Going for smarter sanctions, not smarting sanctions hitting innocents
NEW YORK - The United Nations has been one of the most vociferous critics of rebel groups recruiting teenage soldiers — a practice that remains universally condemned and is in violation of international humanitarian law.
But will the Security Council ever follow up with economic and military sanctions against groups such as the LTTE and the Lord's Resistance Army for defying the world body by continuing to abuse children? Or will it even follow in the footsteps of the 25-member European Union by imposing a travel ban on rebel leaders? Predictably, the chances are slim.

The resistance to sanctions is rooted in the worst case scenario in Iraq. The UN's appetite for sanctions has continued to decline ever since an economic embargo on Iraq destroyed that country's oil-rich economy and triggered a major humanitarian crisis causing the deaths of hundreds of children deprived of medical care and drugs.

Although sanctions are meant to punish political leaders, governments and rebel groups, the devastating impact of embargoes has been mostly on unintended victims. The sanctions that were aimed at punishing Iraq's political leaders never reached that country's power structure or the higher echelons of government.

As UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said last week the international community learned that such "comprehensive sanctions", if maintained for any length of time, are even more punitive for the civilian population than for the government at which they are aimed.

Carol Bellamy, the former Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) once said that some 4,500 Iraqi children under the age of five were dying every month from malnutrition and disease. The deaths were caused by a shortage of food and medical supplies blamed primarily on UN sanctions.

The widespread unpopularity of sanctions is evident every year when the General Assembly continues to condemn US sanctions against its longtime nemesis, Cuba.

Last week, for the 14th consecutive year, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly against the US embargo against the Caribbean nation presided over by Fidel Castro.

Although the resolution adopted by the Assembly was non-binding, it sent a clear message to the US because it has continued to generate increased support from member states. Last week's vote count also indicated the isolation of the US in its continued anti-Castro policy in Cuba.

In a General Assembly of 191 members, the resolution was adopted by a hefty 182 votes in favour with only four against: the US and its only continuously faithful ally Israel, and supported by two minions, Marshall Islands and Palau. The Pacific Island of Micronesia, another non-entity at the UN, abstained on the vote.

The US embargo, which has crippled the Cuban economy and caused hardships to the people of the country, has remained for 44 years.
But the US knows well it would never succeed in promoting a similar UN embargo on Cuba.

Still, after the UN sanctions debacle in Iraq, the Bush administration is now targeting Syria for its "non-cooperation" in tracking down the culprits responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But how far will the US succeed in this venture?

At a news conference last week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that if Syria did not cooperate, sanctions were a possibility. But he cautioned that the Security Council would have to decide what type of sanctions it will impose.

"Sanctions are a blunt instrument," he told reporters, "and sometimes, it tends to hurt the innocent. The innocent being the vast majority of people, and this is why over the years, there have been quite a lot of studies about smart sanctions, putting sanctions on individuals whose behaviour one wants to change rather than a sanctions regime which affects an entire population."

So, if ever there are sanctions in the future, they will be more sophisticated and carefully-targeted, such as travel bans on political leaders and the freezing of bank accounts.

Still, there can be loopholes. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is subject to a travel ban by the European Union. But he has had no problems going to Rome to attend meetings of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which is based in the Italian capital.

The travel ban does not apply to world leaders attending UN meetings — be it in New York, Rome, Paris or Geneva. So Mugabe has been defying the EU travel ban by making sure that he attends every UN meeting of world leaders — just to annoy the Europeans.

In 1997, a high-level international Task Force faulted the Security Council for imposing economic sanctions without the means to police the results of such punitive action. What is needed, the panel said, was smarter sanctions and targeted sanctions.

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