Human Rights Above All Else: A Case against International Sanctions

The recent North Korean response towards the increased UN sanctions illustrates just one of the many reasons that sanctions are an inappropriate tool in pursuing regime changes in foreign nations – autocrats don’t care. The common theory of sanctions assumes that by blocking regimes’ access to certain “necessary” goods, such as oil, these regimes will conform to international demands, or else risk the destruction of their nation. However, this is a false assumption about the autocrat’s decision-making process. In this article, I will outline why sanctions philosophically, historically, and empirically fail to effect regime changes, as well as argue for an alternative tool for change: fostering grassroots movements and global integration.

The underlying problem in the reasoning of sanctions is its idealism. The positivist reality is that political leaders are generally out for themselves, not for the success of their nation. Because of this, sanctions cannot work by ruining a nation, for if the leaders perceive that they can still hold onto power while their nation declines, they will simply disregard the sanctions. Historically, we see this; the homes of autocrats are typically lavish, despite the poverty of their nation. That is to say, leaders know how to take care of themselves, as well as to maintain control, in the face of sanctions.

The theory of sanctions then argues that they help to incite a revolution, under the assumption that if a nation is impoverished, the people’s dissatisfaction will impel them to topple the autocratic regime. Regardless of effectiveness, this theory surely transgresses certain ethical boundaries; is it really moral to thrust a population into poverty for political goals, even if the ends are more “humane?” Based on current ethical norms, the answer is no: the ends do not justify the means. As for effectiveness, this theory does not hold. Its failure is exemplified in many regimes, such as that of the USSR and North Korea, where even under intense food shortages, the people did not revolt. Statistically, the success rate is low – 4% for economic sanctions according to Robert Pape[1]. Furthermore, from looking at modern sanctioned countries, these countries’ ability to survive even with an economy in shambles reveals their resiliency. For example, Cuba, which has been under US sanctions for 50 years, and Iran show no signs of destabilizing civil disobedience.

Perhaps it is difficult to see how autocratic regimes can survive without resources. This can easily be explained by both defections from sanctions and a reshuffling of resources from national well-being to national stability. In the former, some countries will typically defect form an international sanction, which undermines the whole process. For example, concerning the recent increase in sanctions on North Korea, China has explicitly stated it would continue to assist the DPRK. Russia maintains the same position, believing that negotiations are a better route than coercion when dealing with these kinds of autocratic regimes. Even if a regime does not have enough allies, there are ways to smuggle in necessary resources, which Cuba has done by smuggling in resources from Germany and Egypt.

However, sanctions do work in the sense that they reduce the total resources a nation receives from international sources. To account for the deficit, autocrats reshuffle resources from social programs, such as healthcare, to structures that maintain their power. This ranges from increasing their tools of repression, such as the military, to increasing taxes, which can overburden an already impoverished population[2]. In other instances, sanctions may hurt private enterprise, which further pushes control towards the public sector[3]. This poses an ethical and humanitarian dilemma, for sanctions not only fail its intended purpose, but increase poverty and repression.

One of the paradoxes of sanctions is that not only does it typically fail, but it may result in aggression, as North Korea has shown by ending its cease-fire with South Korea. This is because leaders are not simply rational actors, but psychologically-driven actors as well, and as such, may wish to “save face” or assert aggression so that they are not perceived as weak – a preparation for future leverage. Historically, there is evidence for sanction-driven aggression, such as with the Japanese Empire, where US oil sanctions resulted in the attack on Pearl Harbor. War after all, is often a more desirable option than conceding to demands and risking their regime’s power, which is usually dependent on a status quo – might as well go out with a bang.

