Sanctions Bad

Sanctions causing mass starvation in Afghanistan

Murtaza Hussain, January 9, 2022, The Silence — or Worse — of Human Rights Hawks on U.S. Sanctions Against Afghanistan,

MONTHS AFTER THE U.S.-backed Afghan government fell to the Taliban, ordinary Afghans now face what could be their direst winter in decades. Thanks to the economic collapse that accompanied the U.S. military withdrawal, coupled with the imposition of sanctions and the cessation of much humanitarian aid, millions of Afghans must contend with the very real prospect of starvation. Some will die. Many will lose their lives to preventable deaths. While limited humanitarian exceptions for trade have been carved out in recent weeks, the World Health Organization has already warned that up to 1 million Afghan children may die as a result of malnutrition over this winter if drastic steps are not taken. Children are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying stories of kids being sold to pay for food. And the country’s notoriously harsh winter is already taking a toll: Afghans are freezing to death as they flee the country with their families. U.S. sanctions policy is directly to blame, pushing Afghans over the edge as they already struggle to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the political upheaval created by the collapse of the central government. As Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote this December, after returning from a trip to Afghanistan on behalf of the WHO, “I can clearly state that if the United States and other Western governments do not change their Afghanistan sanction policies, more Afghans will die from sanctions than at the hands of the Taliban.” The deaths will be brought about as a result of deliberate policy decisions made in the U.S. Alongside new sanctions imposed after the Taliban takeover, the U.S. froze nearly $10 billion of Afghanistan’s central bank holdings here. The Biden administration refuses to release the funds despite ongoing public protests by Afghans. As all of this plays out, the clamor of voices criticizing the U.S. military withdrawal this summer on humanitarian grounds has gone deadly silent. After the withdrawal, many commentators and political leaders claimed that there was a humanitarian imperative behind the conflict, particularly the protection Afghan women. Many of the humanitarian and feminist arguments had been used for years to help justify a military occupation that was often despised by the same people it was ostensibly defending. In contrast, ending the current sanctions regime and releasing funds owned by Afghans actually would do something unambiguously positive for civilians there, including women and children who are particularly at risk. The cognitive dissonance on display is perhaps best underlined by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This summer, McCaul decried the fate of Afghan women. “We’re seeing this nightmare unfold — unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” he said in an interview. “And what I really worried about the most are the women left behind and what’s going to happen to them.” When the Biden administration then put sanctions exemptions in place to allow some humanitarian aid, McCaul then turned around to condemn the limited relief — even as news reports described the economic collapse wreaking havoc on the lives of Afghans, including women and children. Many Failures of Sanctions Sanctions are one of the bluntest coercive tools in the U.S. foreign policy toolkit — and happen be a favorite of policymakers, even as they rarely produce political results. Afghanistan is just one example of a mindlessly cruel sanctions regime that wreaks havoc on entire civilian populations without accountability. For decades, Iranians have been subjected to some of the most crushing sanctions on earth. Obstacles are erected against even the most anodyne business ventures. Young people there are unable to envision a fruitful life in the country. The sanctions on Iran were intensified under the Trump administration but have continued under President Joe Biden, as part of a desperate effort to force a total capitulation over Iran’s nuclear program. Even Cold War-era sanctions on countries like Cuba continue to remain in effect to this day, absent any compelling geopolitical reasons. In a recent example that underlined the parodic nature of the Cuba sanctions policy, the rental company Airbnb was hit with a fine for doing business on the island and allowing Cubans access to its accommodation services. This was just the latest limitation on ordinary Cubans’ ability to conduct basic economic transactions or engage in trade with companies headquartered abroad and thus at risk of U.S. sanctions. Despite being in place for years and making life hard for Cubans, the sanctions have done little to further U.S. foreign policy objectives. “The sanctions on Cuba have been completely ineffective in achieving their policy goals,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University and an expert on the Cuban sanctions regime. “They haven’t brought about regime change. All they’ve done really is inflict pain on the Cuban people.” The situation in Afghanistan may yet stand out as one of the deadliest instances of violence against civilians inflicted by U.S. sanctions. The Afghan government that was built over two decades of American occupation was created to be wholly dependent on foreign support, particularly its health care system. With the abrupt withdrawal of aid and the imposition of sanctions, millions of Afghans, including women and children, are now at risk. It seems unlikely that sanctions will do what 20 years of war could not: build a stable government that keeps the Taliban out of power. More stories of starvation, death from the cold, and families broken apart by economic need are likely to result from the present approach of preventing access to funds owned by the Afghan government and denying aid. And it seems unlikely that such measures will do what 20 years of war could not: build a stable government that keeps the Taliban out of power. Though sanctions on Afghanistan won’t achieve U.S. political aims, they are, as in so many other countries, succeeding in visiting cruel consequences upon the most vulnerable. House Democrats have called on Biden to release funds owned by Afghanistan’s central bank, but the administration has so far been resistant to this step. One reason could be that reversing course would reveal the brutality of the underlying policy — employing sanctions to deny foreign nations’ central banks access to their funds — which the U.S. government continues to do in other cases. Meanwhile, the broader sanctions regime on Afghanistan remains in place, with ordinary Afghans bearing the brunt. “To help Afghanistan make progress on the humanitarian front, it is simply not enough to just give aid to Afghanistan. Washington’s financial warfare against the country must end,” wrote Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project. “Those in the West who voiced so much concern about the lack of freedom for Afghan women under the Taliban ought to also care about their survival this winter.”

