Adopted by the Central Committee, Geneva, 14-22 September 1995.
In recent times the international community has often felt helpless in face of armed conflicts and wars. The cost of military force, in terms of lives and property is heavy. Sanctions are a valuable tool available to enforce international law and to bring about the peaceful resolution of disputes.
The applicability, effectiveness and impact of sanctions on the people have been a frequent topic of ecumenical discussion. In World Council of Churches Assemblies and Central Committee debates since 1968, but more particularly since 1991, the subject of sanctions has come up repeatedly in relation to the cases of South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Iraq and the Former Yugoslavia. Some Christians have preferred the use of sanctions as a non-military option in situations of conflict. It is in this spirit of overcoming violence that this study has been undertaken at the request of the Central Committee during its meeting in Johannesburg (January 1994). It aims to help churches to understand the complexities surrounding sanctions and to offer criteria which might be applied to improve this instrument and limit its negative effects on powerless victims of conflicts.
Various measures have been classified as sanctions. Some have questionable legitimacy under international law, as shown later. They have been imposed both unilaterally and multilaterally by a government or group of governments. Some have had the authority of internationally recognized bodies, others have not.
The churches need to have a proper grasp of the term “international sanctions”, especially as it is understood in international law on the basis of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, in order to make informed judgments about the application of such measures.
Though the commonly understood aim of sanctions is to bring about a peaceful resolution of conflict and to enforce compliance with international law, they are by definition coercive. As such they have the potential also to polarize conflict, contribute to its escalation, or inflict unacceptable suffering on populations caught in the middle.
Sanctions tend not to distinguish between those responsible for perpetrating an unlawful act, and innocent victims of a situation over which they have no control. As they make judgments about sanctions, churches must have uppermost in their
minds both the positive and the potentially negative impact of such measures on the powerless and the victims.
Sanctions are never a first resort for the international community. They must be seen as part of a range of interrelated options available to obtain the compliance of states with the requirements of international law and established humanitarian principles, and to resolve conflicts within and between states. First come efforts to find a solution through diplomatic means, including “quiet” diplomacy. Positive incentives need to be offered, to induce an offending state to correct its behavior short of the application of coercive pressures. Beyond sanctions lies the power of the United Nations Security Council to authorize the use of “all necessary means” – including military force – to enforce compliance.
Even if early efforts fail to remedy a situation and a violation continues to the point where sanctions become necessary, the door must always be kept open for diplomacy and negotiated solution.
As noted at the outset, this study considers sanctions to be a valuable tool, when in responsible hands and used prudently. It recognizes, however, that present practice often fails to meet these criteria. Therefore at its conclusion, a set of criteria is listed for consideration, along with proposals to improve the effectiveness and applicability of this instrument and to reduce its potential for becoming yet another act of violence.
Sanctions in International Law and Practice
International legal experts concur in regarding sanctions as measures of enforcement in response to violations of international law. Sanctions contribute to setting the acceptable limits of conduct and seek to restore legality. Properly and consistently applied, they serve as a deterrent. In this understanding, the principal actors are sovereign states, subject to no direct superior authority. Effective application of sanctions presupposes a degree of coherence on the international level, and an acceptance of the rule of international law.
Sanctions, as a term to describe measures taken by a state or group of states against another which has violated accepted norms and standards, is a comparatively new concept in the history of international law. Sanctions have been imposed only rarely by competent international bodies, and the cases where they have been effective in gaining compliance by an offending state are even rarer.
The notion of sanctions has nonetheless become increasingly commonplace in contemporary international politics. Sanctions are generally understood as a way to describe concerted international action by non-military means against a state which is in violation of international law.
Sanctions have been seen by some as a non-violent means to correct systematic violations of human rights or to stop acts of aggression. Yet, powerful states have at times sought to justify aggressive, and sometimes very violent actions against another state with the official aura of sanctions to which some international body has given approval.
Sanctions may take many forms. In order to avoid misunderstandings, this study has considered especially those forms – economic, communications and diplomatic – foreseen in Art. 41 of the United Nations Charter.
The last of these, diplomatic sanctions, has a long tradition in the history of international relations. They include the recognition or non-recognition of another sovereign state, or the suspension of such diplomatic relations as a means of expressing displeasure with the behavior of the other. Diplomatic measures may include a strong inducement for a state to correct its behavior through the offer of recognition or the extension of greater privileges.
