Economic sanctions imposed for national security reasons, such as those invoked against Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Russia, have a mixed record. In Iran’s case, the sanctions have forced the Islamic regime to limit its nuclear ambitions. In the case of Cuba, by contrast, the sanctions fostered the isolation that prevented the country from escaping the communist orthodoxy into which it settled shortly after its 1959 revolution.
Sanctions in response to gross human rights violations have a better record. Cases with significant adverse consequences do not occur to me.
This record seems to justify the Biden administration and its allies in Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union by recently imposing sanctions on Myanmar for the massacre of several hundred civilians for protesting against the military coup in the United States. February 1st; and on China for its genocidal practices against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province. Sanctions against Myanmar and China can have an impact on mitigating abuses, although in different ways.
Sanctions have had a significant impact on improving human rights in the past. Those imposed by the United States on South Africa in the mid-1980s – in combination with measures such as an international sports boycott – contributed to the release of Nelson Mandela and the legalization of the African National Congress in 1990. at the end of apartheid in 1994.
Another example from the same period is the imposition of sanctions on Communist Poland following its declaration of martial law in December 1981 and the regime’s crushing of the Solidarity movement. The gradual reduction of these sanctions as the repression eased contributed to the election of a non-Communist government in Poland by the end of the decade and the fall of communism in Europe from l ‘Is.
In the case of Myanmar, the sanctions imposed by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the EU can have a substantial economic impact. The Burmese army, known as Tatmadaw, controls much of the country’s economy, but with half a million men in its armed forces, far more than in countries of comparable size, it is thirsty. silver. A portion of its revenue comes from the sale of valuable hardwoods, natural gas and high quality jade to China. Yet it has also benefited greatly from trade with the West and with other Asian countries under Western influence, such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand. Most civilians in Myanmar boycott consumer products from military-owned businesses. Western economic sanctions reinforce this internal pressure on the armed forces.
China, however, is different. Sanctions focused on its gross human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities may have limited economic impact. The sums at stake are microscopic compared to the scale of China’s trade with the West. Yet that does not negate the value of the sanctions imposed by the Biden administration and its allies. The more multilateral the sanctions, the more effective they will be. Sanctions are an important way to shine a light on China’s abuses. China’s retaliatory sanctions against Western officials and NGOs that have documented its genocidal practices only increase public attention to these abuses.
It would be inconceivable that Western countries which define themselves by their respect for fundamental freedoms passively accept the mistreatment inflicted by China on these minorities. At least one million Uyghurs are confined by Chinese authorities in detention camps that the state calls “re-education centers”. What is going on there must be revealed to the world. The confinement is based solely on their identity as Uyghurs – speaking their own language, associating with other Uyghurs and observing their traditional and peaceful religious practices. In detention, they are brainwashed into imitations of the ethnic Chinese majority, the Han Chinese. Uyghur women are forcibly sterilized. Most of the mosques in Xinjiang have been destroyed. Contacts with other Uyghurs in neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries have largely been cut off.
The clear goal is to destroy the Uyghurs as a distinct minority. It is not destruction in the gas chambers; and it is not about ethnic cleansing as in the former Yugoslavia or massacres as in Rwanda; but its ultimate goal of eliminating a minority is similar. The United States and other governments have called it genocide.
Options are limited for Western governments to respond to developments in Xinjiang. Action through the United Nations is not possible because China (and Russia) has veto power in the Security Council. Likewise, China has not accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and a referral to the ICC would require a Security Council resolution.
Although China’s economic weight makes any general disruption of trade relations unthinkable, a few Western companies have acted bravely by forgoing the use of Xinjiang cotton in their manufacture – including Swedish company H&M. This could cost the company dearly, as Chinese authorities encourage a retaliatory boycott.
The real effect of Western sanctions is to tarnish the reputation of the Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping. Xi made himself the absolute ruler of China, the most powerful since Mao Zedong, amending the Chinese constitution to allow himself to remain president for life. The sanctions will help ensure that his genocidal policies are set in his name. The only way to lessen the damage to his reputation would be to end the persecution of Uyghurs.
Prestige is very important for China – and for Xi Jinping. China is spending huge sums on the 2022 Winter Olympics to improve its reputation, as it did for the 2008 Summer Games. The president regularly finds opportunities to demonstrate his greatness. The risk of sullying his reputation with a widely held view that his government is committing genocide could provide some impetus to counter the abuses.
Admittedly, there may be little chance that economic pressure will persuade the Burmese armed forces to give in to their slaughter of citizens protesting against their coup, or that the damage to Xi Jinping’s prestige will make a difference. difference in the treatment of Uyghurs by China. But failure to act will further embolden leaders around the world who want to trample on human rights.
IMAGE: Riot police hold their guns as they confront protesters during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on March 8, 2021 (Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images)