IN PICTURES / Are boycotts and sanctions really effective?

When it comes to the Middle East and other areas of the world, a certain word seems to have taken over the current affairs agenda: sanctions. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using every possible platform to call for painful sanctions against Iran, Israel’s ambassadors are busy contending with a movement that is calling for the imposition of a boycott and sanctions on Israel.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic and economic boycott which the international community has imposed on the Hamas government is entering its fifth year. In Washington, Congressmen are discussing easing sanctions on Syria while organizations representing Coptic exiles are calling for sanctions against Egypt, which in turn is pressing the United States to lift sanctions on Sudan. Sudan is joining in the call for sanctions against Eritrea, which were approved by the United Nations Security Council despite opposition from Libya – itself the target of such measures in the early 1990s, along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And the list of boycotters and boycottees goes on.

Despite its popularity, however, the sanctions weapon is problematic not only because it strikes indiscriminately, but because the results it achieves are often just the opposite of what was intended.

The current proliferation of sanctions can be traced back to the years after the end of the Cold War. In its first 44 years of existence, the UN Security Council imposed mandatory international sanctions on just two nations; between 1990 and 1995, it imposed such sanctions on eight countries (see box). For as long as the world was divided into two blocs, sanctions were perceived as ineffective: For every door that is shut in the West, 10 others open in the East, and vice versa. But in the new world order, the belief grew that economic sanctions could prevent wars, promote human rights, topple tyrannical regimes and block the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Some say another reason for this optimism was a 1985 study published by the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, examining every instance in which economic sanctions were imposed bilaterally or multilaterally on a particular country since World War I. About a third of the time, the study found, sanctions achieved the desired goal, at least partially.

Prof. Gary Hufbauer, who co-authored that study, has since then become one of the world’s leading experts on economic sanctions. His books on the subject have guided an entire generation of Washington policy-makers, but he believes the main lesson that was learned from them is actually that sanctions are a limited weapon that must be employed cautiously: “The expectations and public declarations as to what sanctions can achieve tend to be much more modest now than they were 20 years ago. The view [that such measures can be a substitute for war] has now been completely reversed,” he says.

Americans have a fondness for sanctions dating back to the era of Woodrow Wilson, says Hufbauer. In 1919, the president tried to sell his countrymen on the idea of the League of Nations as a mechanism that would make possible for the first time the coordination of an international boycott of countries that acted improperly.

“A nation boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy,” Wilson promised.

The Americans were not convinced by him, and the United States remained outside the League of Nations. However, this vision was enshrined in the organization’s charter, which stipulated that a country that goes to war in violation of international law shall be penalized with a total break of commercial relations. In addition, the charter forbade all member states and their citizens from maintaining business or personal ties with any inhabitant of an ostracized nation.

The Wilsonian optimism was shattered in 1935 by Mussolini, who didn’t let the sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations hinder him in his conquest of Ethiopia.

Hufbauer: “When [sanctions against Italy in 1935] failed, their failure effectively killed the League of Nations as an organization because it staked all its reputation on that effort, and it gave sanctions a very bad name as a tool of diplomacy for at least 20 years.”

However, their poor reputation didn’t stop the measures from becoming a key component of U.S. foreign policy: Out of almost 200 cases of sanctions imposed from 1914 until today, America has been at least a partner, and most often the initiator of them, more than two-thirds of the time.

Dictator’s defiance

According to the research by Hufbauer and his team, entitled “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered” (a third, updated edition of which was published in 2007), sanctions were most effective when the countries targeted were smaller, more democratic, on a shakier economic footing, and had relatively well-developed relations with the countries that imposed them. The odds of success decrease as the declared targets of the sanctions become broader: Sanctions may help bring about a specific change in policy, but the chance they will bring down a regime is very small. The sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 following its invasion of Kuwait are a good example.

“The Iraq sanctions were by far the most effective that we’ve seen at least in the last 100 years or more,” says Hufbauer. The country’s GNP was halved, the people’s suffering was tremendous, and “Saddam held fast until the end because he was able to blame all the pain that was suffered by ordinary people [on the sanctions] and he liked the ‘bluff’ of having WMDs. It just shows you the level of defiance that a resolute dictatorship can achieve.”

