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The Regional and Domestic Political Consequences of Sanctions Imposed on Iraq, Libya and Sudan.

THIS ARTICLE WILL ASSUME that readers know the background which brought the United Nations Security Council to impose mandatory sanctions on the three countries which are covered in the article. It will focus exclusively on the conclusions which can be drawn from the experience of sanctions, specifically with regard to the effects of sanctions on domestic and regional stability. These conclusions are drawn from a larger work on sanctions written by the author of this paper, which has recently been published. (1) It must be borne in mind that the character of the sanctions imposed in the three cases varies very substantially. The comprehensive economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in the wake of the Gulf war, and which remain in force, are the most intensive and wide-ranging sanctions which have ever been imposed on a country in modern times. Those imposed on Libya in 1992 and 1993, and lifted in 1999, covered air travel, some downstream oil activities, and the freezing of non-oil-related Libyan assets held abroa d. Those on Sudan were purely diplomatic, requiring states to reduce Sudanese diplomatic representation in their capitals, and restrict entry into their countries of members of the Sudanese government or armed forces.

In what follows, the article will focus first on observations specific to the individual states, and will then move on to the more general conclusions which can be drawn from the sanctions experience.


An overall assessment of the positive and negative aspects of the U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq needs to cover two different dimensions. The first concerns the extent to which they have helped attain the specific objectives laid down in the Security Council resolutions which imposed them. The second relates to the impact which they have had on the Iraqi polity: have they created social, economic and political dynamics which have enabled (or will enable) Iraq to play a positive role in a stable regional and international order? The latter dimension relates to whether the Iraqi state adopts and upholds values and policies which cohere with international order and stability. This would include aspects of domestic as well as foreign policy, in so far as large-scale human rights violations have region-wide reverberations.

The specific objectives, covering the period since 1991, are those found in Security Council resolution 687: the destruction or removal of all Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and facilities; the disabling of any nuclear potential; acceptance by Iraq of Kuwaiti sovereignty and of the demarcation of the border determined by the Demarcation Commission; the payment of war reparations; and the return to Kuwait of all Kuwaitis detained in Iraq and of all Kuwaiti property taken during the occupation of Kuwait. It is clear that during the 1990s, while sanctions were in place, the government of Iraq did slowly but steadily fulfil most of the requirements of resolution 687. No doubt, sanctions constituted one of the factors encouraging the Iraqi government to comply with the requirements of the resolution, but the significance of this factor should not be exaggerated. In practice Iraq has not been given a sufficiently strong incentive to comply. The primary objective pursued by the Iraqi government since 1991, b esides ensuring the survival of the regime, has been the re-establishment of Iraqi sovereignty, both territorial and economic. (2)

Yet the lightening or removal of sanctions which has been on offer since Security Council resolution 706 of August 1991 (and even up to resolution 1284) has consistently stopped short of guaranteeing the return of that sovereignty. No channel has been opened through which Iraq could regain the ability to use its oil revenues as it sees fit. The failure of the Security Council to offer this incentive stems from the reparation payments which Iraq is obliged to make under resolution 687, and from the Council's perception that these payments can only be assured if Iraqi oil revenues pass through a U.N.-controlled framework. It should be recalled that, if payments continue at the existing level, Iraq will still be paying reparations through to the 22nd century. (3) The effect of this policy has been that the lightening of sanctions (without the return of economic sovereignty) has not necessarily been in Iraq's interests, as seen by the Iraqi government. The latter has clearly believed that more could be gained by attempting to bring down the whole edifice of 687 directly, and not seeking palliatives which would entrench the loss of sovereignty in the long term. Other factors, primarily diplomatic but also military, explain the compliance.

Turning to the second dimension, the evidence suggests strongly that the dynamics underlying the Iraqi polity have not been changed positively by sanctions, and that the potential for the Iraqi state to interact effectively with its neighbours has not been enhanced. The power of the regime as against civil society has been strengthened; the economic conditions facing the population (and the intellectual isolation) have engendered emotions and attitudes ill-suited to democratic transformation; there has been no significant improvement in the respect accorded to human rights; and Iraq has not found a stable role for itself in the wider setting of the Gulf and the eastern Arab world.


The effectiveness of U.N. sanctions will be judged here, first, according to the expectations which were raised by the United States, Britain and France when they were first imposed; and second according to whether their use has promoted values and conditions which will create a more stable international environment.

