Economic Sanctions: A Silent Weapon of War

‘The United States has imposed severe sanctions over the state of North Korea for their new ballistic missile test.’

This is how a typical headline in global politics looks like when a jaw-dropping geopolitically motivated event occurs. At first glance, one might wonder why a country such as the US is so vested in the fund allocation of the North Korean treasury. It all essentially boils down to the degree of influence that a superpower (assumption being that the US is the lone superpower) has over nation states when it comes to their economy and people. 

The US does so in the larger interest of the world, and considers itself to be the saviour of our generation when it comes to averting a nuclear catastrophe. Since it cannot (and must not) threaten war on many already poverty stricken and poor states, it imposes a series of Keynesian tool-based economic sanctions that prohibit the economic growth of the nation state, as they directly affect the demand and supply chains of the economy and tend to cut them off from more states that are members of ‘the bloc’.

The unsettling reality is that disasters similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to occur in Middle Eastern countries, where war has been raging for decades, and yet we've been so oblivious to their occurrences when we accidentally switch to BBC International after cheering for our football team on the previous channel. But beneath the thick glorious boasts of killing ISIS leaders, annihilating Sanaa (again), and killing millions, there is the far more destructive layer of economic sanctions imposed on seemingly rogue states that disagree with the ideology of the world's leading nation state. The inconvenient reality is that those sanctions, in a roundabout way, have an effect on the health of citizens and frequently bring about devastating consequences.

Economic sanctions are of three types: (1) suspension of loans or aid withdrawal by the sender; (2) denial of access to international financial markets; and (3) bans on capital investment in the targeted state. They often involve a sector-specific ban such as an oil ban, textile ban, a ban on using a particular currency or engaging with particular financial operators (such as banks). Intended to impose constraints on the economic activities of the targeted state, economic sanctions aim to prevent a state from importing certain goods or services. They may also prevent a state from exporting its natural resources, agricultural, or manufactured products. 

Another type of economic sanction specifically targets the banking and financial sectors. Overseas assets, for example, can be frozen or transactions put on hold. Foreign aid may be withheld as well. Economic sanctions are most likely to be detrimental to a country. Refusing to import goods or services from a country can act as a kind of protectionist policy for the target country. This can create a constituency for such policies, making them difficult to repeal. A ban on exporting certain goods and services to a country, such as agricultural products, on the other hand, can harm influential sectors of the target country and make it difficult to impose or sustain such measures.

According to Farrokh Habibzadeh's paper Economic sanction: a weapon of mass destruction, the UN Security Council Resolution 661-3 imposed a multilateral sanction on Iraq in 1990, prohibiting the import of all substances other than those intended for scientific purposes, food, and various humanitarian items. The sanction killed approximately 1.5 million people (including more than half a million children) in Iraq - more than the number of people killed in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the nuclear bomb detonation. 

Many critical life-saving tablets become unavailable due to the imposition of sanctions. Even the production of a few drugs is reduced, if not halted, due to a scarcity of basic substances or spare device components required for drug production. The cost of medicines rises to a point that people with low incomes can only afford a small portion of it. 

This results in growth of black markets as locations where medicines (occasionally forged) are illegally traded. Additionally, the lack of spare components tends to affect not only medical devices, but also different critical infrastructures such as electric powered generators. Consequently, frequent power outages result in severe problems such as lack of vaccines, tablets, ventilators, monitors, etc. Thus, hundreds of thousands of people die in silence as a result of diseases. 

This quiet mass homicide in a tumultuous sector is not always noticed, and may even be overlooked. The same can be said about the current COVID crisis, in which the US refused to lift sanctions against Iran despite the fact that it was dealing with COVID-19 and low vaccination rates.

Seen in this light, sanctions act as a terrifying mechanism for bringing a country to its knees. There are many ways to deal with 'rogue' states, but depriving people of their humanity is not one of them.


Shreyansh Verma

I am an undergraduate student pursuing Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce. I am interested in areas of public policy, economics, pop culture and social issues that constitute daily affairs of our world.

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