Attention is concentrated here, however, on economic sanctions, those most frequently proposed and disputed in present practice. Economic sanctions are generally taken to include such things as restrictions on international travel and communication; trade, commerce, foreign investment, and other areas of finance; restrictions on access to certain goods, like arms and strategic materials; and cultural exchange. Diplomatic sanctions themselves also frequently have an economic effect.
The Evolution of Sanctions in International Law
The League of Nations foresaw collective measures to be taken against member states who violated their obligations under the Covenant. In fact, the short-lived League only applied sanctions once, in the classic case of Ethiopia, and then without effect.
This concept was carried forward nevertheless to the United Nations Charter, though the word “sanctions” is not used there. In fact, the International Law Commission has dismissed the term as a legal category, preferring to discuss such actions under the heading “countermeasures ... legitimate under international law.” “Measures” in the clear sense of sanctions are, however, described in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and in the Statutes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Rules of the Bretton Woods Agreement.
The Charter continues to give sovereign states the limited right to act unilaterally in self-defense in case of armed attack. Clear priority is given, however, to collective decision-making and provision is made only for collective action to correct violations of international law or infringements of accepted international norms and standards of behavior. Acts of retaliation are in any case forbidden.
Economic sanctions by one state in order to gain advantage over another are expressly forbidden in the Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, adopted by the General Assembly (res. 2625, XXV).
The Application of Sanctions
Even when appropriately applied under the authority of the UN Charter, sanctions have not always been consistent, impartial or effective. Decisions to apply multilateral sanctions have often been hotly disputed. Interpretations of universal norms vary widely. Permanent members of the Security Council have regularly used or threatened to use their veto power to shield friends or allies from the application of mandatory sanctions.
The absence of a clear, consistent, and effective system of enforcement by the UN further complicates the picture. This, and the ambiguity of international law, has allowed individual governments to use the term sanctions to provide a cloak of moral and legal justification for some of their own foreign policy initiatives. Especially since 1990, powerful states have sought UN endorsement of their intention to apply what they have termed sanctions. This practice requires careful scrutiny by the churches and by the international community.
In practice, the Security Council has seldom decided to apply sanctions against states. It has, however, frequently condemned illegal behavior, or acts of states which threaten international peace and security. Other individual member states or coalitions have frequently used such condemnations as moral justification for unilateral retaliatory actions, claiming to be operating within the framework of international law in defense of universal values, and not just in their own self-interest. The implications are far-reaching. A trend may emerge where a simple, but not prescriptive majority vote in the Security Council, irrespective of veto, may be taken to legitimize the behavior of those states who are in the majority, and to disregard significant dissenting powers. This trend could have serious negative consequences for the credibility and viability of the UN as the principal protector of international law. It also puts into serious question the credibility, moral authority and legitimacy of the Security Council in its present structure and composition.
Another set of problems related to sanctions arises because only inadequate standards exist to determine what measures are appropriate in response to a given offense. Governments, therefore, have been left with a wide range of options. Sanctions, particularly economic ones, are usually put forward as the preferred non-military alternative.
The legality and propriety of non-military sanctions has also been the subject of controversy. It has been the contention, especially of many developing country governments, that all forms of economic coercion are proscribed under the terms of the UN Charter [Art 2 (4)] as acts of illegitimate force against the territorial integrity and political independence of a sovereign state. Many of these countries see sanctions as a tool of the North to continue its domination and exploitation of the South.
Questions are also raised about whether economic sanctions are the most efficient form of concerted action. It has proven virtually impossible to gain universal compliance with their application. Concerns have also been voiced about their indiscriminate effects on the civilian population and on third parties. It has been argued that such sanctions are a form of economic violence against whole peoples. Further doubts have been expressed about the slow and often limited results which can be obtained through economic sanctions, and their cost not only to the offending state and its population, but also to states obliged to apply them.
Sanctions have been seen primarily as an instrument to be used to address international disputes. Their use in cases of civil wars, for example to block the flow of arms to warring parties, has been severely restricted by appeals to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Some of the most serious threats to international peace and security are, however, posed by precisely such conflicts, although they have not been addressed as such by the Security Council. A review of the application of sanctions needs to take this into account, and guidelines need to be developed to allow for more concerted international action to resolve internal disputes.