The central demand made by the Western powers was for the handing over for trial, outside of Libya, of the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing. This was achieved. However, the framework for the trial which the U.S. and Britain eventually proposed, and whose acceptance by Libya provided the grounds for the lifting of sanctions, was one which was similar to that which Libya itself had been advocating since 1992. Indeed, since 1994 Libya had specifically been indicating that it would accept a trial in a third country, under Scottish law and with Scottish judges. The Western powers also sought an end to Libyan support for international terrorism. There is ample reason to believe, however, that the Libyan government had itself abandoned such support at the end of the 1980s. The demise of the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, from which Libya had received logistic and intelligence support, together with the more limited role which the revolutionary committees were able to play after 1989, necessitated this change. There were no reports of Libyan continued support for international terrorism over the 1990-2 period.

As for the promotion of values and conditions which create a more stable environment, there is no evidence that sanctions have strengthened such values and conditions. The regime has not been significantly weakened by the sanctions, nor has it been pushed towards greater respect for human or democratic rights. Indeed, such moves as were made towards addressing a human rights agenda (however superficial) and introducing a measure of political and economic liberalisation were made over the 1988-91 period. Since the introduction of sanctions there has been some tightening of central controls. Deteriorating social and economic conditions have increased the dependence of Libyans on the state (especially through the rationing system). Such conditions, coupled with the growth of inequality, have laid the basis for long-term social disruption and inter-regional antagonism, and a consequent lessening of the chances for creating a stable democratic system.


The U.N. Security Council requirement which was initially given the greatest emphasis -- namely the handing over to Ethiopia of the three suspects who were believed to have been in Sudan -- was not achieved. There was in fact never any realistic prospect that the requirement would be met. With the intensification of pressure on Sudan through the later part of 1995, it would have been in the interests of the individuals and of the Sudanese government to ensure that refuge was found elsewhere (assuming that they had in fact been in Sudan, with the knowledge of the Sudanese authorities).

There were, however, some respects in which the sanctions achieved positive results. It will be recalled that one of the requirements of resolution 1054 was that Sudan should "desist from engaging in activities of assisting, supporting and facilitating terrorist activities". Between 1995 and 1997 the Sudanese government does appear to have limited, and ultimately curtailed, its support for Islamist movements operating against foreign targets.

Perhaps the clearest indication that the Sudanese government had moved towards satisfying those parts of Security Council resolution 1054 which related to support for terrorism was the improvement which occurred in its relations with neighbouring states. It will be recalled that the major issue which had previously created conflict with these states was Sudanese support for Islamist groupings opposed to the regimes concerned. In the course of 1996-1997 Sudan re-established workable (if not unduly friendly) relations with most of its neighbours, except for Eritrea and Uganda. In early 1998, Sudanese-Egyptian relations were reported as enjoying a "new-found harmony"; (4) Sudan had resolved its differences with Libya and joined a new Sahelian-Saharan grouping with Libya, Chad, Niger and Mali; (5) the presidents of Ethiopia and Sudan were reported to have agreed to normalise relations between the two countries; (6) and relations with Saudi Arabia were improving, aided not only by the expulsion of bin Ladin from S udan, but also by the Sudanese government's symbolic apology to Kuwait in the course of 1997 for the stand it took during the Gulf war. (7) The major changes in relationships had occurred before the U.S. imposed its own unilateral sanctions on Sudan.

The lightness of the sanctions imposed on Sudan has, furthermore, had an important consequence for domestic Sudanese developments. It has enabled the focus of debate over the country's future to centre on the critical issues of human rights and democratisation. In contrast to the situations in Iraq and Libya, the sanctions to which Sudan was subject did not strengthen the regime, nor did they lead to a further weakening of the country's civil institutions and society, increase social antagonism, or give strength to disintegrative forces which would have made a negotiated settlement to the country's existing divisions yet more difficult to resolve. The challenge constituted by sanctions could not be met by mobilising national outrage at, and international sympathy over, the suffering caused by sanctions, because it was clear to all that the suffering did not stem from diplomatic sanctions. The sanctions were a symbol of international disapproval with the regime, and the only effective way for the regime to cou nter this was to attempt to show that its practices cohered with procedures and values maintained elsewhere.


Six broad conclusions on the overall impact of sanctions on the international order emerge. Only one of these could be said to suggest a positive contribution, while the remaining five are clearly negative.

