross also emphasising the role of the sanctions combined with the arms embargo in limiting Iraq's conventional military capabilities.[14] The US Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which had full access to senior officials and documents captured following the invasion in 2003, concurred with these judgements in placing primary emphasis on the sanctions, their cumulative effects into the mid-1990s and the urgency of the regime's desire to find a way to end them.[15] In its evidence, the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) expressed the view that the sanctions influenced the regime, but saw the timescale of their effects as limited to the first two or three years (pp 133-138). The views of Hans Blix are closer to those of the ISG than CAABU on this issue: "Each time the regime had made what it saw as concessions on the inspection front, it had been in response to the carrot being dangled in front of it: the possibility of an UNSCOM report that disarmament had been achieved, and a resultant lifting of sanctions by the Security Council."[16] The most detailed evidence was provided by Mr Ross. He suggested that "sanctions on Iraq were successful in many significant ways" in making it decide to destroy its WMD and medium-range ballistic missiles, preventing it from rearming significantly with conventional weapons or WMD and forcing it "sporadically" to comply with UN weapons inspections (p 44).

41.  Mr Ross suggested that the impact of sanctions in disarming Iraq and keeping it disarmed was not recognised because the real US objective was regime change (Q 133). The US objective of regime change in Iraq became formal and public policy in 1998 once President Bill Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. However, sanctions were not seen by the US as the means of achieving regime change and so this cannot be treated as a failure of sanctions. The US expected to retain sanctions until the regime changed, with the chosen means being military coup, a technique which failed, and then invasion, which succeeded.[17] Mr Blix stated that Saddam Hussein "may well have come to believe ... that the U.S. would allow sanctions to disappear only if he himself disappeared".[18] If this was the case, then it represented a failure not of economic sanctions but of diplomacy in not persuading him that compliance would be rewarded. Alternatively, it represented a success for US diplomacy in keeping the sanctions in place until he could be removed by other means. In any case, despite the doubts he may have had that compliance would be rewarded, Saddam Hussein still cooperated periodically, at times in the hope that it would, according to Mr Blix.

42.  Mr Ross also argued that the sanctions were not "particularly successful in political terms" because, in his view, Iraq could have been contained and coerced into complying more effectively by a greater effort to end its oil exports outside of UN control, backed by threats and use of force; because it took the threat of invasion in 2003 for Iraq to permit the return of UN weapons inspectors after they left in 1998; and because the sanctions hurt the Iraqi people, the reputation of the UK Government and the long-term health of the Iraqi economy (pp 43-47, QQ 129, 154). Also in a critical vein, Dr Alexander emphasised that Saddam Hussein's intent to revive his WMD remained, and Mr Singleton stated that he thought the sanctions had failed overall (Q 115).

43.  The threat of force and its actual use were a constant accompaniment to the sanctions, and consideration needs to be given to its role in generating the concessions made by Iraq. The infrastructural damage caused by the aerial bombing in 1991 was severe. The regime seemed to expect the sanctions to be lifted quickly, but when it realised that this was not the case, the massive economic setback caused by the bombing led to real urgency in its efforts to get the sanctions lifted. Hence the most significant steps in Iraq's disarmament and cooperation in the early 1990s appear to have been caused by the sanctions and bombing in combination. Going further than this and attaching primary significance to either factor will remain a matter of debate and interpretation.

44.  After this initial period and up to the end of 2002, episodes of Iraqi compliance with UN demands were sometimes related to the prospect of a possible end to sanctions and at others to averting the use of force by the US and the UK. The credibility of military threats was reinforced by the existence of the no-fly zones in the north and south, periodic aerial and explicit threats.[19] However, the ISG concluded that: "Throughout the 1990s, Saddam … rated the probability of an invasion [by the US] as very low."[20] In addition, the bombing campaign of Operation Desert Fox of December 1998, instead of producing more Iraqi cooperation, resulted in Iraq refusing to permit the return of weapons inspectors until November 2002 (the UN had ordered their withdrawal just before Desert Fox). From late 2002 onwards, Iraqi cooperation was a product of trying to avert the threat of imminent invasion rather than secure the lifting of sanctions.

The human costs

45.  The primary victim was Iraq's civilian population, part of which suffered terrible hardship. Efforts to alleviate this through waivers for food and medical supplies, and by allowing Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to finance the purchase of other such goods, were largely defeated by the Iraqi regime. It inflamed popular feeling within Iraq against the sanctions-imposing powers, elicited humanitarian sympathy around the world, exploited the black market (and probably also manipulated the oil market) for financial gain, and used its control over scarce foreign exchange and other commodities to reward its supporters and so maintain itself in power.

