The Big Question: Have sanctions ever worked, and should they be applied to Zimbabwe?

Why are we asking this now?

Because the leaders of the G8 richest nations have announced sanctions on Zimbabwe this week in an attempt to end the bloodshed and restore democracy to the country.

What are sanctions?

Restrictions on trade and financial contact imposed upon a state to persuade rulers to change its behaviour – a halfway house between diplomatic disapproval and military intervention. Critics deride them as impotent gestures designed only to quieten the demand that "something must be done" in situations where the truth is that nothing can be done. Sanctions aren't a proper foreign policy so much as a feel-good substitute for one.

Where have they been imposed?

The UN has authorised them to seek compliance with UN resolutions sanctions in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Libya, Rhodesia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia.

Every US president since 1936 has used them and the Bush administration has threatened or used them on 85 states in the past 12 years including Burma, Cuba, Haiti, North Korea and Syria. Russia is imposing them on many of the newly independent states which were once Soviet republics. Sanctions have been imposed on at least 185 countries since the Second World War.

Have they worked?

Academics say they have in about a third of those cases. They worked in South Africa. Sanctions against Slobodan Milosevic hastened the end of the Bosnian war. They prodded Libya into handing over the two terrorists involved in the Lockerbie airline bombing and then abandoning its ambitions to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Most recently the freezing of $25m in a foreign bank brought North Korean back to talks on ending its nuclear ambitions.

But they have been in place against Cuba for 40 years without bringing down Fidel Castro. Some 13 years of sanctions on Iraq failed to topple Saddam Hussein. After 14 years of US sanctions the military regime remains in Burma. Decades of sanctions on Iran have brought no regime change nor, most recently, persuaded Tehran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme. Yet it depends how you measure success. If a footballer scored a goal every three matches that wouldn't be written off as failure. And, as Iraq has shown, war doesn't inevitably succeed where sanctions have failed, and it's a lot more costly, economically and morally.

How long do they take to work?

Sanctions are no quick fix. When the British colony, Rhodesia, declared unilateral independence the UK imposed sanctions on the minority white regime and the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, predicted the rebel downfall in "weeks not months". It took 12 years, partly because many Western companies secretly ignored them. But the end came when the Rhodesian secret service went to the Rhodesian prime minister and told him the oil would run out in a week.

So why did they work in South Africa?

Because they bit on the business community which, in turn, put increasing pressure on their own government to negotiate with the black majority. Sporting boycotts also increased the psychological isolation of the sport-mad Afrikaaners. But the sanctions were effective because they affected a strong white middle class which could put effective pressure on their own apartheid government.

Why did they fail in Iraq?

Because the comprehensive sanctions there ended up hurting the people they are designed to help. The 13 years of UN sanctions brought poverty and hardship for ordinary Iraqis and almost certainly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children when water and sanitation systems collapsed and spare parts were unavailable thanks to the sanctions.

An enormous number of innocent people suffered and yet Saddam Hussein was not dislodged from power. Ironically, though, when the West finally concluded that sanctions were not working, the reason, it was claimed, was that they hadn't prevented Saddam from rebuilding his weapons of mass destruction - when. In fact, as we now know, they did achieve that aim.

Can sanctions be counter-productive?

Kofi Annan called sanctions "a blunt and even counter-productive instrument". Sanctions can create a scapegoat for the economic failures of a dictators, as happened with Castro for whom the US blockade of Cuba strengthened nationalistic support. Sanctions also hit the private sector, which shrinks, weakening the political leverage of the middle class and leaving the economy smaller but one over which the regime has greater control.

So what makes for effective sanctions?

Almost everyone has to join in. A country deprived of goods or services by a country can invariably secure them elsewhere. Crafty tyrants like Saddam played on divisions between the US, Britain and France, and China and Russia. China blocks effective sanctions on Sudan over Darfur.

What about 'smart' sanctions?

Over the last decade, following the abysmal failure of sanctions on Iraq, they have become more targeted. Blanket measures which covered food and medicines are out of fashion. In their place have come travel bans on senior officials of a regime, freezes on their overseas assets, the selective ban of key imports, and arms embargoes which weaken a regime's military forces. The idea is to hit the corrupt elite rather than the people they oppress.

This works, to a considerable extent. Some 600 of the supporters of Slobodan Milosevic, then Serbian President, found it impossible to conduct business. Targeted financial sanctions hit top officials in North Korea. But in other cases it doesn't work. Less than £4,000 belonging the Burmese generals has been frozen in all 25 EU member states.

Would they work in Zimbabwe?

General sanctions might not, since the business community and general electorate have no influence on Mugabe. But cutting off his oil might work. Petrol is what supplies the elite and its troops with their mobility. Around 80 per cent of Zimbabwe's oil flows through the line from Mozambique. Cutting that off could immobilise the Mugabe regime.

Will sanctions have any impact on Mugabe's government?

Yes...

* Sanctions helped bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, and they can do the same in Zimbabwe

* Since an invasion is unlikely, it is the only measure of opprobrium open to the international community

* Cutting off oil could immobilise the military on which Mugabe depends to stay in power

No...

* It will harm the ordinary people of Zimbabwe without seriously affecting Mugabe and his henchmen

* It could increase Mugabe's control further, shrinking the entrepreneurial sector which supports the opposition

* They will take far too long to have a serious impact; they are just gesture politics

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?