He adds: “Autocratic leaders use sanctions rather effectively to blame all the woes of the country on the external power and marshal popular support for the regime in power … Cuba for sure, in my view, the sanctions have been a gift to the longevity of the Castro regime. They’ve been able to blame everything that’s gone wrong in Cuba on the U.S. with some success.” Other examples Hufbauer gives of this are Burma, North Korea and Libya.

Given this dubious record, why do the Western powers keep using sanctions as a weapon? This has to do with the built-in weakness of the international system, argues Dr. Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies: “In international relations, there is no supreme enforcement authority, and when a nation like Iran is determined to violate UN resolutions, there’s not much that can be done. The only ‘stick’ the Security Council has is the imposition of sanctions, which usually end up being softened and diluted as a result of the need to create bridges among the varying positions of the countries involved.”

Even if they don’t help solve the crisis, sanctions are perceived as a necessary step before the use of force. In terms of international rules of engagement, they are the metaphorical shots fired in the air before aim is taken at the limbs and the heart. Landau argues it’s difficult to say whether sanctions are indeed effective because it’s hard to assess their particular significance in terms of all the factors that influence a boycotted leadership’s decisions. When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi disclosed his nuclear program in 2003, many attributed this to the sanctions placed on him 10 years earlier, while others theorized it was the American invasion of Iraq that year that really swayed him.

Landau says sanctions could have an effect on Iran if they cease to be perceived as a separate policy option that falls between negotiations and the use of military force. “When Obama was elected he said: Let’s not impose more sanctions, let’s aim for negotiations, but if that doesn’t work, then we’ll make the sanctions harsher. This allowed the Iranians to gain more precious time, without paying any price for it. For almost two years now, the sanctions against them have not been increased.”

The United States can reach an agreement with Iran, adds Landau, but only through tough negotiations conducted in conjunction with painful sanctions from the get-go – and under a real and convincing threat of military action. In her view, sanctions alone will not bring Iran to heel, nor will a military operation solve the problem. Therefore, Landau proposes action on all three fronts at once, while at the same time offering creative ideas for an accord that all sides could live with.

The situation is very reminiscent of 30 years ago when a “peacenik” American president stood helpless in the face of provocations from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and all he could do was impose sanctions and try to persuade other nations to join the boycott. In November 1979, Iranian students took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 53 people hostage. In exchange for their release, they demanded the extradition of the deposed shah, who had found asylum in America. President Jimmy Carter responded by imposing sanctions, and European countries and Japan hesitantly joined him; 14 months later, the hostages were freed, but for a much higher price than the extradition of the shah, who in the meantime moved to Cairo and died there. The hostage release not only cost the United States billions of dollars (in Iranian funds and assets that were unfrozen, and due to the prohibition against American companies suing Iran for damages), but was also a blow to its prestige and standing. All of this played a big part in Carter’s defeat in the 1980 elections. It was said at the time that before the crisis, Americans were used to determining who governed in Tehran, and now the Iranians were the ones determining who would govern in Washington.


Diplomatic and economic isolation of a country is sometimes a symbolic response intended to reflect sharp criticism, anger or public protest. When, contrary to all the predictions, Hamas won the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, Israel and the international community reacted by boycotting the Hamas government diplomatically and economically until it renounces the violent struggle, recognizes Israel and honors previous agreements made by Israel with the Palestinian Authority. After the operation in which Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was captured and Hamas took control of Gaza, the sanctions were augmented to include a naval, aerial and ground blockade. Also on the horizon – thanks to Egypt – is an underground blockade as well.

Says Ami Ayalon, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when Shalit was captured, and later was a minister and member of the diplomatic-security cabinet in the Olmert government: “I don’t think anyone in Israel thought sanctions would bring down the Hamas government. At no point did we think that the public there would rise up and topple the government. I don’t know any military official who would have made such a prediction. No thought went into it. I say this with regret; it was done without thinking. Just as with the decision not to conduct negotiations for Gilad Shalit – here, too, there was no orderly process of setting policy. The system is a lot less rational than people think. Politicians mostly want to gain time and show that they’re doing something.”

