Against The Grain: 'Sanctions are never an answer on their own'

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Stephen Chan is professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Professor Chan argues that sanctions do not work.

Sanctions are seen as a way of resolving conflicts without resorting to violence, but this is a very one-dimensional view. And it's pure posturing when politicians, as Gordon Brown has done, claim that British sanctions will make a difference in countries like Burma. Even if you get everyone on side, sanctions are never an answer on their own, they only work as part of an overall strategy. You need carrots as well as sticks.

We are seeing what happens when you rely on sanctions in Zimbabwe. There is nowhere left to go. If we widen sanctions any further we will start to affect major players who are needed to sustain the economy. Already we have inflicted serious harm on the people of Zimbabwe without getting any closer to being rid of Mugabe.

Sanctions against Zimbabwe were a knee jerk reaction by the British government, which had been taken by surprise by the farm invasions. The whole policy was directed at removing Mugabe or changing his mind. Not only has Mugabe survived, but sanctions have strengthened his position domestically and won him sympathy across Africa.

Sanctions have failed against Zimbabwe before. Apartheid South Africa's mediation was more important than British sanctions in ending Ian Smith's white power government in Rhodesia.

The same is true for Burma. Burma is very much a closed society, it doesn't need wide-ranging links with the outside world. The only country that can bring any real influence to bear on Burma is China and China will do its own thing in Burma. The Chinese are already using quiet diplomacy. What we've seen with North Korea is it's not about getting China to join Western strategy, but finding a way of working complementarily.

Sanctions are more often about propaganda than finding a solution. The pressure for sanctions against Iran is coming from the old hawks in the White House. What we're seeing here is the last stand of the hawks. You should never follow the cries of dying hawks. The best estimates put the Iranians as two to five years off developing nuclear weapons. That's an awful lot of room for discussion. Ahmadinejad is already facing domestic opposition for his foreign policy and the way he has mismanaged the Iranian economy. Sanctions will make him stronger, not weaker.

I detest Mugabe, I detest the Burmese junta, and I detest Ahmadinejad. I'm no apologist for these regimes. But we have to recognise that these governments will change through engagement not ostracism.