When are Sanctions Ethical? NCC Executive Board Deliberates

CHICAGO, Nov. 9, 1998 ---- When should churches support sanctions to pressure a government to change its behavior? There were no easy answers to that question today when the National Council of Churches Executive Board wrestled with the issue.

In the churches' struggle for global peace and justice, sanctions are conceived as a middle ground between "bomb or do nothing in the face of social evil," said guest speaker David Cortright, President of the Fourth Freedom Forum, Goshen, Ind., and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "That's how it should work. But we have a long way to go. Sanctions are a flawed instrument, misapplied, poorly enforced and monitored."

Questions about the effectiveness and humanitarian cost of sanctions are being raised now in the international community after a period in which they were in vogue. Churches supported sanctions against the South African apartheid regime, and viewed sanctions against Iraq as an alternative to war in the Gulf Crisis.

"Sanctions got applied with increasing frequency," Dr. Cortright said, "to the point where the United States has applied sanctions on 75 countries – about half the world's population – usually at the behest of Congress, often with little or no political impact, often with severe humanitarian impact."

In the case of Iraq, eight years of economic sanctions have killed more than 200,000 of Iraq's preschoolers, he said, commenting, "Never in history has a country been subjected to such prolonged strangulation." But a military strike by – or against – Iraq also would take many innocent lives. And if the United Nations walks away from Iraq, its authority to deal with future aggressors would suffer.

What options does the international community have in the midst of this wrenching dilemma? "I think we need a middle ground – targeted sanctions," Dr. Cortright said, "along with a strengthening of humanitarian relief and monitoring. General civilian trade sanctions should be lifted on humanitarian grounds alone. The arms embargo must be maintained, enforced and strengthened until Iraq complies. Offer carrots along with sticks (to) lead the Iraqi regime to further conciliation."

In December, the Fourth Freedom Forum will co-sponsor a symposium at the United Nations on "targeted" or "smart" sanctions, which focus pressure "on those responsible for the behavior we are trying to correct," he said. Examples include freezing the assets of key decision makers, restricting their travel and banning them from international activities and organizations.

Some dismiss such sanctions as "window dressing," but they proved effective against South Africa's apartheid regime, Dr. Cortright said. And they don't hurt the most vulnerable populations, who suffer most from broad sanctions like comprehensive trade embargoes but don't have international bank accounts.

When Dr. Cortright talked about "targeted sanctions," something clicked for several Executive Board members who'd participated in boycotts and sit-ins during the civil rights struggle. "In the sit-ins, that's exactly what we did," reflected United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, the NCC's Immediate Past President. "It was a targeted sanction. To me that makes a lot of sense."

Dr. Cortright praised the just-published Report of the Church World Service and Witness Study Group on the Humanitarian Impact of Economic Sanctions, being offered to the NCC's Executive Board and General Assembly as a resource.

Echoing themes explored in the report, he outlined necessary elements for sanctions to be ethical and legitimate, including blanket exemptions for food and medicine and "civilian immunity…while they may cause civilians some hardship, they should never threaten life or health."

They must be multilateral, he said, proportionate to the political gain being sought, and intended to bring about a negotiated settlement, "never to punish or starve an opponent into submission." And they should be used "as a last resort, after all other options and with a genuine commitment to a diplomatic solution….A creative diplomacy offers incentives, rewards for cooperation, pressure for non-cooperation, and is designed to lead to peaceful resolution of disputes."

Dennis Frado of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's World Community Office and moderator of the NCC Executive Board's "Ecumenical Discernment on Sanctions as Foreign Policy," said the goal for the discussion was to seek ways member communions can promote a discussion of issues related to sanctions at the congregational level.

"We also want to communicate better with our partners overseas when multilateral sanctions are being considered or imposed, and provoke some thinking and discussion on under which circumstances, if ever, churches should support sanctions to seek a change in a government's policy," he said.

A review has been launched in the U.S. Senate on the use of sanctions, noted the Rev. Dr. Albert Pennybacker, NCC Associate General Secretary for Public Policy, offering the ecumenical community "an opportunity to make a timely intervention from the international and humanitarian point of view." Dr. Cortright added that a Lugar-Hamilton initiative seeks a comprehensive policy framework for the use of sanctions.