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DU Professor Likens Economic Sanctions to 'Siege Warfare'

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Emma Atkinson

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Headshot of Professor Francisco Rodriguez.

In a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, University of Denver professor of international and public affairs Francisco Rodriguez asserts that international economic sanctions have severe negative effects on vulnerable populations in target countries.

The basis of the study, “The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions,” is an evaluation of more than 32 research papers and book chapters, 30 of which “find consistently statistically significant adverse effects of economic sanctions on the dependent variable of interest.”

As defined by the Council on Foreign Relations, sanctions are commonly used as the “tool of choice” by countries looking to respond to geopolitical challenges. Economic sanctions can include asset freezes and trade restrictions as well as larger-scale measures like the prohibition of commercial relations with an entire country.

Rodriguez says these wide-reaching sanctions can have ripple effects—especially when they are imposed on large entities, rather than individuals.

“When the central bank or the national oil company or national development banks are sanctioned, obviously, that directly affects the functioning of the whole economy,” he says.

Rodriguez says that one of the most striking findings of the report is how the cross-national patterns in the data show a deterioration in living conditions after systematically imposed economic sanctions. These living conditions include such measures as per capita income, poverty, inequality, international trade, child mortality, undernourishment, life expectancy and human rights.

According to the research, Rodriguez says, the average decline in gross domestic product (GDP) associated with the imposition of multilateral economic sanctions is equivalent to the United States’ decline in GDP during the Great Depression. And the decrease in life expectancy associated with sanctions is equivalent to the decrease in global life expectancy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These are very large, sizable effects that we're seeing coming up in the cross-country data that tell us that there's definitely something going on,” Rodriguez says.

Additionally, economic sanctions complicate the distribution of humanitarian aid in the wake of global crises.

After a devastating earthquake hit Turkey and Syria earlier this year, there was a significant deficit in the amount of financial aid coming into Syria as compared to Turkey. Rodriguez says this is due to the fears of money-raising platforms—like GoFundMe—running afoul of the United States’ current economic sanctions on Syria.

“So, if you want to raise money to help Venezuelans, or to help people in Iran, or to help people in Sudan or any other U.S.-sanctioned entity, then you will find that it will be very difficult, because the platforms that help raise that money believe that there is a risk that they will be prosecuted for violating sanctions,” he says.

All in all, Rodriguez says he believes that high-level economic sanctions effectively do more harm than good due to their negative effects on quality of life for the citizens of the sanctioned countries—especially in low-income countries.

“There are very direct effects on vulnerable people,” he says. “And I think it basically leads us to ask a question: What is the acceptable way to confront foreign enemies? Up until the early 20th century, it was acceptable, even standard, for armies to besiege cities and to try to starve cities into submission through the use of siege warfare. Today, that is considered a war crime—considered a heinous war crime. The same logic should apply to sanctions.”

Rodriguez says he hopes to see the U.S. reassess how it wields its economic sanction power.

“One thing that I would like to see, and I think it is quite achievable, is for there to be systematic assessments of the humanitarian impact of each sanction,” he says. “So, whenever the U.S. government imposes sanctions on a country, I believe that it should be mandated to produce an analysis of the humanitarian effect of those sanctions, explain the steps that it's taking to offset them, publish that analysis so that the analysis is subject to review by the academic and scientific community—or even, ideally, have that analysis be done by external experts.”

He believes these steps would contribute to a more responsible use of economic sanctions—and reduce the negative effects that sanctions have proved to inflict.