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Peace Through Sanctions?

Sanctions against Yugoslavia have heightened tensions, punished innocent civilians, and helped spark the Kosovo tragedy.


In 1945, when World War II came to an end, more than 50 million people had been killed and many countries were devastated. At the time, we hoped the rest of the 20th century would be without any war. Great wars soon broke out, however, in spite of the added risk of nuclear war. Worldwide, conflicts continued to erupt, in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union, Iraq and Iran, Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Syria, the Persian Gulf, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

The greatest powers in the world and the combined strength of the United Nations have not been able to create lasting peace. We live in fear that wars will break out again and again if international policy does not change. "We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive," warned Albert Einstein 55 years ago. The urgency of his message increases with each passing day.


In all countries, but especially in the highly industrialized ones, the military industry reaps the greatest profits from war. The military-industrial complex plays a highly effective economic and political role in ensuring the persistence of war. Every sort of weapon is avidly produced and sold, from pistols to assault rifles, artillery, mines, tanks, missiles, bombs, and war planes. Even nuclear weapons find their way into the black market. All wars are waged with these weapons, and despite the economic bankruptcy and extremely high debt of most of the Third World, these countries spend a large proportion of their budgets on military equipment. Those of us in the West who provided that technology cannot proclaim our innocence.

Moreover, the 185 member nations of the United Nations let wars start and continue without any serious diplomatic interference, advice, or warnings as long as our own fate or political interests are not in jeopardy. For example, during the 8-year war between Iraq and Iran, sparked by Iraqi aggression, both nations received financial, military, and logistic support from the United States and other Western countries. The military industry profited greatly from this long war. And when thousands of Kurds in Iraq were killed by Iraqi poison gas in 1988, there was no enduring outcry and no punishment or embargo. The United States’ support for Saddam Hussein continued, as he was an adversary of Iran, an enemy of the United States.

Another example of Western indifference to wars that pose no obvious threat to the great nations is the ongoing war, begun in 1984, by Turkey against its own 20 million Kurds. During this brutal war, massive and systematic violations of human rights occur regularly. More than 3,000 villages in southeast Anatolia have been destroyed, more than 25,000 people have been killed, and about 2 million refugees have been scattered inside and outside Turkey. Those who dare mention Kurdish history and the right of the Kurdish people to speak their language and live in cultural and regional autonomy inside Turkish borders risk imprisonment. Nearly every day, human-rights advocates, like the president of the Turkish Human Rights Association, Akin Birdal, as well as journalists and book authors and editors have been sent to jail.

Article 39 of the charter of the United Nations states that "massive and systematic violations of human rights constitute a threat to peace." This was the rationale behind sanctions imposed on Rhodesia, South Africa, Iraq, Haiti, and Yugoslavia.1 Why have no sanctions been imposed on Turkey? Because it is a member of NATO, and because nuclear weapons are deployed there. Turkey is also an arena for Western politics in the Middle East. Therefore, Turkey gets continuous financial and military support and uses it to wage war against the Kurds.


All countries have ministries of defense; but in reality, they should be called ministries of war. The task of defense ministries is to maintain a strong army prepared at any time to fight in a defensive or offensive war, at home or far away. Ministers of defense feel very proud when their army is marching in parades or engaged in action in foreign countries. But why don’t we have ministries for peace, ministries for the prevention of war?

We need experienced diplomats like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, historians, peace researchers, psychologists, mediators, and linguists whose task in such ministries for peace would be to monitor the international scene and spot potential conflicts and then help solve the problems nonviolently. The United Nations should cooperate closely with those ministries for peace rather than just finance armies for military intervention.


Sanctions have been touted as a nonviolent way to coerce nations into peace. But we need to ask whether sanctions preserve or restore peace or, in fact, provoke new wars. Do sanctions punish dictators or innocent people? Can sanctions support opposition against dictator regimes, or are powerless opponents more likely to be imprisoned or killed? Are there not distinctive differences among countries targeted by sanctions, from South Africa to Yugoslavia, Cuba, or Iraq?

In light of recent events, we must ask what has been the effect of UN sanctions against Yugoslavia. During World War II, Yugoslavia was defeated and occupied by the German army. The Nazi government favored the Croatian nationalists and fascists and allowed a Croatian autonomy. Terrible cruelties took place, and many thousands of Serbs were killed by Croats. Then, after the war, the tables turned, and many thousands of Croats were killed by Serbs.

Under President Tito and then the Yugoslavian Communist Party, the country achieved peace and reconstruction. With peace and prosperity, the reputation of the new Socialist Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia began to soar, and the country became an international vacation Mecca.

After Tito’s death in 1980, a state crisis was provoked when Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic canceled the cultural and regional autonomy of the province of Kosovo, dissolved the Albanian-speaking Parliament, and expelled Albanian professors and students from the university and university hospitals. Tensions between the local governments of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia followed and led to the outbreak of a brutal war in 1991.This war started with fighting between Slovenia and the Serbian-run Yugoslav army, followed by a war between the states of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in changing coalitions. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Bosnians, were wounded, raped, tortured and killed, and many thousands of Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs were expelled from their homelands.

