On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military seized power in a coup following the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders. The military, in an announcement on the military-owned channel “Myawaddy,” declared that Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of the country, had been detained along with other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) as a result of the alleged voting irregularities in the country’s 2020 elections. Additionally, the military also imposed a one-year state of emergency in the country. The coup came to be condemned by many countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. In fact, U.S. President Joe Biden has recently ordered sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar by issuing an executive order to the effect of preventing the generals of Myanmar from accessing the country’s $1 billion in assets in the United States. According to Biden, the sanction would prevent military leaders in Myanmar from benefiting from the assets in the U.S. while allowing the people of the country to maintain support in areas benefiting them, such as health care programs.
Considering that Western nations are becoming increasingly vocal in their support for democracy there has also been an increase in the expectations for their reaction against violation of human rights. It is difficult for Western leaders to ignore human rights violations in authoritarian states, as doing so subjects them to domestic criticism by political opponents, the general public, and the media. The pressure to impose sanctions on an authoritarian regime is considerably high when dramatic trigger events result in the creation of not just global attention but also justification for foreign intervention. Coups, which are “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive,” require no detailed fact-finding before signaling to the international arena of the violation of democratic norms. Hence, it can be said that coups are one of the most “powerful predictors of the imposition of democratic sanctions.”
It has been argued that economic sanctions can unjustly target the poor and innocent. According to Galtung, economic sanctions would harm the general public to such an extent that they would pressurize and compel the leaders of the country to alter their behavior. The economic sanctions are expected to harm the general public. Such a coercive mechanism has come to be criticized for violating the Just War doctrine, which states that aggressors must create a clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In this context, it must be highlighted that the United Nations has warned that sanctions imposed over the coup in Myanmar must target those responsible and avoid any harm to vulnerable segments. Further, the United States has claimed that such differentiation will be created, wherein the economic sanctions would impact just the aggressors and not the general population. However, it is unclear how this would be done, considering that sanctions do not clearly distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.
Sanctions by the U.S. are often presented as policies specifically aimed at the aggressors; however, as has been noted, such sanctions can have a devastating impact on the general population of the targeted state. It is challenging to meaningfully harm the aggressors without inflicting collateral damage on the general population. This applies even when a state is an aggressor to its own citizens though it still provides them with food, water, and order — tasks it fails to do if it has been deprived of resources. Ironically, economic sanctions tend to victimize those same people whom these policies are designed to help. The underlying assumption of American policies is that sanctions are capable of producing a regime change or coercing the state to change its behavior. However, that deprivation of resources, in fact, increases the likelihood of states’ engagement in mass killing and repression of the general population.
It has been suggested that sanctions are not likely to be effective if the target regime is a non-democracy. Sanctions can be effective if they are capable of increasing the capacity of the opposition, which in turn would result in the reduction of the repressive capacity of the dictator and possibly destabilizing the regime. However, when the opposition cannot benefit from sanctions the consequence is the strengthening of the rule of the dictator. It can, therefore, be said that dictators respond to international sanctions by increasing both repression and cooperation to stay in power. Further, recent instances of sanctions in Yugoslavia and Iraq have demonstrated that high levels of economic impact have not been effective in compelling the target state to comply. Sanctions in Serbia included measures such as a visa ban and trade and arms embargoes. The results were such that the economic recovery of Serbia was severely hindered, which in turn resulted in a flourishing grey economy and a black market. This was in addition to the restriction of access to essential humanitarian goods such as medicines.
Military conflicts pose an immediate threat to the general population in terms of death and disability; whereas, public health risks associated with sanctions are more indirect as the deprivation of resources can result in a decrease in access to clean water, health care, and a steady supply of food. Additionally, a decrease in resources results in the increased cost of taking prescribed action by the leader. Hence, the immediate repercussion of sanction is not an increase in disease, disability, and death; rather, its result is leaders altering the calculations regarding resource allocation. Sanctions force leaders to make some choices that have significant implications for public health. The infrastructure of a state, such as roads, hospitals, and sanitation systems are not directly destroyed by sanctions the way they are by armed conflict. However, the consequences of sanctions are such that such infrastructure may be neglected and fall into despair. In turn, scarcity and neglect result in the creation of indirect health risks associated with sanctions.
It is essential to look for alternatives to the current practice of imposing economic sanctions. In light of the sanctions’ consequences, the following policy recommendations are appropriate. Firstly, when using sanctions, the U.S., as well as other countries and international organizations, needs to clearly distinguish between aggressors and non-aggressors to ensure that the entire regime is not impacted by sanctions. considering that imposing sanctions on individuals is more likely to be efficient while also preventing humanitarian costs; secondly, the U.S. should relax its current and future sanction regimes; and lastly, laws should be implemented or modified to make it more difficult for the executive branch to impose unilateral sanctions.
Aditi Behura is a third year law student at National Law University in Dehli, India.