The Christian Faith and Sanctions
The Christian case for sanctions as an instrument of diplomacy must ultimately be based upon a theology of just peace and a clearly articulated set of ethical criteria, as well as on firmly established norms of international law.
The moral appeal of economic sanctions is that they purportedly offer non-violent alternatives to warfare in situations of manifest injustice. That appeal, however, must be tested in any specific case by prudential questions as to whether sanctions themselves may result in violence and further injustice, and also by questions as to whether there may be irenic alternatives to sanctions.
Just Peacemaking, Coercion and Reconciliation: Theological Foundations
The vision of a world of justice and peace is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the perfecting of a just peace is beyond the possibility of human achievement, it is within the power of the Sovereign God of Love who has created one whole, indivisible human family in a covenant of peace. Before our Sovereign God, the nations rise and fall; but the promise of shalom, of love binding peace with justice, is eternal.
Every member of God’s family bears God’s sacred image and is entitled to an abundant life of freedom, security and well-being. To be so endowed is to enjoy God-given dignity from which flow principles of human rights which it is the responsibility of all persons and governments to respect and protect. The ultimate justification of sanctions must be such a concept of justice for the sake of authentic peace and security.
God has set our common life in human communities which have in turn established institutions necessary to govern them. Governments are responsible not only for justice and peace within their borders, and for security against aggression. They are rightly called to policies of initiative and cooperation in the quest for a just peace among all nations. The indivisibility of political liberty, common security, civil equity, economic welfare, and ecological integrity requires effective instruments of global governance and transnational action. Such instruments must promote the development of peoples, the resolution of conflicts, and the overcoming of violence.
Christian imperatives of justice and peace are especially grounded in the prophetic heritage of the scriptures and the ministry of reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
The policies and actions of all human institutions, including government, must be judged according to their impact upon the innocent, the poor, the weak and the oppressed; not only within domestic societies, but within any other society affected by these policies and actions. Coercive concepts of justice, as in the imposition of sanctions, risk becoming policies of injustice and cruelty if they compound the sufferings of the disinherited.
Under the sovereignty of God, no nation or group of nations is entitled to prosecute vengeance against another. Nor is any nation entitled to make unilateral judgments and take unilateral actions that lead to the devastation of another nation and the massive suffering and impoverishment of its people. Whenever aggression or massive and flagrant abuses of human rights by one nation call for preventive or punitive action under international law, a concerted multilateral response authorized by the United Nations or other competent international body is most likely to meet the requirements of just peacemaking, especially if that response is faithful to the integrity of carefully articulated ends and means.
While Christian churches and individual Christians have long differed with regard to the ethics of military action, our commitment to peacemaking has shared a common presumption against the resort to violence. For some Christians, that presumption may be overridden by the imperatives of justice when nonviolent strategies appear unavailing.
Sanctions have typically been regarded by churches as peaceful and nonviolent alternatives to war. But experience has revealed that sanctions, in some instances, may contribute to violence, widespread suffering, and the escalation of conflict. Thus sanctions must be understood as a morally mixed and ambiguous strategy. They may gain legitimacy when more conciliatory approaches to injustice have failed, but when military action seems premature or inappropriate. At best, sanctions may not inflict physical violence. Their very effectiveness, however, depends upon either their coercive force or the offer of compelling alternatives. The coercive consequences of sanctions typically involve suffering among at least some segments of the object nation. Sanctions may thus become implicated in the spectrum of violence and must not be sanctified with the name of nonviolence.
Just peacemaking, for Christians, must always be shaped by our commitment to the ministry and message of reconciliation. The Gospel’s promise of reconciliation is based on God’s first-loving initiative in Jesus Christ, who is our peace, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, loving even our enemies, and making us one new humanity. Such a faith will not move to any coercive policy, whether economic or military, before seeking positive incentives to peacemaking among aggrieved adversaries. Any resort to a coercive strategy must aim at the reconstruction of peaceable and humane relationships, take great care to avoid or minimize suffering of the general populace or any innocent groups, and avoid causing more harm than good.
Nations facing decisions on either military or economic sanctions must always recollect the possibilities of their own complicity in the injustices of other nations they now seek to overcome. The moral burdens of history, if forgotten or neglected, may be deprived of their due weight and their chastening power on nations self-righteously about to launch punitive attacks on their partners in iniquity. The recollection of such moral burdens does not necessarily imply a prohibition on just action in the present; it does serve to enhance the possibilities of humility and humanity in the conduct of sanctions and the quest for irenic alternatives. Repentance in most human conflicts, be they personal, social or international, is a precondition of reconciliation.
