Sanctions Are Inhumane—Now, and Always

tags: foreign policy, Iran, human rights, sanctions, coronavirus

Aslı U. Bâli is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, Faculty Director of the UCLA Law Promise Institute for Human Rights, and Director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. Her recent scholarship has appeared in the American Journal of International Law UnboundInternational Journal of Constitutional LawUCLA Law ReviewYale Journal of International LawCornell Journal of International LawVirginia Journal of International LawGeopoliticsStudies in LawPolitics and Society and edited volumes published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press.

Aziz Rana is Professor of Law at Cornell University, and the author of The Two Faces of American Freedom


Sanctions, whatever the conventional presentation, are not a humane alternative to war. In reality they routinely impose indiscriminate harms on civilian populations in ways that far exceed what would be permissible on the battlefield. Moreover, precisely because their costs are never borne domestically within the United States—as opposed to the costs of traditional armed conflict—there is a tremendous temptation for officials to turn to them as a tool of first, rather than last, resort.

The long post–Cold War experience highlights just this fact, underscoring how sanctions have increasingly entrenched a belligerent politics of us versus them, made only more severe under Trump. They are at root premised on a vision of the world in which one’s national security adversaries—including large swathes of the world’s population—must be impoverished while resources are hoarded at home and among select allies. What the COVID-19 pandemic calls for is a systematic rethinking of U.S. obligations across borders, including the appropriateness of economic sanctions at all as a basic tool of foreign policy. If today’s truly global health crisis suggests anything, it is the inherent failure not just of Trump’s xenophobic and narrow nationalism, but also of any humanitarian posture still grounded on a division of the world’s spoils between pax Americana and those on the outside looking in.  

At present, the United States has in place broad countrywide sanctions against Iran as well as North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, and Venezuela in addition to more narrowly framed sanctions that apply to individuals and entities in Afghanistan, Belarus, Burundi, the Central African Republic, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Palestinian Territories, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Somali, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. All in all, the Treasury DepartmentCommerce Department and State Department list sanctions against at least thirty countries or territories.


Read entire article at Boston Review