To have the sanctions lifted, demands were made of Hamas that, Ayalon believes, the movement could not afford to meet: “There’s an Israeli perception that if we create enough pressure, they’ll break; that more pressure means more surrender. But when no real alternative is posed at the same time, the pressure ceases to be effective and only deepens the despair on the other side. If in parallel with the boycott of Hamas we would have conducted sincere and courageous negotiations with Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], and to demonstrate our seriousness, we would have passed the voluntary compensation law east of the separation fence and taken down the checkpoints between Palestinian cities – perhaps then sanctions on Hamas would have had a positive effect.

“The problem with pressure,” he adds, illustrating his point by squeezing an imaginary balloon, “is that you never know where it will be released, and therefore you cannot predict the outcome. For example, we now know that during periods when we imposed a closure on the territories, it brought about a significant strengthening of the Palestinian economy. Up to then, they’d mainly provided a workforce, but under the closure they were forced to introduce more diversification into their economy and make it more autonomous.”

Paradoxically, then, a boycott can be transformed from a punitive measure to an incentive for economic development in the targeted country. For example, the naval blockade of Britain in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century and in both world wars compelled the British to improve local food manufacturing so as to reduce dependence on imports. But one needn’t look that far afield; in the long run, the nearly 50-year Arab boycott of Israel did the country more good than harm.

Return of the boycott

Avraham Sela clearly remembers how one day, in the late 1950s, gas stations belonging to the Dutch company Shell suddenly vanished from the Israeli landscape. “Every time another big company gave in to the boycott, it was a shock and raised fears like: Who will be next?” says Sela, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an expert on Israel’s relations with the Arab world.

Sela: “The launching of the Arab boycott in 1946 was not designed to fight the Zionist movement per se, but rather to enable the economies of the Arab states to protect themselves from the exports of the Jewish Yishuv [pre-state community], which had reached worrying dimensions.

“During World War II, the Yishuv was thriving in terms of industry due to consumption by the British military, and a lot of exports were also directed at the neighboring countries. The Arab governments concluded that they had to block the import of industrial products from the Yishuv so as to allow their own young economies to develop. Thus, the boycott allowed them to overtly respond to the cries of distress from the Arabs of Palestine, while it also served an economic interest.”

In the short run, the Israeli economy was hurt by the Arab boycott, but the loss of markets in the neighboring countries gave Israel a strong incentive to develop industries that could compete in Western markets. The ones who ended up suffering most on account of the boycott were Palestinian Arabs.

“There are entire files full of documents that prove they were harmed more than was the Yishuv,” explains Sela. “The boycott was officially directed at Jewish products, but in effect Arab exports were also hurt – like oranges, for example, which were a very important product in the Arab economy. There are letters written by Palestinians at the time to the neighboring countries in which they say angrily: We asked for your help and now you’re hurting us more than you’re helping.”

Similarly, the professor believes, the isolation of Hamas and the economic paralysis of the Gaza Strip have not produced the desired results. “Instead of sanctions, a deep-water port should be opened in Gaza, to open up new [economic] possibilities for the people there. The objective, after all, is to get Hamas to go through a process of institutionalization, so it will be more possible to hold a dialogue, so it will have more to lose, and so it will be able to be a party to some kind of accord, if not diplomatic then a security accord at least. This total boycott: What is it achieving? They’re only becoming more contrary and antagonistic.”

In the future, Operation Cast Lead may come to be viewed as the moment when Israel realized that the policy of boycotting and isolating Hamas exhausted its usefulness. In recent months, reports of a secret channel of negotiations between the parties have proliferated, and Mahmoud Abbas has even claimed that talks have been going on with respect to an interim agreement. Hamas denies the reports, of course. There is little doubt, however, that the military operation in Gaza led many nations to conclude that it is Israel that should be the target of a boycott and sanctions.