Criteria for Determining the Applicability and Effectiveness of Sanctions
The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Geneva, September 1995,
basing itself on the churches’ experience with the impact of the imposition of economic sanctions, and on a preliminary study of several dimensions of sanctions as an instrument to restore respect for international law, to redress gross and systematic violations of accepted international standards of conduct, and to promote peace through non-military means;
and in the context of the Council’s Programme to Overcome Violence:
receives and commends the background document accompanying this statement to the churches;
aware that sanctions are by definition coercive and that they often inflict additional suffering on affected populations, particularly the most innocent, for example, children;
conscious of the need for churches to consult one another in times of crisis, especially when measures like sanctions are being considered which will impact the people of their country; and
convinced that sanctions should only be applied after all other less coercive measures have been exhausted;
adopts the following criteria by which churches may judge the legitimacy of imposing sanctions, assess their effectiveness, and ensure humanitarian care for those affected by sanctions applied against a state whose policies they may neither share nor be able to change.
1. Irenic measures. Sanctions must be regarded as part of a broader strategy of peacemaking, and as an alternative to warfare. They should be imposed only after less coercive diplomatic measures have been taken to remedy the situation.
Churches may play an irenic role not only as advocates for irenic government policies, but as direct actors in offering inquiry, mediation or conciliation. Where possible, positive incentives or inducements should be offered as a preferable means of avoiding the escalation of conflicts.
2. Flagrant and persistent violations. Sanctions should be adopted only in circumstances of flagrant and persistent violations of international law and accepted international norms and standards.
3. Clear and limited purpose. Sanctions should have a clearly defined purpose, and explicit criteria should be given for determining the conditions under which that purpose will be seen to be achieved, and the sanctions lifted.
Sanctions may not have a punitive purpose beyond compliance, nor may they be used for self-aggrandizement, or applied to further the economic, ideological, political, military or other narrow national self-interest of a state or group of states.
4. Competent multilateral authority. Sanctions find their greatest legitimacy and moral authority when authorized by a competent multilateral body, especially the United Nations Security Council, authorized by the United Nations Charter to impose such measures.
The churches should seek to ensure that the Security Council or any other multilateral body functions justly and is so structured as to judge violations impartially, consistently, openly and in consultation with the alleged offending government.
5. Proportionality. The good achieved by sanctions must not be exceeded by the harm that can reasonably be anticipated. Care should be taken to design measures which will limit suffering of persons affected by sanctions within a country whose policies they may be powerless to change.
6. Political efficacy. Sanctions aim to effect political change through economic pressure. For them to be effective, there must be a determination that there is a reasonable prospect that their stated purposes are achievable by this means.
7. Enforceability. Sanctions are effective only to the extent that they are consistently and thoroughly applied. This depends on the capacity of the authorizing body to enforce them and on the mobilization of sufficient political will among member states to apply them universally.
8. Humanitarian Conduct. Sanctions should be directed as precisely as possible to those political, military and economic bodies and their leaders most responsible for the violation.
Humanitarian assistance should be made available to a country to which sanctions are being applied so that such essential items as food, water and medicine are not denied to the general population.
Churches are often well-placed to assess whether these aims are being achieved.
9. Authoritative Monitors. The progress and the effects of sanctions should be continually assessed by an independent and impartial multilateral monitoring body so that compliance with aims of the sanctions can be measured, the harmful impact on the population evaluated, and the sanctions terminated in a timely manner.
Churches and other non-governmental organizations have a vital and distinctive role to play in this monitoring.
10. Compensatory Justice. The enforcing powers should be prepared during and following sanctions to attend to the hurts and meet the needs of victims within the object nation, as well as in those nations which suffer collateral damage as a result of the application of the sanctions.
11. Open Communication. Governments and international authorities applying sanctions should maintain open communication with both government leaders and civic groups within the object nation as a means to:
avoid the danger of provoking sentiments of abandonment and isolation in the object nation which could serve to intensify the conflict and frustrate the aims of sanctions;
keep open the possibility of dialogue with political and other leaders in pursuit of a diplomatic negotiated solution;
assure open access to competent humanitarian bodies, including those of the churches, to allow them to minister to the needs of those who suffer needlessly as a result of the sanctions.