Sanctions, a question of who, where and when

Phil Hearse challenges the usefulness of sanction regimes, especially as those most affected are often the working class and poor, rather than the intended political elite.


I am against supporting US-EU sanctions—mainly American devised and led—against Russia. Obviously, we do not say that all sanctions imposed by imperialist states are reactionary—a key example here is sanctions against South Africa, which were a material factor in bringing down the apartheid regime. These were fought for by the anti-apartheid movement, and quite rightly. And of course, we support the BDS movement and implicitly call for all states to implement it, unlikely though that is. It’s all a question of who, where and when. In the last 20 years, international sanctions regimes have become a central weapon in the US campaign against its perceived political enemies and (sometimes) economic rivals.

Sanctions were used to wreck the Iraqi economy and state under Saddam Hussein after the first Iraq war, with disastrous consequences for the living standards and health of the Iraqi people. (Actually, reprisals against civilian populations are a war crime under international law, despite being widely used, especially by the US and its allies). Countries formally under such US sanctions are Cuba (of course), Iran, Syria and Venezuela. But it is worth noting that the United States uses WTO rules to sanction other rivals, for example, China, on the economic front (particularly under the last US President Donald Trump). Gaza is a sanctioned para-state, in retaliation for its people having twice elected Hamas governments, again with horrible consequences for the general population of that territory. In the case of Gaza, the excuse for backing the Israeli blockade is that Hamas is a terrorist organisation. De facto Afghanistan and Hothi-controlled Yemen are under US-led sanctions, once again with dire consequences for the ordinary people, especially as in Yemen the civilian population is also the victim of a vicious aerial campaign by the Saudi-led coalition, supported and mainly planned by Britain. (In passing, we might add that the international, and quite justified outcry against attacks by Russian planes, that have targeted Ukrainian civilians is in stark contrast to the silence about the terror bombing in Yemen, and the UK government’s central role in it).

The freezing of the assets of sanctioned countries represents the way that the US uses its decisive weight in the international banking system to seize the resources of countries it is opposed to. Most recently Joe Biden authorised the theft of half of Afghanistan’s $7bn in frozen assets, allegedly to compensate the families of 9/11 victims. This money is urgently needed, hopefully, administered by aid agencies, to relieve famine and poverty in Afghanistan. The US is blocking aid to Afghanistan as an act of revenge, in which the people pay the price of the US defeat by the Taliban.

American sanctions work in a particular way, to be part of the increasing attempt by the US to extend its political sovereignty and legal jurisdiction worldwide, the kind of thing which gets a foreign national as Journalist Julian Assange charged in the US with ‘treason’!. Since the Helms-Burton Act of 1986, foreign nationals and companies that do not comply with American sanctions can themselves be sanctioned, including by American courts. The first people to be threatened by this were the Ricard corporation in France, which planned to co-operate with Cuba in launching an international Havana Club rum brand, something bitterly opposed by the Bacardi US drinks firm. Ricard executives were told they would be arrested if they set foot on US soil.

The speeches yesterday by US President Joe Biden and by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen for the EU were absolutely specific: they aim to wreck the Russian economy, at massive cost to the Russian people, who would if these sanctions were at all implemented, be impoverished. And by the way, does anyone really believe that these sanctions would be the ‘short, sharp shock’ intended to get Russia to change tack in Ukraine? Of course not. The United States would find infinite ways to keep them in place endlessly, just as it has the harsh and cruel sanctions against Iran, which have had a terrible impact on the Iranian people. Kept in place despite Iran having met every single requirement of the Iran nuclear deal framework (the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’).

I do not think we should be in favour of wrecking the Russian economy for generations, with dreadful consequences for the living standards, health and welfare of ordinary people. The oligarchs will always find ways in the international banking system of hiding their money; it is the Russian workers who will pay the price of broader sanctions.

Sanctions against Venezuela were imposed after the Madero government frustrated the attempt by sections of the right to impose the self-proclaimed millionaire ‘president’ Juan Guaidó. Of course, the Madero government is not a paragon of socialism or any other type of democracy. But we should not be prepared to ‘sanction’ the right of the United States and its allies to decide who is democratic and who is not, and who is worthy of international sanctions and who is not.

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Phil Hearse is a member of the National Education Union and a supporter of the ACR

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