The European Union, the UN Security Council, and the U.S. administration stood by and observed the war, which they named a civil war. Then—much too late—they tried to mediate and to find a peaceful solution. The European Union in 1991, and the UN Security Council in 1992, decided on a strict embargo that prohibited all trade, especially all exports of weaponry to Yugoslavia.

Despite these sanctions, the destructive and cruel war lasted for more than four years. Not surprisingly, the sanctions had no beneficial effect. Serbia possessed huge amounts of weaponry and ammunition and did not depend on reinforcements. Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were illegally supported by their historical allies and thus were able to either defend or reconquer their land.

In short, the sanctions imposed by the European Union and the UN Security Council could not stop the war and did not bring the adversaries to the bargaining table. It was too late to interfere. Who suffered most from this war and also from the economic sanctions? Not the responsible politicians, but the innocent children, the women, the sick, and the poor.


Resolution 757 of the UN Security Council in May 1992 prohibited all trade and financial contracts with Serbia. As a result, inflation increased 1,000 percent by 1993. In fact, by 1994, the economy of the Serbian state was more or less bankrupt. Gasoline, oil for heating and cooking, household goods, and food became extremely rare and expensive. Medicine, as well as basic supplies for the pharmaceutical industries and spare parts for hospital equipment, could not be bought in other countries because of the shortage of hard currency. Routine health care and diagnostics equipment, as well as emergency medical treatment in ambulances and hospitals, fell to a very low level. The International Committee of the Red Cross supplied some medications from Geneva, but not enough by far. Red Cross officials were very much opposed to the sanctions because, as one official said, "They are unfair and from the medical point of view inhuman and disastrous....The sanctions make people nationalistic, they penalize the poor and the sick." The director of the World Health Organization area office, a doctor from Finland, said that the sanctions were only a political excuse for not supporting an effective peace process and for the ignorance and inactivity of the European Union and the UN.

All medical and other scientific organizations and communications were disrupted. Academic journals, bulletins, and books were not delivered. Moreover, sanctions had a major negative impact by weakening opposition groups in Serbia. Before sanctions were imposed, many opponents of the Milosevic regime—including high-profile personalities, physicians, and members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, as well as other opposition groups, journalists, and even two television-and radio channels—kept people informed and organized demonstrations against the war and against the shelling of Sarajevo. After sanctions were imposed, these opposition groups could not get the necessary paper and spare parts for printing equipment and for radio and TV station equipment. But of course the government did not suffer from any such shortages. Therefore, the population became more and more the victims of the government’s propaganda.

There was and is great despair among the Serbian population. Serbs believe that almost all countries in the world are against Serbia and that their country and people are not fairly treated. Therefore, at the last elections the majority of the people voted for the Milosevic regime; the economic misery had the unintended effect of increasing support for the government and not the opposite as the European Union and United Nations had hoped.


As all the world now knows, war in former Yugoslavia has waged since 1998 in the Serbian province of Kosovo, where the Albanian majority represents 90 percent of the population. These Albanian speaking Moslem people want to regain their cultural and regional autonomy, which they had under Tito and lost under Milosevic. In the 15 years before war broke out, the opportunities for nonviolent conflict resolution and the prevention of war were not taken, either by the Serbian and Yugoslavian politicians, or by the European Union or United Nations. Western governments and foreign ministers just observed the situation and spoke of "Yugoslavian internal affairs" while the ministers of defense prepared their armies.

Now it is painfully obvious; the ongoing war is no longer a Yugoslavian internal affair. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians have been expelled, their houses burnt, whole villages destroyed, and hundreds of thousands try to find security in other countries.

As of May 1999, Serbia is being bombed day and night. The "wise" politicians of NATO have no other strategy than to continue the bombing. The outbreak of this war could have been prevented, but the years that preceded the bombings were not used for effective diplomacy. European nations and the United Nations did not support either the opposition or the peace movement in Serbia; nor did they support the nonviolent opposition in Kosovo.

Sanctions had no beneficial effect on peace policy. On the contrary, it was the majority of the Serbian population who suffered, not the government or the army. People in the streets were convinced that Western governments are anti-Serbian and want to humiliate the Serbian people. The UN’s massive air raids only confirmed this belief.

Peace through sanctions? Definitely not! Sanctions against people do not produce peace. On the contrary, sanctions create hatred and the wish for revenge. If we are to hope for peace in the 21st century, we must stop imposing economic sanctions that rob the innocent of basic needs and do nothing to stem the spread of war.n

Ulrich Gottstein is European vice-president emeritus and honorary member of the German Board of Directors of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Frankfurt, Germany.2

1. Based on a shortened version of the lecture "Peace through Sanctions? Lessons from Cuba, Former Yugoslavia and Iraq," at the 13th World Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, December 4-8, 1998, in Melbourne, Australia, to be published by the IPPNW in Medicine, Conflict and Survival (London: IPPNW, 1999).

2. Kulessa Manfred and Dorothee Starck, "Peace through Sanctions?" Policy Paper, 7th edition (Bonn: Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden, 1997), pp. 1-11.

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