Peacekeeping: Everyone Agrees That Embargoes Don't Work


December 4, 2007: The UN now believes that arms embargoes are more important as symbols, than as effective tools for reducing violence in a region. Embargoes are relatively easy to evade, given a few extra bucks for bribes. But there's a larger problem at work. Developed as a consequence of the internationalist movement in the nineteenth century and formalized in the charters of the League of Nations and UN as a way "short of war" to express collective international displeasure over hostile or aggressive acts by individual states actions, sanctions and embargoes really can only work against a government that is susceptible to popular pressure. That is, embargoes only work against a democracy of some sort.

Unfortunately, the governments most likely to engage in threatening or aggressive actions are those that usually have the least concern about the opinions or welfare of their citizens. So sanctions against Iraq over Saddam's violations of international law, only hurt the common folks, which turned out to be a public relations disaster for the West. Trying them against Venezuela's president-for-life Hugo Chavez probably won't work either, since he's riding a wave of almost fascistic anti-US nationalism. On the other hand, we may be seeing sanctions at work in the internal political tensions that seem to be manifesting themselves in Iran, between the religious leadership, which, however corrupt, probably does worry about the welfare of the people, whereas the Iranian president is apparently drunk on his own rhetoric.

A recent UN study of arms embargos documented their failure to stop bad guys from getting weapons, just because the UN says they shouldn't. As for the "symbolic" power of arms embargos, well, that AK47 that just shot you is a pretty real, and symbols won't make victims bulletproof.




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