In the interconnected, globalised world of today, national borders pose no barrier to movement of ideas, goods, money, information or people. Stable, assured global supply chains have become the fulcrum of economic activities around the world and have created an environment of huge inter-dependency. No country can ignore this phenomenon as even the slightest disruption in supply chains cause severe turbulence in global economy and impacts lives of citizens around the world. This has also given rise to an increasing proclivity to use ‘sanctions’ as a tool in international relations.
It is claimed that sanctions are imposed on countries for ‘larger good of the world’ and to achieve diplomatic and foreign policy objectives which otherwise may require the use of military force. Architects of the ‘Sanction’ tool use this as an alibi to market it as a ‘peaceful alternative’ to war and destruction.
Post World War 1, League of Nations adopted sanctions as an internationally accepted policy tool. Article 16 of its Covenant laid down that if any member resorts to war in disregard of its Covenants, it shall be subjected to “ the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking state, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking state and the nationals of any other state, whether a Member of the League or not”. Nicholas Mulder, who writes extensively on the subject gives us a glimpse of the hidden side of sanctions when he says in the twentieth century, till World War 2, “deaths by economic isolation were the chief man-made cause of civilian death” in the world.
United Nations, the successor of League of Nations, also recognised a role for sanctions in its charter. The UN Security Council may call upon member states to impose “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations”. UN’s ability to impose and enforce sanctions is limited by the need for concurrence of the permanent members of the Security Council and the general erosion of its status. But being a world body, its actions still carry credibility and larger acceptance. UN today has sanctions operative against Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Libya, Mali, Sudan and Afghanistan. It has also sanctioned organisations like ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
Apart from UN, the US, EU and some of the European nations have also been resorting to sanctions. Such sanctions tend to be unilateral and are without the endorsement of the larger global community. Third party countries are often coerced to obtain their ‘voluntary enforcement’ of such unilateral sanctions which fall outside the ambit of the UN.
When it comes to imposing sanctions outside the UN, United States was the pioneer with large scale freezing of Nazi assets from 1940/41. Post the Cold War, sanctions have become the preferred policy tool of United States. The US, at present, has active sanctions in place against Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Cuba, Yemen, Democratic of Congo, Libya, Mali, and Sudan.
Sanctions, by its very nature, are meant to cause pain to the targeted country alone. But, depending upon the breadth and depth of the targeted country’s exports and imports it causes disruption in global markets and adversely impacts countries that have trade relations with the targeted country. Greater the bilateral trade, bigger the impact. This explains why regardless of what China may do, it would be impossible for the US to impose any meaningful sanctions on China.
The most sanctioned countries today are Russia (5,581), Iran (3,616), Syria (2,608), North Korea (2,077), Venezuela (651), Myanmar (510) and Cuba (208).
The Russian tally includes 2,827 new sanctions that were imposed by US, EU and other countries after February 2022. It includes ban on oil and gas import from Russia, freezing of Russian assets, ban on businesses, trade, individuals, financial transactions, officials, media etc. As has been the trend since the end of the Cold War, it is the US which has initiated and dictated the terms of sanctions against Russia. One of the reasons for this generous dishing out of new sanctions by the US on a daily basis is that sanctions against Russia has very minimal impact on the US and its citizens. But while the US remains fairly insulated from the fall-out of sanctions against Russia, it is the developing world and poor countries which are bearing the brunt of its impact. Russia produces about 11 per cent of the worlds oil. Sanctions have disrupted supply chains and caused huge spike in global crude oil prices. This has dealt a huge blow to the post pandemic economic recovery of the developing world. Countries like Sri Lanka which were already facing severe financial stress have been further pushed to breaking point by the market disruption, exacerbated by the sanctions on Russia.
It is little consolation for the developing world that even the EU members are feeling a bit of the pinch. The EU is dependent on Russia for about 40 per cent of its gas requirements and for over a quarter of its oil import. However, the minor turbulence faced by the European nations due to sanctions on Russia pale in comparison with the extreme distress brought upon citizens of the developing world who have nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis or the sanctions. Developed world’s diktats to third party countries to enforce non-UN sanctions smack of arrogance and hypocrisy. A cursory look at the disparity in the capacity to tide over the direct adverse economic and political fallout of sanctions bear testimony to this.
United States has a per capita GDP 31 times that of India and per capita energy consumption 12 times that of India. In the case of the UK it is 20 times the GDP and five times the energy consumption and that of Germany is 22 and six. These incomparable disparities get further accentuated if the population figures are also considered. India and China each carry 18 per cent of global population while the US has 4 per cent, and UK and Germany accounting for just about a mere 1 per cent each. These figures reveal how a rise of even a single dollar in the cost of essential goods or energy sources like oil can adversely impact developing countries like India where an average citizen has no surplus income to absorb economic shocks unlike their counterparts in the developed world. In the backdrop of this reality, statements like “The US expects every country around the world to abide by the sanctions that Washington announced against Russia” and their unsavoury comments “Indian stand is shaky”, there will be “consequences” sound crude and incomprehensible. There are many people who also argue that unlike UN sanctions which genuinely seek to restrain rogue countries, non-UN sanctions are used as a facade to protect the sanctioning country’s interest and anything beyond serving their interest is incidental. The arrogance and hypocrisy of the developed world in pressurising developing countries to enforce sanctions against Russia can also be gauged from their own actions and statements.
Take for example the statement “EU leaders agree to phase out dependency on gas, oil and coal imports from Russia”. It is remarkable that these proposals are non-binding with a modest aim of reducing EU’s over-dependence on Russian energy. EU members are encouraged to cut their gas imports by 2/3rd by this year end ! One cannot miss the humane tone and the reasonable terms and conditions while dealing with the developed world as against the diktats for others. For the moment, notwithstanding their sermons to the international community, the rich EU members themselves are continuing with their oil, gas and coal import from Russia. They are, in fact, scurrying to find Roubles to pay the Russians. Value of Rouble has rebounded as a result.
The global community needs to resist being coerced for enforcing non-UN sanctions. Collective actions must only flow from collective decisions arrived at by UN. Unfortunately, we are witnessing the contrary trend of increasing non-UN sanctions. The nature of sanctions has also undergone transformation. It is no more a peaceful alternative to war and destruction. It is not even just a tool to punish an errant or a rogue country. Sanctions originating outside the UN have been transformed into full-fledged weapons of war, far more effective than the most lethal conventional weapon in today’s hybrid warfare arsenal. Non-UN sanctions are weapons of arrogance and hypocrisy which can only be used by the most powerful and paradoxically cannot be used against them.
[The author is former deputy chief of Army]