Rabat – September will likely be a hungry month for many in the Middle East as sanctions wreak havoc on the poor and vulnerable. Millions of civilians are feeling the impact of “targeted” Western embargoes. Struggling countries across the Middle East are seeing their last economic opportunities dry up because of sanctions nominally targeted at elites.
Events in the last 24 hours have once again highlighted the devastating scale of these measures. Meanwhile, millions of Syrian civilians face starvation, restrictions are bringing Lebanon to the brink of economic collapse, and Israel continues its siege of the Gaza strip with impunity. As Western powers attempt to dislodge “corrupt elites and authoritarian leaders” in the Middle East, or those who pose a perceived threat to stability, it is civilians bearing the brunt of sanctions’ consequences.
Sanctions in theory
The idea of sanctions, now such a common reality in the Middle East, is nothing new. The tactic is as old as time. In ancient history, invading armies encircled cities and starved them into submission to avoid having to storm fortifications. The tactic is no longer permissible according to international law. Since the brutal three-year siege of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War, the international community has officially banished the approach.
Surrounding a city and starving the population is illegal under humanitarian law. Doing it to an entire country, however, remains an acceptable strategy for regime change. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly hinted that the country intends its sanctions on Iran to force Iranians to overthrow their government. Yet sanctions have none of the stigma that comes with regime change wars.
The basic theory of sanctions is that they target and economically weaken an entity until it submits to the demands of the sanctioning party. The theory has been used to economically strangle countries such as Cuba and Venezuela for not falling in line with US economics. The EU and US have applied sanctions to businesses, individuals, and countries.
Sanctions in practice
The US and the EU dole out sanctions with casual abandon. In the last few months they have considered sanctions on Belarus, China, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Zimbabwe. The casual use of these measures has become such a norm that the US today slapped sanctions on the International Criminal Court for investigating US soldiers. It further threatened sanctions on a small German port city to prevent the completion of a pipeline that imports Russian gas.
Over the last few decades sanctions have hurt untold millions in the Middle East. Sanctions on Iraq alone caused up to one million children to starve to death in the 1990s. While this might seem to be in a distant past, history looks set to repeat itself.
In the Middle East, sanctions are a tool to “crush” enemies of the West. In Syria, 9.3 million people are facing starvation after the US implemented a set of sanctions called the “Caesar Act.” The act gets its name from a brave photographer who smuggled evidence of Syrian torture out of the country. As usual, the sanctions are sold as righteous and targeted. In reality they are set to create untold human misery.
The US has decided to destroy the economy of a country devastated by civil war and with few people left to oppose the regime the US aims to topple. A secondary victim is Lebanon, which has seen its vital trade with its northern neighbor dry up. As the US promised aid to Beirut after the August 4 explosion, US sanctions were actively crippling the already devastated Lebanese economy.
Sanctions during a pandemic
“It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s medical system – given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering and wider contagion,” UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said in March as the pandemic spread. Sanctions “may also impede medical efforts in Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe,” she added.
The US ignored her statements and instead implemented new tougher sanctions. Mehdi Hassan wrote in the Intercept that “brutal” sanctions on Iran significantly exacerbated the local epidemic. Restrictions ensured Iran could import few medical supplies amid a sanctions-driven economic crisis.
In Gaza, Israeli sanctions closely resemble the ancient concept of a siege. Israel closed all entrances to the city, blocking the entry of food, medical supplies, and essential fuel while the Israel navy limited fishing grounds. The absence of fuel meant Gaza’s sole power plant was able to provide only a few hours of electricity per day.
On the night of September 1, three children burned to death in Gaza when candles used in the absence of electricity sent a family home ablaze. If the casual use of sanctions continues in the Middle East, 2020 could see a death toll that exceeds even that of US sanctions on Venezuela. The notorious restrictions in the South American country have killed thousands of innocent civilians.
As long as Western leaders like Emmanuel Macron can casually threaten sanctions on struggling nations such as Lebanon, this form of indirect collective punishment is likely to continue unabated. Even when corrupt leaders are targeted, it will always be the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer the consequences.
If we are to prevent a calamitous death toll in the Middle East, the international community needs a new perspective on sanctions. Until that happens Western nations will continue to inflict onto the Middle East the same moral as the ancient Athenians posed at the Siege of Melos. “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must” has no place in modern diplomacy.