The Truth About Sanctions

“There was no shortage of resources to avoid the tragedy of a Famine. … Instead, the government pursued the objective of economic, social and agrarian reform as a long-term aim, although the price paid for this ultimately elusive goal was privation, disease, emigration, mortality and an enduring legacy of disenchantment.”– Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine


A man deeply proud of his Irish roots, President Joe Biden would surely identify the Great Potato Famine of 1845-52 as the greatest crime-against-humanity of the British occupation. Under cover of a ‘natural disaster’ – the chronic failure, not of the food supply, but of a single, replaceable crop – Her Majesty’s government essentially sanctioned the death by starvation and disease of around a million people, and the desperate, dangerous emigration of vast numbers more, to stamp its imperial authority on a decimated land. As Sinead O’Connor sang, the inconvenient “truth is…there was no ‘famine’”:

See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat fish vegetables
Were shipped out of the country
Under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved…

Starvation and disease, in fact – whether deliberately propagated, purposefully enabled, or callously unchecked – were among the ‘vectors’ most effective in spreading the virus of European Empire across the globe. Building on this ignoble tradition, the British ‘Starvation Blockade’ of WWI – initially condemned as illegal by a neutral United States – proved key to both achieving ‘victory’ and imposing a vengeful ‘peace.’ Biden would doubtless assert that such literally breathtaking barbarity has no place in the modern foreign policy of the ‘land of the free.’ But it does: a central one.

Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden host Taoiseach Minister Cowan and Mrs. Cowan of Ireland for a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at the Naval Observatory Residence, March 17, 2010.

Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden host Taoiseach Minister Cowan and Mrs. Cowan of Ireland for a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at the Naval Observatory Residence, March 17, 2010. (David Lienemann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A week after the new Commander-in-Chief took office, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace, and Nicolas J.S. Davies, author of Blood on Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq, posed a morally momentous question: would Biden “end America’s Global War on children?” As they note, that war was not begun by President Trump, who, in order to fulfil his vile “campaign promises to ‘bomb the shit out of’ America’s enemies and ‘take out their families,'” needed only to escalate “Obama’s bombing campaigns,” rushing to “finish” the destruction of the self-declared Islamic State ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, leaving entire cities and towns in ruins, and thousands of civilians – very many, very young – dead.

Such ‘wars of annihilation’, particularly in urban centers, are a fast-growing trend in 21st-century conflict, with the two Cold War Superpowers – Russia (in support of its Syrian ally) and America (backed by NATO allies) – both blazing a bloody trail, producing in reaction a new arms control movement to stigmatize, radically constrain and, ideally, prohibit the use of EWIPA (Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas).

In September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer – vehemently insisting that “war in cities cannot be back-page news” – appealed to all states and non-state groups to “avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area” in urban areas. And around 70 states, led by Austria and Ireland – two peace-activist ‘middle powers,’ central to the recent successful drive for a treaty banning nuclear weapons – are now reviewing a draft International Political Declaration demanding an end to the bombardment of civilian centers.

But America’s ironically ruthless post-9/11 crusades against ‘fanatic extremists’ have centrally featured not just blitzkriegs but sieges – most notoriously of Mosul and Raqqa – deliberately designed to cause maximum deprivation and death. Among other unintended but predictable consequences, fear of being subjected to such agonies generates massive refugee flows, destabilizing states both near (e.g. Lebanon, Jordan) and far (the European Union) from the fighting. And the perceived ‘benefits’ of inflicting such double suffering – the synchronization of slaughter from the air and starvation on the ground – can ‘inspire’ others, as seen in the Saudi strangulation of Yemen, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, horror-show applauded by Trump and, so far, tacitly countenanced by Biden.


Decoupled from armed conflict, though still causing extreme suffering, the polite word for such sieges is ‘sanctions.’ Often invoked as a wise, humane alternative to war, they are in reality part of the war machine, vicious instruments of ‘statecraft’ which have proven particularly dangerous in American hands. In mid-February, foreign policy progressive Peter Beinart – stating bluntly that “the United States doesn’t just bomb its enemies. It chokes them.” – argued that, “for decades,” Washington “has supplemented its missile strikes and Special Operations with a less visible instrument of coercion and death,” blockading “weaker enemies” and “choking off their trade with the outside world.” As Benjamin and Davis write, you can “wage war on children” not only with “bombs, missiles, and bullets” but “in ways that disproportionately affect” them, “preventing countries like Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea from importing essential food or medicines or obtaining the resources they need to buy them.” “These sanctions,” they lament:

…are a brutal form of economic warfare and collective punishment that leave children dying from hunger and preventable diseases, especially during this pandemic. UN officials have called for the International Criminal Court to investigate unilateral US sanctions as crimes against humanity. The Biden Administration should immediately lift all unilateral economic sanctions.

