Are indiscriminate sanctions ever morally justified?
Collective punishment is widely regarded as violating the ethics of war and the Geneva Convention. And yet, governments frequently use indiscriminate economic sanctions to bring about changes in their opponent's behaviour. Taking this discrepancy as a point of departure, it's worth reflecting on the ethics of American sanctions on Iran and alternatives available under the Magnitsky Act.
Iran and the US have been in a contentious wrangle since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. During the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, the US government suspended all diplomatic ties with Iran and since 1995 imposed an embargo on all trade with the country, ostensibly to curtail Iran's nuclear programme and to stop Iranian support for organisations it considers problematic.
Broad, crippling restraints on trade were also imposed under the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 and its successor the 2006 Iran Sanctions Act, which primarily target the Iranian petroleum industry - one of Iran's principal export industries. While the precise contours of US trade prohibitions have fluctuated in line with leadership changes in both countries, the principle of collective punishment permeates each of these measures.
"The US government is inflicting punishment upon individuals whose sole connection to the Iranian government is their country of residence"
Can such indiscriminate sanctions ever be justified from a moral perspective?
The US government is correct in claiming that sanctions weaken the Iranian state and force it into a corner. Yet, it is undeniable that indiscriminate sanctions severely harm the lives and well-being of ordinary Iranian civilians.
In effect, the US government is inflicting punishment upon individuals whose sole connection to the Iranian government is their country of residence. As such, a moral justification of indiscriminate sanctions is difficult to envisage without resorting to the sort of logic of collective punishment also espoused by violent extremists and authoritarian dictators.
By treating civilians as non-innocents or collateral damage, those imposing indiscriminate sanctions risk adopting a dangerous set of beliefs that, in the case of the United States, comes uncomfortably close to those espoused by many of their arch-enemies.
What's the alternative? You might ask.
Targeted sanctions regimes such as the Magnitsky Act, introduced by President Barack Obama in 2012 offer a more adequate means for a rights-respecting democracy to propagate its values within the frame of international relations - and without the uncomfortable moral baggage of indiscriminate sanctions.
The Magnitsky Act allows governments to sanction specific individuals and entities who violate international law, through asset freezes, travel bans and restrictions on who can do business with the specified individual or entity.
The recent adoption of Magnitsky style legislation by the European Union as part of its Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy allowed the bloc to sanction four members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for their personal and direct involvement in the arbitrary detentions and degrading treatment inflicted upon Uighurs and people from other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang , as well as specified members of Myanmar's military junta.
America's decision to join the targeted sanctions on CCP members might suggest that the tide is turning in a more favourable direction.
Hossein Dabbagh is a philosophy tutor at the University of Oxford.
Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge and a Solicitor of the Courts of England and Wales.
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