Why is Zimbabwe being sanctioned
"There are no ideal sanctions"
Sanctions are playing an increasingly important role in international politics. But they often have undesirable side effects, and usually too little thought is given to how to reverse them, says Hamburg sanctions researcher Julia Grauvogel in an interview.
Ms. Grauvogel, what distinguishes effective sanctions?
Sanctions often work quickly or not at all. They are more effective when they are imposed on democracies or on countries with which one previously had close economic or political ties. In addition, they are more successful if they pursue limited goals such as stopping certain repression and not changing the regime straight away. Traditionally, it was assumed that economic pressure could induce a regime to give in. A classic example was the sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. However, this tactic has often not proven to be very effective. In the meantime, attempts are being made to exert indirect pressure by giving actors critical of the regime room to maneuver. In Zimbabwe, for example, civil society groups have told me that the sanctions were an important signal of support that gave them a boost.
But it is also possible that the repression will be intensified as a result. Then sanctions are counterproductive.
Sanctions are not the clear instrument they are portrayed as. What leads to repression in one place can mobilize and strengthen civil society in another. Sanctions must be tailored to the specific case. What works also depends on how a regime is legitimized. If it presents itself as a bulwark against imperialism, then sanctions can reinforce this narrative.
How effective are the sanctions that the EU recently imposed on Russia in the case of Alexei Navalny?
Sanctions are not always imposed with the aim of changing the behavior of the sanctioned regime. They should also send a signal that a red line has been crossed, for example. In the Navalny case, the Europeans wanted to uphold certain values. Hardly anyone assumes that these sanctions against four people will lead to a change in Russian behavior.
So the real audience is your own public that the government wants to show that it is doing something?
Yes, sanctions are often imposed to please the own population. They are seen as the middle ground between words and war. If a government is under pressure to do something but does not want to resort to drastic measures such as intervention or the complete severing of economic relations, targeted sanctions against people or companies are an effective means of showing that it is doing something .
But is it not just a matter of symbolic politics?
No, I wouldn't see it that way. Sanctions are an important means of reinforcing the norms of international law. For example the Crimean sanctions: The Europeans did not impose them because someone in Brussels or Berlin believed that they would lead to the return of Crimea. Rather, they wanted to send a signal that the international law principle of territorial inviolability continues to apply. And you just had no other means at hand. But some also argue that the sanctions deterred Russia from annexing parts of eastern Ukraine.
How can the effectiveness of sanctions be measured?
Studying effectiveness is one of the most difficult problems in sanctions research. This raises several questions: First, is effectiveness measured only in relation to the required change in behavior? Or also whether the sanctions reinforce a certain norm or send a signal? Second, are they only considered effective if they have worked all by themselves? Or even if they have achieved the goal in conjunction with other means such as diplomatic initiatives or the threat of military force? Finally, there is also a deterrent effect that is very difficult to measure. In the Navalny case, for example, it is very difficult to assess whether Russia or other states will behave differently in the future in order to avoid similar sanctions.
The sanctions policy against the apartheid regime in South Africa is often cited as a successful example. Would it have been fine without sanctions?
Probably would have liked it too, but not until later. Many local anti-apartheid activists say the sanctions were important as psychological motivation. So you certainly contributed to the end of apartheid. That is probably the maximum that can ever be achieved with sanctions - a contribution to policy change.
Can it be said that the more targeted sanctions are, the more ineffective they are, and the wider, the more unfair?
There is definitely a trade-off. Comprehensive sanctions are generally more effective. At the same time, they have more negative humanitarian side effects. As a result, targeted sanctions against individuals are often resorted to. In the case of dictatorships, these can be quite effective because they hit precisely those who are in power. The population is taking comprehensive measures against it - often expressly in the hope that the citizens will rebel against the regime and punish it in elections. What is certain is that sanctions are not a silver bullet, but a foreign policy instrument among others, such as interventions, negotiations - or doing nothing.
Often sanctions also affect areas such as the trade in drugs that are not sanctioned at all.
Yes, because sanctions also damage the image of the entire country. In the case of Zimbabwe, for example, German company representatives told me that they had stopped trading with Zimbabwe because it was considered disreputable. It was about the export of milking machines, which was not sanctioned at all. There is this effect, especially in Iran.
Are actors other than the USA, the EU and the UN actually also using sanctions as a political tool?
Regional organizations such as the African Union or the West African Economic Community or, in isolated cases, the Organization of American States are increasingly active players. You are now the fourth most common sanctions actor. That changes the dynamic because they sanction their own member states. There is also the case of retaliation measures, where the imposition of sanctions is reacted to with counter-sanctions.
What about China?
China is already using the means of restricting economic contacts, but has often not referred to it as a sanction in the past. This is because China has always rejected Western sanctions policy as interference in internal affairs and has often prevented sanctions in the UN Security Council, for example against Zimbabwe. Beijing criticizes that this is not about maintaining peace, but about human rights and democracy. Recently, however, China responded to EU human rights sanctions with countermeasures. These are also officially known as sanctions.
Is the impression that the USA and the EU are increasingly imposing sanctions?
No, that is right. A major upheaval came in 1990. Before that, there had hardly been any UN sanctions, as the necessary unity in the Security Council could not be achieved during the Cold War. In addition to the UN, the USA and the EU are also increasingly using sanctions, for example in the case of violations of human rights, human trafficking or the use of child soldiers. There are also sanctions as a backlash to cyberattacks.
How do you explain this increase?
This has to do with a certain intervention fatigue in the West and with the strengthening of rivals such as China or Russia. Other forms of reaction are needed. But it also has to do with the fact that the countries place more value on observing human rights.
You have said that it is often ineffective to use economic pressure to force a regime to give in. Even so, the US is still trying to do this with Iran.
Sanctions are not a political instrument that is used purely on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. Symbol politics plays a major role. In the case of Iran, for example, the US’s economic and security interests are in favor of gradually dismantling the sanctions. But the reintegration of Iran into the international community is so controversial in the USA that it cannot be sold domestically.
What does international law actually say about sanctions?
UN sanctions are of course regulated. They are imposed in accordance with Article 41 of the UN Charter, which lists non-violent measures to maintain world peace. In addition, each state is free to impose sanctions and restrict economic or diplomatic relations with other states. It becomes problematic when so-called "secondary sanctions" are imposed.
What exactly does that mean?
These are sanctions that not only regulate companies or individuals in their own jurisdiction, but are also intended to force actors from uninvolved third countries to comply with their own sanctions. These sanctions, which are only used by the USA, are extremely problematic under international law. Washington knows that it is walking on thin ice with this.
Aren't such sanctions just a form of imperialism?
The US is clearly using its position of economic power in the international financial system, for example. It will have far-reaching implications if states can no longer use the Swift system for transactions. And of course that is also being exploited by the USA.
In the case of the extraterritorial sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, there are allegations that the USA also wants to promote the sale of its own fracking gas in Europe.
Economic considerations certainly play a role or are perhaps even central. But sanctions have always been about economic motives as well as protecting international law or democracy. Economic interests also play a role insofar as sanctions are often not imposed if there are close economic relationships that drive up the costs for the sanctioning state. Many states criticize this selective sanctioning practice in the West.
You say that sanctions work quickly or not at all, why do they still often stay in place for years?
There is often a lack of an exit strategy and a reason for the cancellation. If the sanctions were unsuccessful, lifting it is like surrendering. Therefore, the goals are then often adjusted, sometimes without this being publicly communicated, in order to initiate the entry into the exit. But in general, many governments think too little about how to get out of sanctions.
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