To date, however, the Administration has moved only to consider the humanitarian impact of sanctions on the fight against COVID-19. On January 21, his first full day on the job, Biden issued a “National Security Memorandum on United States Global Leadership to Strengthen the International COVID-19 Response and to Advance Global Health Security and Biological Preparedness,” as a small part of which relevant agencies “shall promptly review existing” unilateral and international sanctions “to evaluate whether they are unduly hindering responses.” At the time of writing, this ‘prompt’ review is ongoing; but why, pending its conclusion, weren’t all potentially harmful sanctions suspended?

A particularly pressing and tragic case is that of Iran. Harshly sanctioned by President Obama prior to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) strictly curtailing its civil nuclear program, Iran was then sadistically sanctioned by President Trump as punishment for an unusual ‘crime’: fully, verifiably complying with an agreement Trump himself had just abandoned! As a matter of restoring its own political honor, perhaps saving the nuclear deal, and definitely saving many innocent lives, the US should, as Bernie Sanders vowed during the 2020 Democratic primaries, scrap the Trump sanctions and re-enter the agreement without delay or preconditions.

And if the Biden review is a fair one, it will surely reach the same conclusion as Javid Rehman, UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, who told the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021 that the “cumulative effect” of US sanctions on Iran’s healthcare system and purchasing power was creating significant “difficulties in containing the virus”.

More generally, as Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures, noted in October 2020, countries “targeted” by unilateral sanctions “face shortages of medications and medical equipment, including oxygen supplies and ventilators, protective kits, spare parts, software, fuel, electricity, drinking water and water for sanitation,” and “cannot use foreign assets for humanitarian imports.”


Invariably, US Administrations solemnly aver that even the most stringent sanctions allow exemptions for food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies. And invariably, nightmarish obstructions are established: Sisyphean regulations and paperwork; legal minefields; absurd definitions of banned items – no metal for North Korea, for example, “significantly hampering,” as Korea Peace Now! complains, “the shipment of basic medical supplies” and “reproductive health kits” (containing aluminum sterilizers); extreme delays in reviewing requests – “one NGO recently reported that it took them over a year and a half to ship 16 boxes of beans” to North Korea; harassing scrutiny and surveillance of aid agencies and charities; and, perhaps most pernicious of all, ‘secondary sanctions,’ defined by Beinart as “stunningly harsh” penalties for foreign banks and corporations daring (as not many do) to finance relief efforts in, or conduct business with, US-sanctioned nations. In addition, embargoes usually spike inflation and sink currencies, leading to a collapse in state spending and thus provision. In October 2019, Human Rights Watch detailed the effects on Iranian civilians of such compound social fractures:

Some of the worst-affected are Iranians with rare diseases and/or conditions that require specialized treatment who are unable to acquire previously available medicines or supplies. This includes people with leukemia, epidermolysis bullosa (EB, a type of disease that causes fragile, blistering skin), or epilepsy, and individuals with chronic eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.

code pink "Peace with Iran" logo

“The consequences for these people,” the report continues in grim, granular detail, “can be catastrophic”: “people with severe forms of EB are now unable to access specialized bandages and are at significant increased risk for bacterial infections, sepsis, fusion of fingers, and contractures of joints. Individuals with epilepsy who are resistant to common treatment and are unable to access foreign-made medicines may suffer frequent, controlled seizures that risk injury and result over time in severe, permanent brain damage.” And there’s more: “shortages of essential medicines can affect a much broader range of patients,” causing for example “severe complications” following Caesarean sections “related to the use of a ‘non-standard’ anaesthesia medicine because of lack of access to higher quality medicine.” And there’s more…


On March 26, “a broad network” of 55 “humanitarian, research, peacebuilding, faith-based, human rights, and other civil society organizations” – many struggling heroically to somehow provide relief – wrote to Biden, applauding his COVID-related review while urging a fundamental, permanent policy shift. In order, they write, to “save human lives and build global environments of cooperation,” not just during but beyond the pandemic, the administration must first accept the brute truth that “broad, unilateral sanctions are harming ordinary civilians” in multiple unacceptable ways. Or as one of the signatories, Daniel Jaspar of the American Friends Service Committee, argued:

The US cannot continue to claim to care about the wellbeing of civilians on one hand while restricting basic goods required for the welfare and livelihoods of whole populations on the other hand. … [T]he result is civilians bear the burden of ineffective, dangerous, and counterproductive US foreign policy.

