Targeted Sanctions Challenge Tyrannies

You heard that sanctions don't work against dictatorships?Don't believe it!

By John Bacher | 2003-07-01 12:00:00

In the months leading up to the Iraq war, the press focused on disputes among democratic countries over plans for an American-led war, ignoring a serious effort then being developed to challenge such despotisms nonviolently. The plan: improve targeted sanctions. A major step in this process was the release of the report, Making Targeted Sanctions Effective: Guidelines for the Implementation of UN Policy Options. It resulted from close collaboration between the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the Department of Peace and Conflict Research of Uppsala University and members of the United Nations Secretariat. We should pay attention to this proposal!

Wisely, Making Targeted Sanctions Effective insists that economic penalties against sanctions violators should hit the criminal and corporate interests that benefit from their evasion not the numerous people who fall victim to hunger as a result of poorly targeted and implemented measures. These findings benefit from another fine new work of peace research a well-titled book, Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, edited by Mats Berdal and David Malone as a project of the International Peace Academy.

Greed and Grievance exposes the rapacious criminal economic interests sheltered by dictatorships, which are behind most of the world's remaining wars. Written by academics from two usually conflicting disciplines strategic and peace studies Greed and Grievance, like Making Targeted Sanctions More Effective, has had marginal public impact because its implications barely have been discussed. Thoughtful peace researchers often are ignored when they show how dictatorships provide a cover for criminal behavior. Their demands for greater control over corporate criminals make powerful media conglomerates and even publicly funded broadcasters nervous. At the same time, analysis of this kind does not fit into the popular anti-globalization rhetoric that blames international organizations such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund for much of the world's suffering. In fact, peace scholars find that these organizations have little impact on armed conflict.

How can sanctions work? When do they fail? I will show the pattern by reviewing three case studies. These are the blood diamond wars of Sierra Leone and Angola; the conflicts of former Yugoslavia; and the survival of Saddam Husseins dictatorship for 12 years preceding the attack on Iraq by an American-led coalition.

The Threat of Exposure: How Sanctions Eventually Worked in Sierra Leone and Angola

In Sierra Leone and Angola brutal civil wars were eventually brought to an end through the effective use of targeted sanctions. These highly publicized measures eventually dried up the funds of armed opposition groups that had exploited the illegal trade in blood diamonds,also called conflict diamonds.

Blood diamond warfare persisted because it was sustained by a vast network of corruption. Indeed, the powerful crooks were aided by officials in the very governments under attack by the rebel armies of UNITA and the RUF. Partnership Africa Canada's investigation into this situation found that the civil war in Sierra Leone had gradually become a pretext to engage in profitable crime under cover of war. What proved critical to ending the Angolan and Sierra Leone civil wars was public pressure on the diamond industry, especially the De Beers Corporation. In 1996, at the height of these wars, De Beers was sorting, valuing, and selling around 80 per cent of the world's diamond production.

While the United Nations, through its special Canadian agent, diplomat Robert Fowler, played a major role in curbing the blood diamond trade, his success was boosted by such NGOs as Partnership Africa Canada, Global Witness and Amnesty International. A major step was the publication of a December 1998 report, Rough Trade: The Role of Companies and Governments in the Angolan Conflict., which explicitly criticized De Beers. Following the Rough Trade report, Fowler began to work on a report which was published in July 1999, suggesting how to improve the implementation of embargoes on illegal diamonds. His proposals were boosted by a Fatal Transactions public awareness campaign launched by Global Witness, which urged consumers to ask companies such as De Beers to ensure that conflict diamonds not enter the market. This campaign actually did persuade De Beers to stop its involvement in the illegal diamond trade, when an embargo was announced on October 5, 1999. As the embargo became effective, the armies of UNITA and the RUF soon collapsed.

Success of Targeted Sanctions in Former Yugoslavia

For eight years during the Balkan wars that caused 250,000 deaths, sanctions against the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic failed to remove him from power. However, they swiftly began to have such an impact after the Kosovo war. This is because the sanctions were more carefully targeted. Municipalities that elected opponents to Milosevic were exempted from sanctions. Finally, sanctions were applied to key sources of Milosevic's wealth. His secret bank accounts in Cyprus were frozen after the European Union informed Yugoslavias government that use of this money by Milosevic would pose difficulties for the country's efforts to join its federation.

