Economic sanctions have quickly become a foreign policy “tool” of choice for the US. While they are often portrayed as a kinder, gentler option than war, they result in devastating impacts on the health and well-being of communities.
Iran is only the most recent example. Since Trump took office, he has steadily fomented violence against Iran. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which had proven to be effective. Trump then ramped up his “maximum pressure” campaign, imposing severe economic sanctions on Iran. And on January 2, the US launched a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military commander. In response to this targeted killing, Iran launched airstrikes on US military bases in Iraq.
On January 8, Trump announced additional “punishing” sanctions on the Iranian government, framing these as a peaceful alternative to military action.
But these sanctions are far from a de-escalation of this crisis. In fact, they are simply warfare under another name. Here’s a backgrounder to explain what sanctions are, how they impact communities, and why they are a form of economic warfare.
What are economic sanctions?
Economic sanctions are penalties imposed on commerce and financial relations — and are usually intended to cut countries off from international relations and trade. They can restrict trade, commercial activity, or transactions with specific people or businesses.
The US has applied more economic sanctions than any other country. Sanctions have been imposed on Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela — among others.
Do economic sanctions work?
Sanctions are often framed as ways to put pressure on states to change their behavior, but they are most often ineffective as a diplomatic tool. States rarely change their practices as a result of sanctions — and political and military elites usually remain insulated. Ultimately, it’s the most vulnerable communities that suffer the harmful effects.
Not only that, sanctions often lend power to repressive regimes, who capitalize on people’s suffering to cast themselves as liberators in the face of foreign oppression — and to cement their own domestic support. When people are plunged into poverty, they more readily turn against the immediate source of that pain: US policies. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein manipulated the public through a media campaign that emphasized the impacts of sanctions and painted himself as their savior.
Further, by isolating and impoverishing people, sanctions only weaken domestic social movements and limit people’s ability to mobilize. In Iran, for instance, sanctions are impacting the women’s movement by increasing government repression, making it difficult for Iranian activists to connect with organizers across borders or seek international funding, and forcing people to shift priorities from movement-building to meeting people’s immediate needs. There is also evidence that economic sanctions actually worsen human rights, making governments more likely to engage in political repression and torture.
In limited cases, sanctions can be effective and ethical — but only if they are a genuine demand of domestic social movements seeking rights and justice, as in South Africa in the 1980s. There, sanctions weakened the apartheid regime because they were guided by civil society within the country, and a critical mass of people were willing to suffer the impacts. Today, sanctions against North Korea or Iran do not meet these standards. Progressive social movements in North Korea or Iran are not calling for sanctions; in fact, they are opposed to their devastating humanitarian impacts.
What is the humanitarian impact of economic sanctions?
We know well the deadly impact of sanctions on communities. From Iraq to North Korea, and Cuba to Venezuela, US sanctions endanger people’s lives, particularly those already most vulnerable in society: women, children, and people living in poverty. In fact, research has shown that sanctions trigger similar devastation on communities as war.
In the 1990s, when sanctions were imposed on Iraq, the human toll was devastating. We heard firsthand from women’s organizations in Iraq that women and families were suffering the impacts. Health clinics could not stock their shelves with vital medicines. People were unable to feed their families. By disrupting the economy, sanctions deprived people of income and impacted infrastructure. In response, MADRE mobilized women from the US and the Middle East to bring a convoy of trucks carrying milk and medicines to local clinics, all the while sounding the call for an end to those sanctions.
More recently, in Iran, Trump’s previous round of sanctions — which prevented Iran from exporting oil and tightened restrictions on the banking sector — forced the country into a deep recession, increasing the cost of basic necessities, like food and fuel, and limiting access to life-saving medicine.
In North Korea, reports show that sanctions have restricted access to medicines and medical equipment, making it more difficult to provide health services. They have obstructed the ability of aid organizations to deliver humanitarian aid, caused shortages of fuel and electricity, and pushed the economy into further crisis.
Similarly, one study showed that sanctions have killed at least 40,000 people in Venezuela between 2017 and 2018. In fact, a former UN Special Rapporteur who visited Venezuela said the sanctions could amount to “crimes against humanity.”
How do economic sanctions impact women and girls?
Women and girls — who often shoulder the burdens of procuring food, water, and fuel for the household — are often disproportionately impacted by economic sanctions. That’s because sanctions often raise food prices, impact water infrastructure, and make fuel more expensive. Further, the impact on the health sector can affect women’s reproductive and maternal health care, resulting in worsened maternal and child mortality.
In addition, women — who work in industries sometimes explicitly targeted by sanctions, like retail or textiles — are likely to become unemployed and pushed out of the public sphere. This has been the case in North Korea, Haiti, Iraq, and Myanmar.
Economic sanctions also worsen gender-based violence and discrimination. When they are economically weakened, governments are less likely to be able to protect women’s rights. And as women become unemployed, they have fewer protections against violence — lacking the financial ability to leave a violent relationship, for example. Often, the economic pressure of sanctions also causes a rise in trafficking and women are forced into prostitution to sustain their families, where they are particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
What can we do now?
We must stand in solidarity with people impacted by economic sanctions, including by providing vital humanitarian aid to struggling communities and supporting social movements in countries affected by US sanctions.
Increasingly, progressive policymakers have been speaking out against economic sanctions, with some challenging this long-unquestioned practice. The Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act — introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar — limits the President’s power to impose economic sanctions without Congressional approval, and provides increased protections to shield humanitarian aid, health care, and critical infrastructure from sanctions.
MADRE has signed onto a coalition letter supporting this bill, and other efforts to limit the use of economic sanctions. Read the letter here.
Speak up against sanctions. Call the US Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, and ask to be connected to your Member of Congress. Ask for your Representative’s commitment to support this bill — and other efforts to limit the use of devastating economic sanctions.