Biden is, of course, a very long-standing pillar of the ‘national security establishment,’ and as Beinart notes, support for “sieges” – “America’s other forever war” – “retains substantial bipartisan support,” especially “in Congress, where politicians who have lost their appetite for deploying troops see an apparently cost-free way to signal their opposition to repressive and adversarial governments – and don’t care if the real costs are borne by the suffering people they claim to support.”

There are some signs of moral life on the slowly-growing peace wing of the Democratic Party. On February 11, three members of Congress – Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Ilhan Omar and Jesús G. Garcia – wrote to the president expressing the hope that the COVID-specific review “indicates a willingness…to consider the humanitarian impacts of sanctions more broadly.”

The letter, endorsed by 23 members of the House and one Senator (Ed Markey), states that “far too often and for far too long, sanctions have been imposed as a knee-jerk reaction without a measured and considered assessment,” by either the executive or legislature, “of their impacts.” A year earlier, Representative Omar introduced seven bills collectively constituting a ‘Pathway to PEACE (Progressive, Equitable, and Constructive Engagement). The package includes a ‘Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act,’ designed to strengthen oversight and prevent what Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor under President Obama, called – in a statement endorsing the ‘Pathway’  – the chronic “overuse of sanctions.”

Ominously, however Biden has appointed, as a deputy envoy to Iran, Richard Nephew, a key architect of Obama’s sanctioning of that country. Nephew is a siege-enthusiast, as evidenced in his 2017 book The Art of Sanctions, in which, as The Nation’s Aída Chávez wrote, he happily “explains how sanctions are meant to inflict pain so intolerable that it forces ‘the target’ to acquiesce to US demands.”

As noted, sanctions did play a part in ‘incentivizing’ Iran to negotiate the JCPOA. But did exerting such ‘leverage’ necessitate creating the “shortages in medicines and medical supplies” that, Chávez writes, Nephew “takes credit for?” As for the suggestion that US sanctions often compel ‘acquiescence,’ the record shows they have more often backfired, sometimes like an exploding (Cuban) cigar, allowing – as the Omar-Warren-Garcia letter notes – “authoritarian governments to further restrict civil spaces and repress civil and political rights”.


Left: Cover of "Invisible War," Right: detail from Guernica

Left: Cover of “Invisible War,” Right: detail from Guernica

But if sanctions are an ‘art’ form, the form’s ghastly masterpiece – its Guernica – was the slow suffocation of Iraq in the 1990s, leading to the preventable deaths of hundreds of thousands – according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, half a million – children.

Given that the ostensible reason for the US-led, UN-authorized blockade was preventing Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Lesley Stahl chose her words well when she asked President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, on 60 Minutes (May 12, 1996):

We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Albright, to her credit making no attempt to dispute the death toll, infamously replied:

I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – I think the price is worth it.

In her 2004 memoirs, Madam Secretary, Albright expressed despair at her answer:

I must have been crazy… As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words.

But as Sheldon Richman noted, in her self-defense Albright adopted a “woefully inadequate” stance, claiming both that “we were not embargoing medicine or food” and that “Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations.” From what, then, were the children suffering, if not a lack of food and medicine, caused by an embargo clearly designed – despite the obligatory insertion of disingenuous ‘exemptions’ – to cripple an entire country?

Campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, Albright – directing her ire in particular at the many young women supporting Senator Sanders – declared “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” In Dante’s Hell, one of the deepest, darkest, coldest places is reserved for a ruler so depraved he locked an opponent, Count Ugolino, in a ‘Tower of Hunger’ with his four young children, leaving the father (“I heard them driving nails/into the dreadful tower’s door”) to watch them starve. As Dante cries to the murderer, even if the Count was guilty, what offence could merit such vile, collective punishment? “For if” he:

was accused
Of turning traitor, trading-in your castles,
You had no right to make his children suffer.

Picture such a Tower, Mr. President, grown to monstrous proportions, ‘home’ to countless children. It probably won’t remind you of the Iraq of the 1990s. But what about Ireland, not so very long ago?

Featured image: CodePink “Sanctions Kill” logo.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.