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General Assembly Plenary
Enforcement of UN Sanctions

The United Nations is the only organization capable of making any form of international law. If a nation will not capitulate to UN demands, however, there is very little recourse. The United Nations devised the concept of sanctions as a means to enforce UN regulation without the use of military force.

A sanction is a ban forbidding trade to a nation. It is used either to keep a country from getting certain things (weapons, for example) or to choke the nation economically and thereby force the nation to bow to UN regulation. There are several types of sanctions, ranging from full comprehensive economic and trade sanctions to more specific sanctions, such as arms embargos, travel bans, financial, and diplomatic relations. The situation and the severity of the country or government’s infraction dictate when and in what form sanctions are employed.

There are problems with sanctions. For them to be effective, the UN must be united. Sanctions are successful only if no country trades with the sanctioned nation. If countries disagree with the sanctions and choose to ignore them, sanctions become ineffective. This has happened in the past because a country under sanction has a resource that another country needs (for example, oil or grain). Another problem with sanctions is the impact on the sanctioned country’s civilian population. Sanctions hurt the innocent, who can starve to death under them. This is not the intent of the sanctions, but no conceivable process has been developed to hurt on the government with sanctions. Historically, civilians suffer the most.

A solution in the past has been airdropping food to the civilian population; it helps, but remains ineffective. Air drops cannot supplement for everyone. Economic considerations and military risks also exist in regard to this plan. In order to drop supplies, planes must fly over the sanctioned nation, violating national sovereignty.

Attempting to solve the problems of enforcing sanctions also meets with problems. One solution was “oil for food” in Iraq. This was ineffective for helping the civilian population because there is no way to insure they receive the benefit. The government can keep whatever is gained in “oil for food”. This also does not uphold the idea of sanctions—forcing a country to capitulate to UN regulations by choking them economically. By allowing any trade, you do not have your fingers tight around the sanctioned nation’s throat.

The UN has attempted to curb dissenting nations from trading with sanctioned countries by putting (or threatening to put) the dissenting nations under sanction as well. This cannot work. If one nation is under sanction, and another nation trades with it in spite of the sanction, two countries will be under sanction and more dissension is likely to arise within the UN.

Another solution has been military enforcement. This is not a favored solution because it goes against the UN’s ideas of peace and diplomacy. There is also difficulty finding nations willing to take on the economic and military responsibility for actions that may very well lead to war.

“Smart sanctions” have been suggested to pressure regimes instead of people. “Smart sanctions” involve freezing financial assets and blocking the financial transactions of political elites or entities. The United Nations utilizes banks to keep regimes from accessing their wealth. Smart sanctions were applied to conflict diamonds in African countries. Implementation of these sanctions is problematic, and still hurt the population.

Iraq has brought the idea of sanction to the forefront of the world new today. Sanctions are rapidly proving less and less effective. Under Iraq’s sanction, the civilian population is suffering. “Oil for food” has been employed; this allows Iraq to trade freely for food, but nothing else. “Oil for food” is not helping because little of the food is getting to the Iraqi people. The UN, however, does not want to stop “oil for food” because that will worsen the people’s situation. Saddam Hussein spreads propaganda, blaming the United Nations for his nation’s difficulties. If the UN was to end “oil for food,” there is more fodder for Hussein’s propaganda campaign.

Iraq is an important issue to consider. It is not the only nation under sanction, but how the UN handles Iraq sets the precedent for the enforcement of UN resolutions in the foreseeable future. Sanctions have existed in Libya, Haiti, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, UNITA for in Angola, Sudan, Sierra Leon, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.

At this point, sanctions are means of enforcing United Nations’ regulations. However, they are very problematic. The United Nations is looking for ways to make sanctions more effective, but also reduce the negative impact on civilians. Targeting the regime only remains the ultimate goal. The UN hopes to devise a way to make sanctions work effectively. Military enforcement is often counterproductive and the UN’s ideals are to resolve problems without resorting to military confrontation. Sanctions can be an effective tool if the problems with them can be solved.

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Resources - This is the web page for the Dag Hammarskjold Library.  They have a great search engine for UN documents as well as speeches and press releases. - This is a great website for news. - This is the official UNICEF website. - This has a database of American States. - This is the official NATO website. - This is the official website of Amnesty International.


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