Milosevic had exploited Serbian nationalist and socialist rhetoric to gain the support of a third of the population of his shrunken country, masking his cronies exploitation of criminal enterprises. The profits of crime provided the funding for Milosevic and his most extreme allies, such as the warlord Arkan. Their militias and the special forces unit, the Red Berets, were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the civil war. Their greed was greater than their hatred as shown by their renting of tanks to the other side, even at the height of the conflict. Yet targeted sanctions, combined with effective aid to internal democratic forces in Yugoslavia, did successfully lead to the ouster of the Serbian dictatorship only one year after the Kosovo war. While the new democratic government successfully promoted peace throughout the Balkan region, the same criminal cliques that had benefited from the Milosevic dictatorship attempted to subvert it. One result of their criminal power was the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic.

Investigations into Djindjic's death revealed the extent to which Serbian extremism provided a cloak for organized crime. One of those arrested was the popular Serbian singer, Ceca, the widow of Arkan. Her home was found to contain 5,000 rounds of ammunition and 21 guns. Authorities also exposed links between her and the Zemun drug cartel. Djindjic's brave efforts to stabilize democracy in Serbia were advanced posthumously by investigations into his tragic death. Now at last the government is breaking up the interlocking network of gangsters, war criminals, corrupt security chiefs, and ultra-nationalist politicians. As part of the ongoing investigations, a large shopping center connected to this mafia was symbolically demolished.

Iraq: Dismal Failure in Targeting Sanctions

What makes Iraq such a contrast with Africa and the Balkans is the lack of effort to identify the financial interests behind the sanctions-busting. Unlike the blood diamond situation in Africa, there were no attempts to identify the companies that benefited from the oil trade that was conducted illegally. Some 20 percent of the oil amounting to $2 billion a year was traded outside the control of the United Nations' Oil for Food program. Although these funds from smuggling could have been used to end the hunger that the regime exploited for propaganda purposes, the revenues instead were used for the Iraqi military and police.

The identity of the companies engaged in illegal oil smuggling with Iraq appears to be one of the best officially-kept secrets in the Western world. It is not even subject to informed rumor on the Internet. This was achieved by a strange collaboration of experts on the right and left, who had different motives.

The bizarre massive oil smuggling, tolerated by US allies openly in Jordan, Turkey and Kurdistan, helped the Iraqi dictatorship to survive in complex ways. While after the war the United States made much propaganda about smuggling through Syria, it kept quiet about the far larger efforts of its allies.

In addition to financing the Iraqi armies and secret police, the oil smuggling discouraged underground opposition from developing within the country. A retired and decorated CIA agent, Robert Baer, who was in charge of trying to get rid of the Iraqi dictatorship during the Clinton Administration, was himself shocked and baffled by the extent of Iraqi oil smuggling. Conspiracy theories that it promoted were the biggest difficulties he encountered in recruiting Iraqi officers to join in his plans for an Iraqi coup.

In his book, See No Evil, Baer recalls that he saw trucks illegally carrying oil, lined up bumper to bumper often for 20 miles. When he complained about this situation to the US Ambassador in Turkey, he was told that all they cared about was keeping the Turks happy with access to cheap oil.

Baer's book See No Evil reveals much in its title. Though it is full of complaints about the power and arrogance of US oil companies, (notably the largest, Exxon-Mobil) this secret agent apparently did not try to find out the identity of the companies involved in the smuggling. He chose instead to see no evil a trait unfortunately shared by many peace activists who also failed to ask questions.


The recommendations of Making Targeted Sanctions More Effective, if they were better known, would make another US-led invasion of a country difficult, for the document shows how peaceful methods of confronting dictatorships can succeed. One that would have been of great assistance in Iraq is a provision that contravention of sanctions become a serious criminal offence. In such cases, the penalty should include forfeiture of any profits or benefits derived from contravening the sanctions. Next time, we should pay attention to that approach to making war avoidable.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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