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Sanctions, the dividing line between good and evil

13 October 2021

Every time new human rights violations from Belarus come to light, the call for sanctions grows louder. But do sanctions help? Could the Netherlands use them as a means with which to express its dissatisfaction with the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland? Francesco Giumelli, associate professor of International Relations with a specialization in sanctions, has been considering these questions for years.

Text: Franka Hummels; Photo: Joris van Gennip / ANP

Francesco Giumelli

Francesco Giumelli: ‘When thinking about sanctions, people usually think about sanctions against an entire country. For example, they might consider the sanctions imposed against Iraq in the 1990s. Today, however, such sanctions are no longer used. Countries currently always work with “targeted sanctions”, which are directed only against specific people, companies, or sectors of the economy. For example, political leaders might be banned from entering the country or have their foreign assets frozen. Sectors could include wood, copper, or gold. Arms embargoes are obviously another well-known example. In many cases, however, it is still permitted to supply a UN peacekeeping mission that is active in the country in question.

The fact that sanctions are currently targeted does not mean that they have no effects that extend beyond the individuals to whom they apply. After all, it is not the government that must ultimately implement the sanctions, but companies. They do not always start by carefully considering whether someone is indeed suspicious or not; they play it safe. For example, you might be having a beer in the Drie Gezusters one night and suddenly realize that you are no longer able to pay. Your name might resemble that of someone on the list of people associated with al-Qaeda.

The effectiveness of sanctions is a difficult question. It assumes that there is also an alternative that would yield as much or more at less cost. This is almost never the case. In reality, by the time that sanctions enter the picture, the situation is so bad that there are very few diplomatic tools that could change anything. In the case of Belarus, it could be said that sanctions are not working: human rights violations continue to occur. On the other hand, a choice was made to impose sanctions that do not affect most “ordinary” Belarusians. Their suffering has thus not been increased, as only the leaders have been affected by the “targeted sanctions”.’

The Belarusian opposition in Lithuania calls for hard economic sanctions. This desire is even endorsed by many Belarusians in the country. They hope that such sanctions will have the effect of draining the state treasury to such an extent that the military police and the army can no longer be paid, so that they will decide to turn against the government. Is that a good idea?

‘Opposition politicians often ask the international community for this, as was the case with Myanmar and Zimbabwe. Those people are thus in exile, and not the ones who would suffer from the sanctions. Even if the desire were to be widely supported within the country, however, it is important to consider whether it would be worth it. This is because it’s always a gamble. It could be that even more people are joining the government because they blame the European Union for inflicting such poverty upon them. One thing that we can be certain of is that sanctions would cause a great deal of misery for many people in the country.

Another puzzle that should be solved before deciding to impose sanctions involves calculating the costs of the sanctions for your own economy. For example, consider the sanctions against Russia. Those sanctions resulted in major losses for business owners in the Netherlands, for example, because they could no longer export cheese, while Russian cheese manufacturers started reaping high profits because they had a large domestic market for the first time. As scientists, however, it is not up to us to make any judgements about that. We provide the analysis. The ultimate decision must come from politicians. It is always a moral choice.’

Could sanctions also be a means of punishing Hungary and Poland for their restriction of gay rights and their governmental influence on the judiciary?

‘For the EU, this would constitute a “domestic” affair. On paper, the answer would be “yes, we could do that.” In practice, however, that possibility has never been applied. It is a difficult procedure to impose sanctions and, in many cases, they are likely to have counter-productive effects. If sanctions are imposed, the conflict that they are intended to resolve is likely to be exacerbated.’

Is there a difference between European sanctions and US sanctions? For example, in the case of Syria, we can see that the European sanctions that have been in place for years have had little impact, although the US sanctions that have been in effect since last year have brought the economy to the brink of collapse.

‘European sanctions apply to companies that are based in Europe. The Americans extend this much further. For example, if an Indian company were to do business in Syria, it would no longer be able to do business in the US. American banks would exclude such a company as a customer, and they would risk losing their ability to conduct transactions in dollars. We are now seeing that Russia and China are inclined to copy the American way of imposing sanctions. This will radically change the diplomatic playing field. It will be exciting to see how this will turn out.’

‘Sometimes experts even say that sanctions are “only symbolic”. In foreign politics, however, symbols are everything, and not only with regard to who we are or what our values are. In some cases, it is a legal requirement. For example, the UN Security Council cannot choose to deploy a heavy weapon (e.g. military action) until it has first considered sanctions.

In addition to sending a signal to those on whom they are imposed, sanctions send a signal to the entire world. They let the people in the country concerned know that we have seen them and that we are taking their side. It shows people in other countries where we stand. Consider the European sanctions against Russia. No one thought that they would actually resolve anything in Eastern Ukraine. They were imposed after the MH17 disaster, however, because doing nothing was no longer an option. For the thousands of surviving relatives, this was a significant signal.

Sanctions are ultimately the dividing line between good and evil—between what we consider acceptable and what we consider unacceptable.’

CV

Francesco Giumelli studied political science and international relations in Bologna and Boston, and he completed a doctorate in Florence in 2009. He has worked at several universities in the United States, and he was an assistant professor in Prague for five years before coming to Groningen in 2013. Since 2019, Giumelli has been an associate professor in the Department of International Relations and International Organization (IRIO) within the Faculty of Arts.

Last modified:11 October 2021 2.46 p.m.
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