Robert Skidelsky
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House of Lords Debate: The Impact of Economic Sanctions (EAC Report)
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard: column 469-72 | Friday, October 12, 2007

My Lords, I, too, express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for the invariably good-tempered way in which he conducted the inquiry, and to the Clerk of the Committee, Robert Graham-Harrison, for his expert support. I concur with what previous speakers have said about the Government’s limp response.
A key issue with which we as Members of the Committee wrestled was the aims of economic sanctions. Some of us started with the view that the main aim was to get the sanctioned regime to change its behaviour or, at the limit, to overthrow it, but that was far too simple-minded. As the report states in paragraph 7:
“Sanctions can be applied for a variety of reasons, including to punish or weaken a target, to signal disapproval”— which is a key point— “to induce a change in policy”.
That comes right at the end of the list. In other words, changing behaviour is only one of several possible objectives which include “signalling disapproval”. Another thing we learnt as we went on with our inquiry was that the emphasis in sanctions policy has changed from comprehensive to targeted or “smart” sanctions, as they are called, which are sanctions targeted on the regime and not on the people of the country. It is said that that is to minimise humanitarian damage. Thus in Burma, we have the classic array of smart sanctions, which are part of EU sanctions, including an arms embargo, suspension of high-level bilateral visits, and visa restrictions and some financial restrictions on the regime. Roughly the same package applies to Zimbabwe.
Having received all that evidence, we tried to formulate our report, a process which proved quite long-winded and difficult in view of the natural disagreements that emerged among different members of the Committee. We got together a report that is very coherent and good. Two conclusions seem warranted. The first is that the test of success or failure of sanctions has become extremely fuzzy. As one of our witnesses, Dr. Alexander of Cambridge University, pointed out “it depends what objective you are trying to measure your success by”. He said that if sanctions are intended to modify regime behaviour they quite often fail, but if their goal is simply to signal moral disapproval, the effectiveness of sanctions might be viewed in a different light. Exactly.
As I put it in one of my questions to this witness: if the object of sanctions is to signal disapproval, the test of effectiveness is simply the number of states expressing disapproval. On that test, failure almost never happens. States often express disapproval; the success of sanctions is virtually guaranteed, even though nothing else changes. That is an unsatisfactory position.
The second conclusion dovetails with the first. The shift from comprehensive to smart sanctions is connected with the shift in objective from modifying behaviour to expressing disapproval. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, called for more effective sanctions. But how do you get more effective sanctions if the aim is to minimise collateral damage to the population? Effective sanctions involve harming the population. The more they are harmed the more effective the sanctions. That was the old doctrine and policy-makers have never admitted in public that there is a trade-off between getting effective regime change and minimising humanitarian damage. In practice, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, pointed out, Governments wobble between the two and find it hard to get a consistent policy.
Travel restrictions and other pinpricks on leaders of unsavoury regimes do little or nothing to change the way they treat their people, but they do make us feel good, which is extremely important. Symbolic sanctions, in other words, are nicely symbolic of a foreign policy which has replaced resolution by resolutions.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, I naturally welcome those parts of the report which are sceptical about symbolic sanctions, and which argue for “greater emphasis on economic, diplomatic and security incentives” as a way to modify unacceptable state behaviour. For example, I draw your Lordships’ attention to paragraph 20, in which it is stated that “the EU could achieve as much, or more, by a simple declaration of disapproval” without any symbolic sanctions at all. People have a right to disapprove; they have a right to state their disapproval; states have a right to state their disapproval. Why accompany that with a panoply of pinpricks which do not do any good?
I draw attention to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Renwick, that the “‘slap on the wrist’ sanctions do more harm than good”, because they symbolise weakness and the lack of any alternative instrument. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I endorse Jeremy Carver’s view expressed in paragraph 24 that sanctions should be used “only where the circumstances fall within Chapter VII of the UN Charter”. Of course Burma has been strongly in our minds in this debate. I turn to that in the last part of my remarks. In paragraph 135, we urged the Government to “undertake an urgent enquiry into sanctions policy on Burma, with a view to deciding whether it is worth continuing it”.
I do not think that the recent events in Burma have rendered our view obsolete, though as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, rightly said, it is very hard to lift ineffective sanctions because it then seems to be a retreat from a position that was useless in the first place but now has to be stuck to because of loss of face in withdrawing it.
One of the oldest debates in international relations is whether you get better government by isolating or engaging a state. There is no general rule which will cover all cases, but the presumption should be in favour of engagement. We should be chary of forcing more isolation on societies whose leaders and populations invariably start off as appallingly ignorant about what goes on in the rest of the world. The more open a society is, the more open it is to change; the more closed, the more it is subject to delusion and paranoia and the easier it is for the leaders of that country to whip up anti-foreign hysteria against the sanctioning power.
One of the paradoxes of the present situation is that the societies of the West, traditionally champions of openness, are the keenest to enforce pariah status on unsavoury regimes, whereas the previously closed societies of Asia are keenest to trade and engage with such regimes, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America, China being the main example but of course also India and Russia. They have taken the view that what goes on in Burma is really an internal matter for the Burmese authorities, whereas the international community—that is, us—has called for even stronger sanctions, mandated by the United Nations.
No one is suggesting a military attack on Burma. This means that there are only two ways in which other countries can help bring about regime change: first, by cutting off Burma's links with the outside world; secondly, by trying to engage it in some way. The trouble with the first is that the price is usually paid by the people, not the leaders. Also, as long as sanctions are not universally applied, they can be evaded; they will not be universally applied in this situation. The alternative is engagement through commerce and quiet diplomacy. That is the policy of Burma’s Asian neighbours.
Burma is a member of ASEAN. Despite the economic policies of the regime, and in contrast to those of Cuba, Burma is a rapidly growing country. Its growth rate has been about 8 per cent a year for the past several years, and there is a growing middle class. None of these things will make it a democracy in the Western sense, but they will, over time, bring it closer to the norm in much of south-east Asia, in which the military, while still powerful, shares power with elected politicians. In conclusion, the West will continue to voice its moral disapproval, while Asia will silently carry on with the work of change.
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