Targeted sanctions destroy the lives of civilians

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor of Peace Studies emeritus, at the Kroc Institute of the University of Notre Dame, January 7, 2022, TIME TO RECALIBRATE US SANCTIONS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS,

As we finish the first year of the Biden administration it has become clear that targeted economic sanctions have been the president’s preferred tool to punish dictators in the hope of stifling human rights abuses. In wielding such sanctions, the administration faces the most challenging of many sanctions’ dilemmas. In pressuring for civil and political rights, coercive sanctions increasingly devastate the socio-economic rights of innocent civilians. The three ongoing fully sanctioned nations of Iran, Venezuela, and Syria exemplify this bitter irony at crisis levels. Can economic sanctions be recalibrated to constrain dictators while limiting their negative impact on the citizens we mean to protect? The policy debates regarding this task abound. Various analysts, with ample supportive evidence, claim that targeted financial and banking sanctions are so destructive to citizen well-being that these sanctions constitute an anti-population weapon that violates international law and should be prohibited in all cases. Another view often heard from the governments that levy sanctions argues that the incompetence and brutality of the sanctioned leaders magnify civilian harm as they redirect the most devastating economic consequences of sanctions against their own citizens and usually reject remedies that might mitigate such socioeconomic disaster. IN PRESSURING FOR CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS, COERCIVE SANCTIONS INCREASINGLY DEVASTATE THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC RIGHTS OF INNOCENT CIVILIANS. My own perspective argues that the development of targeted, smart sanctions was meant to provide decisionmakers with a menu of choices by which each coercive measure imposed derived from the severity of the international law violation or normative offense it was designed to punish. Tragically, many leaders of powerful Western nations have chosen to impose these sharpened, discrete sanctions in full combination, resulting in maximum economic pain, but with minimal attainment of stated political objectives. Three months ago, the 2021 Department of Treasury Sanctions Review pledged that US sanctions policy would devote more attention to mitigating unintended negative humanitarian effects of sanctions. Yet, it was short on specific next steps to be taken to attain this goal. That noted, there have been some actions taken by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that have facilitated new processes and guidance that make delivery of humanitarian goods easier in each of these nations. And the administration has opened new relief efforts through the UN and not enforced some of the more draconian areas of the Caesar Act that complicated various relief efforts in Syria. WHAT REVERSING SANCTIONS WILL DO Despite these competing explanations of sanctions impact and OFAC’s new actions, there is a dire need for US decisionmakers to take new, proactive humanitarian and human rights measures in the besieged economies of the three nations most victimized by over-sanctioning. None of these measures will benefit Assad, Maduro, or Iran’s nuclear program. Rather, they will begin to remedy in meaningful ways the countless harms done to civilians. In Syria, a workable, special financial channel for banks to facilitate humanitarian supplies and other goods is a priority. So too is expanding the list of early recovery materials needed to rebuild infrastructure. And the US should permit Syrians in exile to send remittances to families still in the country. In Venezuela, the US should reformulate sanctions on oil exports and facilitate new trade and revenues to uplift civilians via a well-monitored “oil-for-essentials” program. Revenues earned could provide a much-needed injection of citizen purchasing power. And through offering the suspension on some sanctions this month, the US can leverage such incentives for leaders to negotiate a more viable and reformed government at a critical time. Even with all the complicated linkages of US sanctions with Iranian nuclear development and current negotiations, Washington can still take significant rights-affirming actions. Of particular benefit to the average Iranian would be to end the stranglehold on Iran’s access to foreign exchange. So too would be facilitating repairs in Iran’s supply chains in transportation and banking access to money, medicines, and food supplies needed to carry on daily life. That counter-productive use of sanctions in the name of human rights can be reversed. And the three most difficult cases of Venezuela, Iran, and Syria are the best areas for improvement. The US does not need to accept that economic measures imposed to restore democracy and to punish political leaders for human rights violations, must also devastate citizens’ socioeconomic rights and wellbeing. The time for recalibrating sanctions to enhance, not deteriorate, basic human rights, has arrived.