46.  Dr Howells and the FCO emphasised the role of the regime in the suffering of Iraqis in the period of the sanctions, while Mr Ross and Mr von Sponeck both emphasised the severity of the sanctions.[21] A report produced by the Independent Working Group of the Independent Inquiry Committee (otherwise known as the Volcker Commission) concluded that the Iraqi sanctions "led to deprivations of food and medicine, with consequences worsened by damage to infrastructure that was not quickly repaired" but that the "mitigation of these effects by humanitarian relief was partially effective". It also concluded that "broad sanctions plus relief would always lead to some damage to health and nutrition, and to loss of life". [22] It is predictable that sanctions which inflict high economic costs on a country run by a ruthless government are likely to result in severe suffering among the general population even if there are humanitarian exemptions and relief programmes.

The overall record of comprehensive sanctions

47.  A number of those giving evidence pointed out that sanctions forced the Iraqi population to depend on rations distributed by the government, and that this provided the regime with an instrument of political pressure and control.[23] Several witnesses made the point that sanctions permitted the Iraqi government to avoid blame for economic problems (and the same was said regarding US unilateral sanctions on Cuba). The regime was able to make approximately $2 billion from abusing the OFF programme by such methods as false pricing and bribes from suppliers, but its main source of income was oil exports outside of UN control which generated a total of around $12 billion (mostly through trade protocols with Jordan and Turkey).[24] When economic sanctions are relatively weak in their economic effects, they can have the overall net effect of strengthening the target regime by legitimizing it, by strengthening its control command over resources, or both. Where the economic effects of sanctions are more severe, they can have the effect of weakening the target regime's overall capabilities to act, especially in foreign policy, but the regime can still turn aspects of sanctions to its advantage and increase its internal control.

48.  In two of the four cases (Rhodesia and South Africa), comprehensive economic sanctions contributed in only a secondary way to achieving the goals set. Force was decisive and sanctions irrelevant to forcing Yugoslavia to the negotiating table, although sanctions were central to ensuring Yugoslavia's acceptance of the Dayton peace agreement at a time when renewed use of force was improbable. In the case of Iraq, the most important concessions were produced not by sanctions alone but by sanctions and force combined. Overall, comprehensive economic sanctions have not achieved major goals without being combined with or preceded by the threat or use of force and have inflicted considerable harm on civilian populations.

8   A number of witnesses expressed the view that sanctions contributed substantially to the end of white minority rule in both South Africa and Rhodesia. Written evidence from Margaret Doxey (p 139) and Kern Alexander (p 28). Mr Singleton referred to the importance of sanctions in the South African case. Oral evidence from Alex Singleton (Q 95). Back

9   See Eric Hoskins, "Humanitarian Impacts of Economic Sanctions and War in Iraq", "in Thomas G. Weiss, David Cortright, George A. Lopez and Larry Minear (eds), Political Gain and Civilian Pain (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).  Back

10   Scott Ritter, Iraq Confidential (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), esp. pp. 38-42, 111, 289. Back

11   Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p. 28. See also p. 29. Back

12   Ritter, Iraq Confidential. Back

13   Iraq Survey Group, Final Report, 30 September 2004, Vol. 1, Strategic Intent, p. 34; Ritter, Iraq Confidential. Back

14   Oral evidence from Alex Singleton (QQ 115-118); written evidence from Kern Alexander (p 25) and Alex Vines (p 108 ); written and oral evidence from Carne Ross (p 43-47, QQ 123-129). Back

15   Iraq Survey Group (ISG), Final Report, 30 September 2004, Vol. 1, Strategic Intent, pp. 34, 44-45.  Back

16   Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), p. 36. Back

17   See Ritter, Iraq Confidential, especially pp. 47-76, 127-132, 151-156, 162-170, 219, 274. Back

18   Blix, Disarming Iraq, p 36. Back

19   Written evidence from Carne Ross (pp 44-47) and oral evidence from Carne Ross (QQ 129-147); Ritter, Iraq Confidential, e.g. p. 253. Back

20   ISG Final Report p. 31. Back

21   Oral evidence from Kim Howells (QQ 285-287, 291-293); and written evidence from the FCO (p 1), Carne Ross (pp 43-44) and Hans Von Sponeck (pp 168-170). Back

22   The Impact of the Oil-For-Food Programme on the Iraqi People, 7 September 2005, p. 189. Back

23   Written evidence from Carne Ross (pp 44-45), Jeremy Carver (pp 129-130) and CAABU (pp 134-135); and oral evidence from Lord Renwick (QQ 276-281). Back

24   Written evidence from Carne Ross (pp 44-47). As Mr Ross pointed out, the figures were calculated by the Iraq Survey Group and are similar to the estimates arrived at by the Volcker Commission. Back

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