The international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement began operating five years ago, at the initiative of dozens of civilian Palestinian organizations. Unlike other initiatives which call for a selective boycott – e.g., of the settlements – it calls for an economic, cultural and academic boycott, for divestment and for sanctions on Israel, irrespective of the Green Line. Furthermore, the document lists three conditions for repealing these measures: ending “the occupation and colonization of all the Arab lands,” granting full equal rights to Israel’s Arab citizens, and promoting the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and property.

The BDS movement has enjoyed two waves of success – one following the Second Lebanon War, and again after the war in Gaza. In the past year, it has also gained momentum in countries where criticism of Israel was once much less vocal.

Holland is one such place. After the Holocaust, its Protestant church adopted a firm official stance of eternal solidarity with the Jewish people and unqualified support for the State of Israel. Even though only about a sixth of Dutch citizens are affiliated with the church, its theological position carried much sway in public discourse and government policy-making.

All this is beginning to change, however. Two days before last Christmas, at the large and impressive cathedral in Utrecht, a group of Christian Palestinian leaders presented Dutch church representatives with the Kairos Palestine Document (kairos is ancient Greek for “the moment of truth”), which was first published two weeks prior to that in Bethlehem and calls on Christians around the world to reject theological arguments for supporting Israel and to join the boycott against it. A growing number of clergy and religious organizations are adopting the document, and adding to the increasing pressure on Dutch companies to cut their ties with Israel.

In North America, too, the BDS campaign has found supporters – in universities, church organizations, labor unions and other social movements. The number of voices supporting sanctions is also multiplying among Jews, and includes several influential figures, like philosopher Judith Butler and activist-author Naomi Klein.

A boycott and sanctions that originate in a popular movement are different than those imposed by countries upon other countries. Their influence derives from public opinion and from the international solidarity they inspire. The older generation may be reminded of the days of the civil rights struggles in the United States, while younger people feel motivated to be act on behalf of a big cause.

South African precedent

In an article calling for support of a boycott, written shortly after the start of Operation Cast Lead, Naomi Klein insisted that “economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal.” This faith in the power of international sanctions is based on a lone case: the fall of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Indeed, the Kairos document is also essentially a new version of a document by the same name that was formulated by South African clergy in 1985. The South African case is used to justify boycotts and sanctions not only against Israel, but against other nations, including Iran.

Prof. Hufbauer is skeptical about the South African example. “The weight ascribed to sanctions in the fall of apartheid is quite exaggerated,” he says. “Just the opposite of the negative effect sanctions against Italy had in the 1930s – from the 1990s on, the South African case generated excessive optimism that sanctions could work everywhere. We’re trying to balance out the picture a little. Sanctions played a role in South Africa, but certainly not the crucial role that tends to be viewed here in Washington and other cities as well perhaps. We [Americans] tend to exaggerate our role … It was a contributing factor, but boy, there were a lot of other factors going the right way at that time. To say that we did it in South Africa really is an historical misstatement,” he adds with a laugh.

The movement to boycott South Africa began in Great Britain about a decade after the institution of white minority rule in 1948. It gained momentum in the 1960s and spawned various boycotts, primarily in the fields of culture, academia and sports. In 1977, the UN first imposed a ban on the sale of weapons to South Africa. In the early 1980s, in wake of the increasing resistance by blacks and its violent suppression by the authorities, the movement ratcheted up the pressure on public officials, international corporations and financial institutions to join the boycott. The turning point came in 1985, when American and European banks shut off the credit taps; a year later the U.S. Congress managed to circumvent Ronald Reagan’s presidential veto and to impose sanctions on South Africa. As the story is usually told, international pressure was the key factor in prompting the white minority to vote in a 1992 referendum by a two-thirds majority to end apartheid.

But there is also a somewhat different and less familiar version of the story. While the boycotts and sanctions of the 1960s did indeed hit a raw nerve among South Africans, they had no effect on the racist discrimination or on the country’s economy, which was thriving to an unprecedented degree at the expense of a black workforce that had no rights. But from the mid-1970s, the economy fell into a deep crisis.