International economic network of autocrats renders sanctions meaningless

Ann Applebaum, November 15, 2021, Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, The Atlantic, The Bad Guys are Winning,

All of us have in our minds a cartoon image of what an autocratic state looks like. There is a bad man at the top. He controls the police. The police threaten the people with violence. There are evil collaborators, and maybe some brave dissidents. But in the 21st century, that cartoon bears little resemblance to reality. Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America. This is not to say that there is some supersecret room where bad guys meet, as in a James Bond movie. Nor does the new autocratic alliance have a unifying ideology. Among modern autocrats are people who call themselves communists, nationalists, and theocrats. No one country leads this group. Washington likes to talk about Chinese influence, but what really bonds the members of this club is a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth. Unlike military or political alliances from other times and places, the members of this group don’t operate like a bloc, but rather like an agglomeration of companies—call it Autocracy Inc. Their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals—deals designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich—which is why they can operate across geographical and historical lines. Thus in theory, Belarus is an international pariah—Belarusian planes cannot land in Europe, many Belarusian goods cannot be sold in the U.S., Belarus’s shocking brutality has been criticized by many international institutions. But in practice, the country remains a respected member of Autocracy Inc. Despite Lukashenko’s flagrant flouting of international norms, despite his reaching across borders to break laws, Belarus remains the site of one of China’s largest overseas development projects. Iran has expanded its relationship with Belarus over the past year. Cuban officials have expressed their solidarity with Lukashenko at the UN, calling for an end to “foreign interference” in the country’s affairs. In theory, Venezuela, too, is an international pariah. Since 2008, the U.S. has repeatedly added more Venezuelans to personal-sanctions lists; since 2019, U.S. citizens and companies have been forbidden to do any business there. Canada, the EU, and many of Venezuela’s South American neighbors maintain sanctions on the country. And yet Nicolás Maduro’s regime receives loans as well as oil investment from Russia and China. Turkey facilitates the illicit Venezuelan gold trade. Cuba has long provided security advisers, as well as security technology, to the country’s rulers. The international narcotics trade keeps individual members of the regime well supplied with designer shoes and handbags. Leopoldo López, a onetime star of the opposition now living in exile in Spain, has observed that although Maduro’s opponents have received some foreign assistance, it’s “nothing comparable with what Maduro has received.” Like the Belarusian opposition, the Venezuelan opposition has charismatic leaders and dedicated grassroots activists who have persuaded millions of people to go out into the streets and protest. If their only enemy was the corrupt, bankrupt Venezuelan regime, they might win. But Lopez and his fellow dissidents are in fact fighting multiple autocrats, in multiple countries. Like so many other ordinary people propelled into politics by the experience of injustice—like Sviatlana and Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Belarus, like the leaders of the extraordinary Hong Kong protest movement, like the Cubans and the Iranians and the Burmese pushing for democracy in their countries—they are fighting against people who control state companies and can make investment decisions worth billions of dollars for purely political reasons. They are fighting against people who can buy sophisticated surveillance technology from China or bots from St. Petersburg. Above all, they are fighting against people