US Sanctions: Economic Sabotage That Is Deadly, Illegal, and Ineffective

July 9, 2019 | 0 | Economic , Sanctions

While the mystery of who is responsible for sabotaging the two tankers in the
Gulf of Oman remains unsolved, it is clear that the Trump administration has
been sabotaging Iranian oil shipments since May 2, when it announced its intention
to “bring
Iran’s oil exports to zero, denying the regime its principal source of revenue.

The move was aimed at China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey, all nations
that purchase Iranian oil and now face US threats if they continue to do so.
The US military might not have physically blown up tankers carrying Iranian
crude, but its actions have the same effect and should be considered acts of
economic terrorists.

The Trump administration is also committing a massive oil heist by seizing
billion in Venezuela’s oil assets
– keeping the Maduro government from getting
access to its own money. According to John Bolton, the sanctions on Venezuela
will affect $11
billion worth
of oil exports in 2019. The Trump administration also threatens
shipping companies that carry Venezuelan oil. Two companies – one based in Liberia
and the other in Greece – have already been slapped with penalties for shipping
Venezuelan oil to Cuba. No gaping holes in their ships, but economic sabotage

Whether in Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea or one of the 20
under the boot of US sanctions, the Trump administration is using
its economic weight to try to exact regime change or major policy changes in
countries around the globe.


The US sanctions against Iran are particularly brutal. While they have utterly
failed to advance US regime change goals, they have provoked growing tensions
with US trading partners across the world and inflicted terrible pain on the
ordinary people of Iran. Although food and medicines are technically exempt
from sanctions, US
sanctions against Iranian banks
like Parsian Bank, Iran’s largest non-state-owned
bank, make it nearly impossible to process payments for imported goods, and
that includes food and medicine. The resulting shortage of medicines is sure
to cause thousands of preventable deaths in Iran, and the victims will be ordinary
working people, not Ayatollahs or government ministers.

US corporate media have been complicit in the pretense that US sanctions are
a nonviolent tool to inflict pressure on targeted governments in order to force
some kind of democratic
regime change
. US reports rarely mention their deadly impact on ordinary
people, instead blaming the resulting economic crises solely on the governments
being targeted.

The deadly impact of sanctions is all too clear in Venezuela, where crippling
economic sanctions have decimated an economy already reeling from the drop in
oil prices, opposition sabotage, corruption and bad government policies. A joint
annual report on mortality in Venezuela in 2018 by three
Venezuelan universities
found that US sanctions were largely responsible
for at least 40,000 additional deaths that year. The Venezuela Pharmaceutical
Association reported an 85% shortage of essential medicines in 2018.

Absent US sanctions, the rebound in global oil prices in 2018 should have led
to at least a small rebound in Venezuela’s economy and more adequate imports
of food and medicine. Instead, US financial sanctions prevented Venezuela from
rolling over its debts and deprived the oil industry of cash for parts, repairs
and new investment, leading to an even more dramatic fall in oil production
than in the previous years of low oil prices and economic depression. The oil
industry provides 95% of Venezuela’s foreign earnings, so by strangling its
oil industry and cutting Venezuela off from international borrowing, the sanctions
have predictably – and intentionally – trapped the people of Venezuela
in a deadly economic downward spiral.

A study by Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot for the Center for Economic and
Policy Research, titled “Sanctions
as Collective Punishment: the Case of Venezuela,”
reported that the combined
effect of the 2017 and 2019 US sanctions are projected to lead to an astounding
37.4% decline in Venezuela’s real GDP in 2019, on the heels of a 16.7% decline
in 2018 and the over
60% drop
in oil prices between 2012 and 2016.

In North Korea, many decades
of sanctions
, coupled with extended periods of drought, have left millions
of the nation’s 25 million people malnourished
and impoverished
. Rural areas in particular lack
medicine and clean water
. Even more stringent sanctions imposed in 2018
banned most of the country’s exports, reducing
the government’s ability
to pay for imported food to alleviate the shortages.


One of the most egregious elements of US sanctions is their extraterritorial
reach. The US slaps third-country businesses with penalties for “violating”
US sanctions. When the US unilaterally left the nuclear deal and imposed sanctions,
the US Treasury Department bragged
that in just one day, November 5, 2018, it sanctioned more than 700 individuals,
entities, aircraft, and vessels doing business with Iran. Regarding Venezuela,
that in March 2019 the State Department had “instructed oil trading
houses and refiners around the world to further cut dealings with Venezuela
or face sanctions themselves, even if the trades made are not prohibited by
published US sanctions.”

An oil industry source complained to Reuters, “This is how the United States
operates these days. They have written rules, and then they call you to explain
that there are also unwritten rules that they want you to follow.”

US officials say that sanctions will benefit the people of Venezuela and Iran
by pushing them to rise up and overthrow their governments. Since the use of
military force, coups and covert operations to overthrow foreign governments
have proven
in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Honduras, Libya, Syria,
Ukraine and Yemen, the idea of using the dominant position of the US and the
dollar in international financial markets as a form of “soft power” to achieve
“regime change” may strike US policymakers as an easier form of coercion to
sell to a war-weary US public and uneasy allies.