Apartheid, it turned out, was well-suited to an economy based on the mining of natural resources, but it delayed contemporary economic development, which requires a much more educated, skilled and urban-based workforce with freedom of movement. In addition to its built-in problems, the South African economy was paralyzed from 1984 onward by workers’ strikes and demonstrations. Some argue that these were the primary cause for the flight of foreign investors from South Africa in those years, but just as in the case of the Arab boycott, here, too, the economic motive had an additional public relations “benefit”: It spurred political activism.

According to Hufbauer and his team, the damage caused by the sanctions and economic boycott of South Africa was no more than 1 percent of the country’s GNP. Once subject to the arms embargo, the country was forced to develop a domestic arms industry, which became a field of export.

One of the most fascinating books written about South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy is Robert Harvey’s “The Fall of Apartheid.” Harvey was a British member of parliament in the 1980s and closely followed the diplomacy surrounding the crisis in South Africa. His book reinforces the theory that most South African whites, including many in the financial and political elite, realized that apartheid was not viable even before the wave of divestment and sanctions of the mid-1980s. The problem was that the only alternative they saw to apartheid was catastrophic from their point of view. As long as the perception of the struggle in Africa was shaped by Cold War propaganda, the expectation was that the introduction of democracy in South Africa would mean joining the Soviet bloc and coping with massive nationalization under a communist regime – in other words, the whites would have to bid farewell to their lifestyle, property and cultural world. Not to mention the fear of revenge on the part of blacks once they acquired power.

South African president P. W. Botha understood that a change was necessary and intended to carry out reforms in the system of government, but he was persuaded by his advisers not to show any willingness to make concessions under domestic and international pressure. In the years when the sanctions were tightened, the regime became more aggressive, and the 1987 elections showed a clear shift by the white public toward the more extreme right nationalist parties.

The most dramatic progress toward ending apartheid took place during that same period in secret negotiations conducted by the regime with the leadership of the African National Congress. In these contacts, as described in detail in Harvey’s book, the parties slowly overcame their mutual fears and suspicion, and learned to understand the other’s point of view. Eventually, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ANC’s distancing itself from the socialist line that had so frightened the whites, paved the way for the start of the complicated open negotiations that led to the establishment of a democratic government.

There is no question that the international sanctions and boycott helped boost the efforts of apartheid’s opponents during the four decades of their struggle, but South Africa’s democratic transition was first and foremost a consequence of a combination of powerful domestic pressures, changes in the world balance of powers, and courageous and visionary local leadership. The South African case is also unusual in that the vast majority of the boycotted country’s residents supported the sanctions and understood very well, after decades of struggle, the political vision for whose sake they were implemented.

Political activists Uri Avnery and Prof. Noam Chomsky, persistent critics of the BDS movement, assert that herein lies the critical difference between the South African and Israeli cases. In a 2008 interview, Chomsky warned that calls for a boycott against Israel under the present conditions would “almost invariably backfire, reinforcing the harshest and most brutal policies towards Palestinians.” Hufbauer concurs: “From what I know about Israel,” he says, “this will provoke a very strong counter spirit among the Israeli people.”

In 1998, Serbian journalist Zoran Cirjakovic published an article in Newsweek detailing the effects of the sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. He said the international ostracism had deeply wounded the pride of the Serbs, who were once the West’s darlings and heroes of the world wars, and now suddenly found themselves reviled, and unjustly so, they believed. One after the other, his old friends were now becoming avid nationalists – convinced that the entire world had it wrong, and that the Serbs were the victims of one-sided media propaganda and of NATO’s belligerent policy. Support for their leader Milosevic only grew, and with it, hatred for the Albanians of Kosovo. Whatever democratic elements still remained in the country were gradually eroded, and Cirjakovic, known for his criticism of the regime, was given the kind of treatment reserved for traitors whenever he walked into a Belgrade cafe. About six months after the article’s publication, the NATO bombings of Serbia commenced.

This description helps to illustrate how, rather than preventing wars, boycotts and international isolation can actually lay the groundwork for them. Perhaps it also explains why many of the most enthusiastic supporters of sanctions and boycotts are people who have never lived in a boycotted society – and probably never will.

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