The one positive element will be covered first. From the experience, it is clear that sanctions can help to contain a regime which might otherwise have been disruptive, provided the neighbouring countries are prepared to work with and respect the sanctions regime. Sanctions force the regime concerned to concentrate on its own survival, leaving it with less time and ability to pursue aggressive or expansionist policies directed against neighbouring countries or the wider international community. Sanctions which restrict the sale of weaponry will bring about a gradual weakening of the military strength of the country concerned, and hence blunt the government's ability to wage an aggressive campaign against neighbouring states. It should be noted, however, that other factors may also account for a state deciding to eschew disruptive international policies. In the case of Libya, for example, al-Qadhafi had been signalling a renunciation of support for extremist organisations from 1989 -- long before U.N. sanction s on Libya were mooted. The regime appears to have been responding to the changing world order, realising that the end of the Cold War reduced the protection enjoyed by states pursuing a radical agenda. It should also be stressed that diplomatic sanctions may be as effective in achieving containment as economic sanctions: the Sudanese regime's tendency to ideological-expansionism seems to have been curbed simply by the measure of international opprobrium carried by diplomatic sanctions, however insignificant the practical effects may have been.

On the negative side, the first conclusion is that sanctions do not necessarily achieve the immediate objectives sought by the Security Council when they are imposed. Even where states have complied with the Security Council's requirements, it is not clear that sanctions have been the critical factor bringing about compliance. Neither in the case of Iraq nor that of Libya were sanctions the critical element. In the case of Sudan, sanctions do seem to have pushed the regime to stop "assisting, supporting and facilitating terrorist activities" -- but these sanctions, as noted above, were diplomatic. Moreover, the time period which elapses while the Security Council is waiting for compliance with its demands, imposes immense and prolonged suffering on the population of states under economic sanctions. If compliance with Security Council requirements is necessary for a stable international order, therefore, economic sanctions have not proved their value.

Second, economic sanctions have tended to strengthen regimes. The assumption which was usually made when these sanctions were imposed, that they would help the population by opening opportunities for civilian forces to overthrow an oppressive and undemocratic regime, is unjustified. There are three processes through which the strengthening can occur. First, the impact of the sanctions on the population tend to make the latter even more dependent on the government than before, mainly for provision of the basic rations needed for survival. The rationing system becomes an effective instrument for control. This has happened in both Iraq and Libya. Second, sanctions may strengthen a regime's ideological legitimacy. If the regime has projected itself to its population through an ideology built around nationalism, where external powers (especially Western powers) are seen as imperialist crusaders intent on undermining local sovereignty and indigenous interests, then the imposition of Western-orchestrated U.N. sancti ons will reinforce the regime's central ideological message. The regime's analysis of the international order will carry conviction. The Iraqi, Libyan and Sudanese regimes have all purveyed, from their inceptions, a nationalistic ideology of the kind just described. The imposition of sanctions, therefore, can be and has been used by the regimes to buttress popular acceptance of the core ideology and to mobilise popular support for the regimes. Third, the regime can gain some credit domestically through the skill with which it defends itself against what may be perceived by substantial parts of the population as an external onslaught. Its ability to manoeuvre successfully so as to build up an element of support in the international community, to withstand and circumvent the blockade, to bring in the basic goods needed by the population, and perhaps to throw doubt on the legality of what is being done to the country, can all strengthen popular support for the regime. This factor has been evident in both Iraq an d Libya. Overall, the strengthening of regimes which are cavalier in their treatment of human rights is not conducive either to regional or to international stability.

Third, economic sanctions have an adverse impact on the social basis necessary for democratisation. This adverse impact has two dimensions. The first stems from the social divisions opened up by sanctions -- between rich and poor, and between different regional and ethnic/religious components of the population. Sanctions benefit some parts of the population and harm others, or else inflict harm to varying degrees, thereby deepening inter-communal suspicion, jealousy and antipathy. The intense competition for scarce resources encourages a narrow communal solidarity, based on an individual's tribal/sectarian/regional identity, not an identification with the wider multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. The polarisation to extremes and the high level of tension within society prevent the development of attitudes and values essential to democracy -- especially the willingness to abide by democratic procedures in determining who should be entitled to wield political power. The second dimension concerns the eff ect on the institutions of civil society. Under comprehensive economic sanctions (of the kind imposed on Iraq), the mass of the population is reduced to a hard struggle for immediate survival, with insufficient medicine to maintain health. People are unlikely to have the time or the energy to involve themselves in the interest groups, unions and professional associations which constitute civil society. Yet civil society forms the basis on which democratisation processes have often been constructed. There can be little doubt that, if there were to be a change of regime in Iraq today (writing in the year 2001), the prospects for a new regime operating a viable liberal democracy are less strong than they would have been ten years previously.