who have inured themselves to the feelings and opinions of their countrymen, as well as the feelings and opinions of everybody else. Because Autocracy Inc. grants its members not only money and security, but also something less tangible and yet just as important: impunity. The leaders of the Soviet Union, the most powerful autocracy in the second half of the 20th century, cared deeply about how they were perceived around the world. They vigorously promoted the superiority of their political system and they objected when it was criticized. When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously brandished his shoe at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1960, it was because a Filipino delegate had expressed sympathy for “the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere which have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights.” Today, the most brutal members of Autocracy Inc. don’t much care if their countries are criticized, or by whom. The leaders of Myanmar don’t really have any ideology beyond nationalism, self-enrichment, and the desire to remain in power. The leaders of Iran confidently discount the views of Western infidels. The leaders of Cuba and Venezuela dismiss the statements of foreigners on the grounds that they are “imperialists.” The leaders of China have spent a decade disputing the human-rights language long used by international institutions, successfully convincing many people around the world that these “Western” concepts don’t apply to them. Russia has gone beyond merely ignoring foreign criticism to outright mocking it. After the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was arrested earlier this year, Amnesty International designated him a “prisoner of conscience,” a venerable term that the human-rights organization has been using since the 1960s. Russian social-media trolls immediately mounted a campaign designed to draw Amnesty’s attention to 15-year-old statements by Navalny that seemed to break the group’s rules on offensive language. Amnesty took the bait and removed the title. Then, when Amnesty officials realized they’d been manipulated by trolls, they restored it. Russian state media cackled derisively. It was not a good moment for the human-rights movement. Impervious to international criticism, modern autocrats are using aggressive tactics to push back against mass protest and widespread discontent. Putin was unembarrassed to stage “elections” earlier this year in which some 9 million people were barred from being candidates, the progovernment party received five times more television coverage than all the other parties put together, television clips of officials stealing votes circulated online, and vote counts were mysteriously altered. The Burmese junta is unashamed to have murdered hundreds of protesters, including young teenagers, on the streets of Yangon. The Chinese government boasts about its destruction of the popular democracy movement in Hong Kong. At the extremes, this kind of contempt can devolve into what the international democracy activist Srdja Popovic calls the “Maduro model” of governance, which may be what Lukashenko is preparing for in Belarus. Autocrats who adopt it are “willing to pay the price of becoming a totally failed country, to see their country enter the category of failed states,” accepting economic collapse, isolation, and mass poverty if that’s what it takes to stay in power. Assad has applied the Maduro model in Syria. And it seems to be what the Taliban leadership had in mind this summer when they occupied Kabul and immediately began arresting and murdering Afghan officials and civilians. Financial collapse was looming, but they didn’t care. As one Western official working in the region told the Financial Times, “They assume that any money that the west doesn’t give them will be replaced by China, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.” And if the money doesn’t come, so what? Their goal is not a flourishing, prosperous Afghanistan, but an Afghanistan where they are in charge.