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Viewpoint: Questioning Sanctions
It's time to re-examine their results in Myanmar

Rebecca Miller is paralegal consultant for the United Nations Drug Control Program's Regional Center for East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok. The opinions expressed here are her own

Myanmar, which has suffered extensively from civil war, in much of the world is associated now with the suppression of democracy, the abuse of human rights, injustice, and the denial of freedom. Outraged by Myanmar's authoritarian regime, several Western powers invoked sanctions. The United States' measures include the suspension of economic aid, withdrawal of eligibility for trade and investment programs, an arms embargo, and a bar on assistance from international financial institutions. The European Union adopted similar sanctions, but in Bangkok last week it announced exceptions for humanitarian aid and programs of non-government organizations. Japan and Australia have suspended most of their bilateral aid programs, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted an unprecedented resolution stopping Myanmar's participation in meetings.

The regime's repressive control has contributed to Myanmar's failing economy, but it is possible that sanctions have too — with consequences for the populace. There can be trade-offs in applying sanctions. No doubt they are a powerful tool in enacting change: a way, says Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, to prevent or stop violence against civilians and save lives in the face of brutality and destruction — vital for the U.N. to protect people. Apparently, the U.S. believes that sanctions are the only way to effectively address the situation in Myanmar, and it holds that the regime's mismanagement is the chief cause of the faltering economy. Axworthy says that if we examine history, results of sanctions seem to be mixed. Indeed. It is important to evaluate whether the impact of sanctions, in terms of human suffering, is too high. Undoubtedly they affect innocents who often find themselves isolated and lacking international support. Ironically they are then left to face the adverse consequences sanctions were intended to relieve.

During the 1990s, the U.N. invoked a record number of sanctions against countries that did not conform to international standards of behavior toward other nations or their own citizens. Sanctions have offered the Security Council the necessary support to enforce its decisions, stronger than condemnation yet not as intrusive or confrontational as force. But recently, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged that they might not always be the best solution: "When robust and comprehensive economic sanctions are directed against authoritarian regimes, a different problem is encountered — it is usually the people who suffer, not the political elite whose behavior triggered the sanctions." He said sanctions often benefit individuals in power because of their ability to control and profit from the black-market economy. Moreover, sanctions appear not to have stopped regimes from silencing or eliminating internal political opposition. Some of the world's worst human rights abuses have been facilitated by isolation.

Axworthy believes that targeted sanctions should be combined creatively with targeted incentives in foreign assistance, debt relief and trade benefits. The International Committee of the Red Cross provides an example. In 1998 — three years after it had withdrawn from Myanmar — the Red Cross decided to resume operations. While some in the international community were critical, its return was welcomed by the regime and eventually National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well. After 1995, Myanmar had contacted the Red Cross and an agreement was negotiated on one of the most sensitive issues — prisons and the detention of political detainees. It is difficult to discount the Red Cross's achievements. Its officers have access to 25 prisons, the guesthouses where NLD ministers are held and two labor camps, and meet regularly with inmates. Former Red Cross chief Leon de Riedmatten's advice to those seeking improvements in Myanmar: Be open to negotiations and give authorities the responsibility to make important decisions.

U.N. organizations play diverse roles in Myanmar. Contrasting with the ILO is the position of the World Health Organization, which recognized the country's drastic need for help on reproductive health issues and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Children's Fund, UNICEF, also has taken a cooperative approach, contending that with the suspension of bilateral assistance, programs for children's health, nutrition and education are urgently required. The U.N. Drug Control Program is among the few U.N. agencies providing assistance to Myanmar and working with its officials. With UNDCP guidance, Myanmar is engaged in subregional cooperation in drug abuse control and domestic programs.

It is time for the international community to re-examine the role and impact of sanctions. They have a place, but the issue is whether they are viewed as a hammer or a laser. There is evidence that sanctions against Myanmar have not achieved all the desired results. Moreover, constructive engagement, in limited instances, appears to have had positive results. Therefore, it is prudent to explore the potential of an active dialogue with Myanmar with the goal of fostering an enhancement of human rights, reduction of the drug trade, and to alleviate the widespread poverty that ravages the country.

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