Fourth, economic sanctions undermine the long-term political stability of the states on which they are imposed, with likely repercussions on the stability of the wider region. The deterioration of the central infrastructure and services is crucial to this process, for these are the elements which give the state its effective coherence. The central dynamic keeping a country together, therefore, can be critically weakened. The feeling among different population groups that they benefit from being part of the country can be destroyed. Such dangers are of particular relevance in Iraq, but they constitute a danger in Libya also. Where the sanctions are accompanied by Western policies which prevent the state from maintaining its control over part of the country (as in the case of the Kurdish areas of Iraq), the impact is likely to be particularly serious for long-term national integration. It may be contended that this enables states to be reformed on a more realistic basis than before, with autonomy or independenc e granted to ethnic or religious groupings which do not identify their interests with the state. Yet to carry through the dismantling of a state under these conditions would be highly problematic and disruptive to regional stability.

Fifth, sanctions delay the development of frameworks of regional cooperation (in both security and economic fields) which could underpin the stability of a region. This writer would argue that the stability of Arab countries, individually and collectively, could be enhanced by such frameworks, where regional states can seek ways of resolving regional security problems and enhancing economic exchange and interdependence. Integrative links drawing Iraq into close collaboration with its Gulf neighbours, Libya into similar collaboration with the other states of North Africa, and Sudan into systems of cooperation with the Horn of Africa and with Egypt (as well as across the Red Sea), could bring substantial benefits. So also could wider structures of cooperation within the Arab world, enabling the Arab states of the Middle East to strengthen their bargaining position vis-a-vis the large economic blocs which dominate the international economy. For as long as a state is under U.N. sanctions, however, the process of creating a regional architecture appropriate to the security and economic needs of the area is delayed. Other regional states will be constrained from seeking collaborative links with such a state. The concerns of the regional states themselves may also, of course, inhibit cooperation. They may fear the effects of cooperating with a state which is perceived as pursuing aggressive and expansionist designs. But the external discouragement certainly acts as one more factor making regional security and economic cooperation more difficult to achieve, leaving the establishment of a regional architecture to a future where bitter interstate regional antagonism has disappeared--a situation which may never arise.

It is encouraging to note that a realisation of the failure of sanctions does seem to be spreading. The International Development Committee of the British House of Commons, in its second report on the future of sanctions, summed up the overall experience of sanctions, and the policy options which follow from it, as follows:

Although sanctions may well represent a low-cost alternative to war in financial terms, they are all too often as damaging -- in humanitarian and developmental terms -- as armed conflict.

Those who should be targeted, the political leaders and elites who have flouted international law, continue to enrich themselves. Much discussion has taken place of targeted sanctions, in particular financial sanctions, as a "smarter" and more just approach. We conclude, however, that neither the United Kingdom nor the international community have made real efforts to introduce such sanctions. There has been much talk but little action ...

We find it difficult to believe that there will be a case in the future where the U.N. would be justified in imposing comprehensive economic sanctions on a country. In an increasingly interdependent world such sanctions cause significant suffering. However carefully exemptions are planned, the fact is that comprehensive economic sanctions only further concentrate power in the hands of the ruling elite. The U.N. will lose credibility if it advocates the rights of the poor whilst at the same time causing, if only indirectly, their further impoverishment. (8)

The problem, as the report correctly stresses, is that the sanctions issue affects the credibility of the U.N. as a whole, leading to a general loss of faith in the ability of international organisation to act in the interests of those suffering from poverty and oppression. The impression created is of an international order managed exclusively in the interests of a narrow range of Western powers, who have absolved themselves of responsibility for the ill-effects created by their policies.

Tim Niblock is Professor of Arab Gulf Studies and Head of the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, at Exeter University.


(1.) Niblock, Tim. Sanctions and the 'Pariah States' in the Middle East: Iraq, Libya and Sudan. (Lynne Rienner, Boulder, December 2000).

(2.) The writer reached this view on the basis of interviews with senior policy-makers in Iraq between 1997 and 2000.

(3.) The Guardian, 20 June 2000.

(4.) Economist Intelligence Unit. Sudan: Country Report. No. 1, (EIU, London, 1998), p.7.

(5.) Ibid, p.14.

(6.) Economist Intelligence Unit, Sudan: Country Report. No. 3, (EIU, London, 1997), p.15, and also No.4, p.19.

(7.) Economist Intelligence Unit, Sudan: Country Profile 1998-9. (EIU, London, 1999), p.10. In mid-1998 Kuwait agreed to the gradual re-opening of the Sudanese embassy in Kuwait.

(8.) House of Commons, International Development Committee, "Second Report of the Select Committee on International Development, 1999," Found at
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Title Annotation:United Nations Security Council
Author:Niblock, Tim
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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