Do US sanctions work?
Posted on December 20th, 2021

By P.K. Balachandran Courtesy Ceylon Today

On Human Rights Day this year, the US sanctioned a number of individuals and entities in several countries for alleged human rights violations. Among these were individuals from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. While the two Sri Lankans sanctioned were low-level military personnel (Lt. Com. Chandana Hettiarachchi and Army Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake), the Bangladeshis sanctioned were of high rank and their number was also much higher.

Those sanctioned in Bangladesh were: the current Inspector-General of Police and a former Director-General of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Benazir Ahmed; the current RAB Director-General Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun; ADG (Operations) Khan Mohammad Azad; former ADG (Operations) Tofayel Mustafa Sorwar; Mohammad Jahangir Alam; and Mohammad Anwar Latif Khan. A former RAB Lieutenant Colonel, Miftah Uddin Ahmed, was also sanctioned. The sanctioned individuals and their immediate family have been barred from travelling to the US. 

The State Department said the sanctions on the Bangladeshis were imposed on the basis of NGOs’ submissions that more than 600 disappearances had taken place since 2019 and nearly 600 extra-judicial killings had taken place since 2019 and RAB was blamed for these. While the sanctioned Sri Lankans had been put on trial (Ratnayake was even sentenced to death and then pardoned), in the case of the Bangladeshis, no cases had been registered. The US had sanctioned them purely on the basis of allegations of NGOs without hearing the other side in violation of its own standards of justice. 

Sri Lanka and Bangladesh reacted to the sanctions differently. The Lankans took the sanctions in their stride partly because the two men had cases against them,and partly because the country had faced such sanctions before, and was none the worse for them. In contrast, the Bangladeshis were incensed. For the first time, its top brass was being sanctioned and the institution targeted was the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) that had successfully spearheaded the hunt for drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists. 

In the case of Bangladesh, the US action had struck at the legitimacy of the Sheikh Hasina Government. Hasina’s political success was based on her merciless action against drug peddlers, drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists. Dhaka felt that the US action was a move to destabilise Bangladesh, now emerging from being a basket case to becoming South Asia’s economic tiger. Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen had no option but to summon the US Ambassador Earl Miller and deliver a protest.

Derek Grossman, national security and Indo-Pacific analyst at RAND Corporation and Michael Kugelman, South Asia Senior Associate at the Wilson Center viewed the US action in the context of strategic competition against China,” and noted that the Biden Administration had not been happy about Dhaka’s growing ties with China.Dhaka has not been anxious to join US-led QUAD. A diplomat said that the US has not shed its anger on Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League, for winning independence for East Pakistan, breaking its ally, Pakistan.

Futility of Sanctions  

Do sanctions deliver the goods? Mostly, no says Daniel W. Drezner in a piece in Foreign Affairs(Sept-Oct 2021) entitled: The United States of Sanctions: The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion. As far as Sri Lankans are concerned they are blasé about sanctions as these have not affected them or have resulted in changes in policy. Sri Lanka’s ideas or policies on human rights have not changed as a consequence of sanctions. The existing policies have the tacit and explicit approval of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community because these policies are considered necessary for the survival of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist State.

In the case of Bangladesh, the sanctions are unlikely to lead to any change in policy because Sheikh Hasina’s political clout is based on her merciless action against drug peddlers, drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists, actions which were necessary for law and order and economic development. 

Globally too, sanctions have not worked, though they have been the most oft used tool of US foreign policy, points out Daniel Drezner. He points out that during President Barack Obama’s first term, the US designated an average of 500 entities for sanctions per year for reasons ranging from human rights abuses to nuclear proliferation to violations of territorial sovereignty. That figure nearly doubled over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency. President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions against Myanmar, Nicaragua and Russia. 

Drezner says that economic sanctions have hampered the targeted countries but, have not broken them. But this not grasped by the US leadership. A 2019 Government Accountability Office study concluded that not even the federal Government knew if sanctions were working. 

The truth is that Washington’s fixation with sanctions has little to do with their efficacy and everything to do with something else: American decline. No longer an unchallenged superpower, the United States can’t throw its weight around the way it used to. In relative terms, its military power and diplomatic influence have declined. Two decades of war, recession, polarisation, and now a pandemic, have dented American power. Frustrated US presidents are left with fewer arrows in their quiver, and they are quick to reach for the easy, available tool of sanctions,” Drezner says. 

He further said that sanctions hurt the US too, and the US is oblivious to this. Sanctions strain relations with allies, antagonise adversaries, and impose economic hardship on innocent civilians. Thus, sanctions not only reveal American decline but accelerate it too. To make matters worse, the tool is growing duller by the year. Future sanctions are likely to be even less effective as China and Russia happily swoop in to rescue targeted actors and as US allies and partners tire of the repeated application of economic pressure. Together, these developments will render the US dollar less central to global finance, reducing the effect of sanctions that rely on that dominance.”

In the case of Bangladesh, the US sanctions came at the wrong time when the country was celebrating its 50th year of its hard-won independence. It was a diplomatic blunder to impose sanctions aimed at knocking out the political foundation of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League regime, which got Bangladesh its independence. 

From now, Dhaka will be even less inclined to follow US advice to abjure China and join its camp instead. Both Grossman and Kugelman expressed doubts about the efficacy of the sanctions. According to them the prospect of Dhaka’s loosening ties with Beijing or improving its rights record look remote. 

But, the US will carry on with its sanctions regardless. US policymakers have become so sanctions-happy that they have blinded themselves to the long-term costs of this tool,” Drezner says. 

Economic sanctions have been part of US history, Drezner recalls.  President Thomas Jefferson got the Embargo Act of 1807 to punish Britain and France for harassing US ships. But the sanctions were a disaster because the US needed European markets and not the other way round. President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to support the League of Nations by arguing that its power to sanction would act as a substitute for war. A nation boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender,” he said in 1919. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy,” he added. But in the end, sanctions imposed by the League of Nations failed to deter Italy from invading Ethiopia in 1935 or to stop any other act of belligerence that led to World War II, Drezner points out. To the contrary, the US embargo on fuel and other war materials going to Japan precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Drezner does not deny that economic sanctions have crippled targeted countries, but argues that they have not won them over either. Calling for a more judicious use of the tool, he says: Policymakers should treat sanctions like a scalpel, not a Swiss Army knife.”

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