But shifting from the “shock and awe” of aerial bombardment and military occupation
to the silent killers of preventable diseases, malnutrition and extreme poverty
is far from a humanitarian option, and no more legitimate than the use of military
force under international humanitarian law.

Denis Halliday was a UN Assistant Secretary General who served as Humanitarian
Coordinator in Iraq and resigned from the UN in protest at the brutal sanctions
on Iraq in 1998.

“Comprehensive sanctions, when imposed by the UN Security Council or by a State
on a sovereign country, are a form of warfare, a blunt weapon that inevitably
punishes innocent citizens,” Denis Halliday told us. “If they are deliberately
extended when their deadly consequences are known, sanctions can be deemed genocide.
When US Ambassador Madeleine Albright said
on CBS ‘Sixty Minutes’ in 1996
that killing 500,000 Iraqi children to try
to bring down Saddam Hussein was ‘worth it,’ the continuation of UN sanctions
against Iraq met the definition of genocide.”

two UN Special Rapporteurs
appointed by the UN Human Rights Council are
serious independent authorities on the impact and illegality of US sanctions
on Venezuela, and their general conclusions apply equally to Iran. Alfred De
Zayas visited Venezuela soon after the imposition of US financial sanctions
in 2017 and wrote an extensive report on what he found there. He found significant
impacts due to Venezuela’s long-term dependence on oil, poor governance and
corruption, but he also strongly condemned US sanctions and “economic warfare.”

“Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges
of towns,” De Zayas wrote. “Twenty-first century sanctions attempt to bring
not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees.” De Zayas’s report
recommended that the International Criminal Court should investigate US sanctions
against Venezuela as a crime against humanity.

A second UN Special Rapporteur, Idriss Jazairy, issued a
forceful statement
in response to the failed U.S-backed coup in Venezuela
in January. He condemned “coercion” by outside powers as a “violation of all
norms of international law.” “Sanctions which can lead to starvation and medical
shortages are not the answer to the crisis in Venezuela,” Jazairy said, “…precipitating
an economic and humanitarian crisis…is not a foundation for the peaceful settlement
of disputes.”

Sanctions also violate Article 19 of the Charter
of the Organization of American States, which
explicitly prohibits intervention
“for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.”
It adds that it “prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference
or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political,
economic, and cultural elements.”

Article 20 of the OAS Charter is equally pertinent: “No State may use or encourage
the use of coercive measures of an economic or political character in order
to force the sovereign will of another State and obtain from it advantages of
any kind.”

In terms of US law, both the 2017 and 2019 sanctions on Venezuela are based
on unsubstantiated presidential declarations that the situation in Venezuela
has created a so-called “national emergency” in the United States. If US federal
courts were not so afraid to hold the executive branch accountable on matters
of foreign policy, this could be challenged and very likely dismissed by a federal
court even more quickly and easily than the similar case
of a “national emergency”
on the Mexican border, which is at least geographically
connected to the United States.


There is one more critical reason for sparing the people of Iran, Venezuela
and other targeted countries from the deadly and illegal impacts of US economic
sanctions: they don’t work.

Twenty years ago, as economic sanctions slashed Iraq’s GDP by 48% over 5 years
and serious studies documented their genocidal human cost, they still failed
to remove the government of Saddam Hussein from power. Two UN Assistant Secretaries
General, Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck, resigned in protest from senior
positions at the UN rather than enforce these murderous sanctions.

In 1997, Robert Pape, then a professor at Dartmouth College, tried to resolve
the most basic questions about the use of economic sanctions to achieve political
change in other countries by collecting and analyzing the historical data on
115 cases where this was tried between 1914 and 1990. In his study, titled “Why
Economic Sanctions Do Not Wor
k,” he concluded that sanctions had only been
successful in 5 out of 115 cases.

Pape also posed an important and provocative question: “If economic sanctions
are rarely effective, why do states keep using them?”

He suggested three possible answers:

  • “Decision makers who impose sanctions systematically overestimate the prospects
    of coercive success of sanctions.”
  • “Leaders contemplating ultimate resort to force often expect that imposing
    sanctions first will enhance the credibility of subsequent military threats.”
  • “Imposing sanctions usually yields leaders greater domestic political benefits
    than does refusing calls for sanctions or resorting to force.”

We think that the answer is probably a combination of “all of the above.” But
we firmly believe that no combination of these or any other rationale can ever
justify the genocidal human cost of economic sanctions in Iraq, North Korea,
Iran, Venezuela or anywhere else.

While the world condemns the recent attacks on the oil tankers and tries to
identify the culprit, global condemnation should also focus on the country responsible
for the deadly, illegal and ineffective economic warfare at the heart of this
crisis: the United States.

Medea Benjamin is the founder of CODEPINK
and Global Exchange and the author
of nine books, including the recently released
of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection
. Her new book is
Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic
. Nicolas
J. S. Davies is the author of
On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq
. He also
wrote the chapter on “Obama at War” in
the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive
. The Originally appeared at CommonDreams.

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