Do Economic Sanctions in Response to Gross Human Rights Abuses Do Any Good?

Economic sanctions imposed for national security reasons, such as those invoked against Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Russia, have a mixed record. In the case of Iran, sanctions have forced the Islamic regime to limit its nuclear ambitions. In the case of Cuba, on the other hand, sanctions fostered the isolation that has prevented the country from escaping the communist orthodoxy into which it settled soon after its 1959 revolution.

Sanctions in response to gross human rights abuses have a better record. Cases with significant adverse consequences do not come to mind.

This record seems to justify the Biden administration and its allies in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union in imposing sanctions recently on Myanmar for the slaughter of many hundreds of civilians for protesting the Feb. 1 military coup; and on China for its genocidal practices against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province. Sanctions on both Myanmar and China can have an impact in mitigating abuses, albeit in different ways.

Sanctions have had a significant impact in improving human rights in the past. Those imposed by the United States on South Africa in the mid-1980s — in combination with measures such as an international sports boycott — contributed to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the legalization of the African National Congress in 1990. That began the process that led to the end of apartheid in 1994.

Another example from the same era was the imposition of sanctions on communist Poland following its declaration of martial law in December 1981 and the regime’s crushing of the Solidarity movement. The gradual reduction of those sanctions as repression eased contributed to the election of a non-communist government in Poland by the end of the decade and to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

In the case of Myanmar, sanctions that have been imposed by the United States, Canada, the U.K., and the EU may have a substantial economic impact. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, controls large sections of the country’s economy, but with a half million men in its armed forces, far more than in comparably sized countries, it is hungry for cash. Some of its revenue comes from selling valuable hardwood timber, natural gas, and high quality jade to China. Yet it has also profited greatly from trade with the West and with other Asian countries that are subject to Western influence, such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand.  Most civilians in Myanmar are boycotting consumer products of military owned companies. Western economic sanctions reinforce that domestic pressure on the armed forces.

China, however, is different.  Sanctions focused on its gross human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities may have scant economic impact. The sums involved are microscopic in comparison with the magnitude of China’s commerce with the West. Yet this does not negate the value of the sanctions imposed by the Biden administration and its allies. The more multilateral the sanctions are, the more effective they will be. The sanctions are an important means of highlighting China’s abuses. China’s retaliatory sanctions against Western officials and NGOs that have documented its genocidal practices only increase the public attention paid to these abuses.

It would be inconceivable for Western countries that define themselves by their respect for fundamental freedoms to passively accept China’s severe mistreatment of these minorities. At least a million Uyghurs are being confined by Chinese authorities in detention camps that the state calls “re-education centers.” What is taking place there must be made known to the world.  The confinement is based solely on their identity as Uyghurs — speaking their own language, associating with fellow Uyghurs, and observing their traditional, peaceful religious practices. In detention, they are being indoctrinated so as to transform them into imitations of China’s ethnic majority, Han Chinese. Uyghur women are being forcibly sterilized. Most of the mosques in Xinjiang have been destroyed. Contacts with fellow Uyghurs in neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries have been largely eliminated.

The clear purpose is to destroy the Uyghurs as a distinctive minority. It is not destruction in gas chambers; and it is not ethnic cleansing as in the former Yugoslavia or mass killing as in Rwanda; but its ultimate goal of eliminating a minority is similar. The United States and other governments have called it genocide.

Options are limited for Western governments to respond to developments in Xinjiang. Action through the United Nations is not possible because China (and Russia) possess veto power in the Security Council. Similarly, China has not accepted the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction, and a referral to the ICC would require a resolution of the Security Council.

Though China’s economic heft makes any broad interruption of trade relations unthinkable, a few Western firms have acted courageously by renouncing the use of Xinjiang cotton in their manufacturing — including the Swedish company H&M. This could be costly to the firm, as the Chinese authorities are promoting a retaliatory boycott.

The real effect of Western sanctions is to tarnish the reputation of China’s leader, President Xi Jinping. Xi has made himself China’s absolute ruler, the most powerful since Mao Zedong, altering China’s constitution to allow himself to remain president for life. The sanctions will help ensure that his genocidal policies are fixed to his name. The only way to mitigate the damage to his reputation would be to end the persecution of the Uyghurs.

Prestige matters greatly to China — and to Xi Jinping. China is spending immense amounts on the 2022 Winter Olympics to enhance its reputation, as it did on the 2008 summer games. The president regularly finds occasions to manifest his greatness. The risk of sullying his reputation with a widespread view that his government is committing genocide might provide some impetus for backing off the abuses.

To be sure, there may be only a small chance that economic pressure will persuade the Myanmar armed forces to relent in their slaughter of citizens protesting their coup, or that damage to Xi Jinping’s prestige will make any difference in China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. But failure to act will further embolden leaders around the world who want to trample on human rights.

IMAGE: Riot police hold their firearms as they face off with protesters during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on March 8, 2021. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Aryeh Neier

President Emeritus of Open Society Foundations, founder and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and former Executive Director of the ACLU.