Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

1st October 2000

Justifying embargos in the 21st century

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Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh was waiting in line at an airport in Paris last month when he saw an unusual sign hanging over the immigration counter.

On one side was the customary sign which read: "European Union (EU) passport holders only". But on the other side was a more intriguing sign which read: "All others and Austria."

As Chowdhury would recall last week, a visibly angry Austrian standing behind him was heard muttering: "Where do they think we are from? The Third World?".

The Austrian, of course, was furious at the French who were one of the vigorous supporters of the short-lived EU sanctions against Austria and enforcing it with a vengeance.

The remark also reinforced the fact that most sanctions, primarily by the UN Security Council, have been directed at Third World nations including Libya, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti and Liberia.

The seven-month-old sanctions on Austria, which were lifted in early September, were imposed by the 15-member EU to punish the Austrian government for having as its coalition partner the right- wing Freedom Party led by the controversial Jorg Haider.

Haider was accused of publicly advocating neo-Nazi racist policies: a non-no in Western Europe, or for that matter even in the United States. But Haider denied the charge.

Austria was one of the few or perhaps the only Western industrial nation in recent times to have suffered an embargo, even though the sanctions were both relatively mild and shortlived.

But the record for the longest and the most severe embargo goes to Iraq: a country which has continued to suffer the consequences of sanctions imposed on it since August 1990 following its invasion of neighbouring Kuwait. The sanctions were a punishment for the invasion.

The five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council namely the US, Britain, France, China and Russia who can formally initiate or end embargoes, remain divided over Iraq.

France, China and Russia want sanctions lifted. 

But it cannot force the issue in the Security Council because the US and Britain have threatened to veto it.

Both the US and Britain feel that Iraq should continue to be punished until either President Saddam Hussein is ousted from power (which is not part of any UN resolution on sanctions) or all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons are destroyed.

If the issue is put to a vote in the 189-member General Assembly, chances are Iraq could win. 

But the UN's highest policy making body has been marginalised by the 15-member Security Council: an elitist body described as a political anachronism at a time when, paradoxically, Western leaders are demanding democracy the world over but not at the United Nations.

Armed with veto powers, the Security Council is one of the world's most undemocratic bodies set up during the founding of the United Nations over 55 years ago. The UN is stuck with it. 

But despite the intrasigence of the US and Britain, the 10-year-old sanctions on Iraq, which has devastated that country's economy and caused the deaths of hundreds of children, are threatening to unravel.

France and Russia have challenged the embargo arguing that it does not apply to civilian flights carrying humanitarian aid. 

Both Russian and French planes have recently flown to Iraq carrying not only doctors and medical supplies but also business executives and soccer players. 

But the two hardliners, the US and Britain, insist that these flights are a violation of the UN embargo. 

So what do you do when 10 countries, for example, openly decide to violate the embargo. Impose sanctions on another 10?

Judging from events unfolding in Iraq last week, the US and Britain are set to lose this battle because the international community is begining to gradually chip away at the sanctions.

China, the fifth veto-wielding member of the Council, has expressed its strong opposition to the continued sanctions on Iraq, but has not given any indication of ferrying relief supplies to Baghdad. At least, not yet.

India, which has signed an economic co-operation agreement with Iraq, has indicated it will probably follow the French and the Russians with its own humanitarian flight into Baghdad. Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Iceland may be next in line. 

Perhaps it is also time for Sri Lanka to send its own humanitarian flight into Baghdad, maybe loaded with crates of tea and plenty of sympathy.

Addressing reporters at the UN recently, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointed out that it was very hard to figure out what "humanitarian" means these days. "The United States disagreed with those who wished to fly into Iraq," she warned. 

She accused the Iraqis of importing 12,000 cases of scotch whisky. "I am not sure whether this is food or medicine", she said rather sarcastically.

Speaking on behalf of the 15-member EU, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told a UN news conference that France continued to believe that the UN embargo on Iraq should be lifted. 

But action on this, he pointed out, should be taken within the framework of Security Council resolutions which ensured the security of countries neighbouring Iraq. 

''France believed that the sanctions had become primitive, outdated and economically absurd,'' he added. 

However, that was not a view shared by all 15 countries of the EU, and it appeared that Iraq was still not prepared to accept the provisions of UN resolutions, he added. 

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