What should be done then, if sanctions aren’t as effective as people think? To clarify, sanctions do have some merit, but relying on them as a significant tool is not-wise. Sanctions should be applied “intelligently.” That is to say, they have to be applied in ways in which they can limit a regime’s power, but spare the population. The problem however, is that these situations are rare. A more effective tool to use would be to promote global integration, which does the opposite of sanctions. By globalizing a nation, the inflow of foreign ideas will inevitably occur, which in turn will expose the citizens to new ways of thinking, new ways of conceptualizing their ideal. The rationale is that, through these exchanges of information, an oppressed population will understand that there are other alternatives to its current regime, and will fight for those alternatives if it so wishes. This policy can be pursued both by smuggling western ideas into the regimes and by negotiating forms of educational foreign exchanges in order to create a pro-democracy class in those countries. Historical evidence supports this. For example, the opening of the USSR occurred through the elites, who gradually, after becoming more educated and “foreign,” began to liberalize their nation. Of course, there were periods of conservatism, such as during the Brezhnev era, but still, the general trend was that as the Party became more educated, the more liberal its views became. Just looking at the KGB serves as evidence, for it was both one of the most international and least ideological department in the USSR. In addition, as the masses became exposed to western ideas in the 70s, they began to revolt in the satellite states. Turning to North Korea, the foreign-educated Kim Jong-un has shown more pro-liberal tendencies, such as when he established an internet service (although limited), met with Dennis Rodman, and even expressed a desire to talk diplomacy with Obama. China seems to be a key example as well, for as its free-market tendencies increase, its people become more conscious of democratization; China has gone a long way democratically since the Maoist days. And I would be remiss not to mention the Arab Spring (empowered through social media), the Prague Spring (driven largely by the intelligentsia), the Orange Revolution (supported by the West), and other similar grassroots movement.

These examples show that in aims to topple regimes, the international community should actually try to develop nations economically. Perhaps the international community is apprehensive due to ideological reasons, but ethically, human rights should be the most important issue; if a high living standard and free democracy are achieved under some self-claimed socialist state, let it be. In terms of social movements, a population tends to engage in activism after certain needs are met. Russia shows this for example, where only recently, after having experienced a relative rise in the standard of living, are Russians more willing to criticize Putin’s strongman democracy; since they don’t have to worry about food and clothes as much, Russians are willing to fight for abstract ideas such as freedom and human rights.

Together with enacting policies of economic assistance and global integration, the international community should also foster the growth of civic societies and human empowerment. This can be done by funding organizations such as NGOs or academia, as well as more informal methods, such as South Korea’s tactic of smuggling media into North Korea, which has given people hope of a better world[4]. Do not underestimate the power of people-driven movements. As Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

There are fears however, that assisting these regimes will increase their military potential, thus making them a viable threat. This argument is not that convincing. For one, autocrats tend to be aggressive when they feel their power is directly threatened, which happens with sanctions and antagonistic relationships. Fostering economic growth and social movements however, are indirect policies that often don’t catch the attention of autocrats (there are exceptions, like the Orange Revolution). Rationally, it wouldn’t make sense for these regimes to attack. The military power of the US and its allies is too great to be threatened by autocratic blocs, so other than an arbitrary pursuit to save face, or as a necessity due to low resources, autocratic regimes are unlikely to wage war.

The evidence against sanctions is strong. Case studies of various nations show how democratization successes are usually people-driven rather than sanctions-driven. And statistically, democratization is more successful in nations not hindered by sanctions. In light of this, sanctions appear to be more of a rhetorical tool of politicians rather than an effective policy tool. As such, international focus should be towards nation building, grassroots democratization, empowering the oppressed, and above all else, humanitarianism.


[1] Pape, Robert. “Why Economic Sanctions Still Do Not Work.” International Security 23 (1998): 66-77.

[2] Escriba-Folch, Abel and Wright, Joseph. “Dealing with Tyranny: International Sanctions and the Survival ofAuthoritarian Rulers.” International Studies Quarterly 54 (2010): 335-359.

[3] Bahrami, Natasha and Parsi, Trita. “Blunt Instrument.” Boston Review, February 6, 2012.

[4] “North Korea cracks down on knowledge smugglers.” News.com.au. January 1, 2013.