On July 17, the European Union (EU) sanctioned 16 members of the Syrian government accused of facilitating chemical weapons attacks. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson announced that the sanctions send a “clear signal” to the government that its actions have consequences. However, only one month prior, President Emmanuel Macron of France – a key member of the EU – suggested that Bashar al-Assad’s removal is not a precondition in Syria because “no one has showed me a legitimate successor.” His remarks were a departure from the foreign policy objectives of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, and other EU member states, sparking concern that the bloc is not unified in its call for Assad’s exit. More importantly, these types of statements undercut the strategic effectiveness of sanctions and make sanctions seem like an end in and of itself instead of one way towards eventually achieving meaningful justice for victims.
The EU is not the only western actor sending mixed messages. In April, the United States sanctioned 271 Syrian government employees accused of facilitating chemical attacks. Responding to the EU sanctions, a US State Department spokesman stated that the combined sanctions of the United States and EU demonstrate “a continuing effort in the international community to hold the Assad regime responsible.” Despite this rhetoric, the Trump administration stated in March that Assad’s possible retention of power is a “political reality that we have to accept,” a sentiment echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in July, only two months after the United States claimed Syria was responsible for a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. In doing so, the United States – like France – is implying that sanctions are sufficient punishment for grave violations of international law and once the conflict ends, Assad can continue to legitimately serve as president of Syria.
Economic sanctions are an instrument of statecraft, viewed as a non-military method of coercion and/or punishment when levied against an individual, entity, or country perceived of wrongdoing. Sanctions have been popularized in the past century as a hard power alternative to the use of force – including as a means of promoting human rights. The Carter Administration imposed U.S. sanctions to allegedly further human rights objectives in Ethiopia, Argentina, and Uruguay, as President Reagan did in Poland. More recently, the EU prolonged its sanctions against Iran for its alleged violations of human rights laws and norms, and the UN Security Council in February called for targeted sanctions to be imposed on several Burundian officials for “ongoing serious human rights violations.”
Meanwhile, human rights advocates have been mixed on whether sanctions are an effective and humane tool. Organizations, scholars, and affected populations have specifically decried arbitrary sanctions which impose blanket trade restrictions on the target country. Particularly after reports emerged that UN sanctions prevented food and medicine from reaching ordinary Iraqis in the 1990s, this type of sanction regime has been seen as more harmful than beneficial in protecting human rights. The sharp criticism helped shift trends toward what is called “targeted sanctions,” which impact the financial, military, or logistical tools available to specific individuals or entities and not the national economy and general population as a whole. Although targeted sanctions are seen as more humane than arbitrary sanctions, scholars often question them as ineffective in coercing countries to improve their human rights records. One telling example is that of Myanmar. Despite the US imposing targeted sanctions aimed at curbing human rights violations by government and military leaders for nearly 30 years – resulting in over 100 individuals and companies on the Treasury’s designation list by 2016 – human rights failed to improve in Myanmar, and even grew worse during this period. It was only with enhanced diplomatic engagement and changes to the leadership of Myanmar’s military government that advances were made in the field of human rights.
As for Syria, the United States sanctioned Syrian officials in April 2011 for human rights abuses committed after the Arab uprisings. Since then, the EU, the Arab League, and several other countries have also imposed sanctions on officials and companies. In 2012, the United States even imposed sanctions to specifically address chemical weapons, with the EU following suit the next year. But none of these efforts have coerced the Syrian government to end what Human Rights Watch has called the widespread and systematic use of chemical weapons or the other types of indiscriminate attacks that have defined the Syrian conflict. In a 2016 report, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) – tasked with identifying those involved in the use of chemical weapons in Syria – confirmed that the Syrian government has continued to use chemical weapons, notwithstanding international pressure.
State leaders claiming that sanctions designations hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations in Syria accountable imply that sanctions alone achieve justice for Syrians. Sanctions are indeed a form of punishment, but one that is far removed from victims. While punishment via sanctions achieves some level of retribution for wrongdoing, it fails to compel truth, repair victims, or prevent recurrence. Moreover, the current Syrian government will make investigations and prosecutions of violations difficult, if not impossible, and likely will not encourage much needed institutional reform. Targeted sanctions without accompanying political will to encourage a negotiated transition might temporarily harm some of the Syrian government’s economic interests, but have not and will not prevent the government from continuing to utilize indiscriminate attacks as a means of war.
While sanctions temporarily freeze financial assets and restrict movement of the designated parties, justice cannot be achieved by sanctions alone. Thus, suggestions by heads of state that Assad’s hold on power may be acceptable undercut the expressed objective of the very sanctions they imposed. If accountability is the aim, it is essential that they be issued in conjunction with a clear and consistent message that the sanctioned officials have forfeited their right to lead and that their victims must have the opportunity for redress.
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