Trump's deadly sanctions power should be reined in

US presidents should not have the power to unilaterally wage economic warfare against civilian populations.

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    Trump's sanctions on Iran have severely limited the country's access to medicines and medical supplies, writes Main [Leah Millis/Reuters]
    Trump's sanctions on Iran have severely limited the country's access to medicines and medical supplies, writes Main [Leah Millis/Reuters]

    Much ink has been spilled over the potentially disastrous consequences of US President Donald Trump's impulsive and foolhardy foreign policy decisions. Trump's withdrawal from the Iran deal, his nuclear game of chicken with North Korea, the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and other reckless moves imperilling millions of lives have been roundly criticised by dozens of policymakers and editorial writers. 

    But one particularly brutal set of White House measures that has already caused tens of thousands of casualties abroad has been ignored by most of Trump's critics. Since taking office, the president has unilaterally imposed a number of deadly, sweeping economic sanctions on IranNorth Korea and Venezuela. These sanctions have not, by any reasonable measure, advanced the president's stated foreign policy goals. They have, however, wreaked havoc and destruction in the lives of countless innocent human beings. 

    In Venezuela, economic sanctions that Trump first imposed in 2017 and then vastly expanded in 2019, have resulted in increased disease and mortality and are estimated to have led to tens of thousands of excess deaths, according to a 2019 study by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs.

    Trump's sanctions on Iran have severely limited the country's access to medicines and medical supplies, as Human Rights Watch has noted.

    His unilateral financial sanctions against North Korea have created critical obstacles for the work of international relief organisations, according to a recent study commissioned by Korea Peace Now. 

    The media has generally failed to inform the public about the harmful impact of Trump's sanctions on innocent people. Hardly any of the many alarming reports on the economic and humanitarian situation in Venezuela, for instance, have mentioned the significant role of US sanctions in deepening the country's severe economic crisis and preventing recovery. As the coronavirus spreads through Southeast Asia and beyond, it will be interesting to see to what extent the media reports on how US sanctions are preventing North Korea and Iran from accessing vital medication and medical supplies needed to confront the epidemic.

    Why is there so little tangible concern about the brutal "collateral damage" caused by Trump's economic sanctions? One likely explanation is that the US foreign policy establishment has traditionally supported sanctions, despite studies showing that they generally do not produce the desired political outcome.

    As a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder explains, "sanctions, while a form of intervention, are generally viewed as a lower-cost, lower-risk course of action between diplomacy and war. Policymakers may consider sanctions as a response to foreign crises in which the national interest is less than vital or where military action is not feasible."

    The negative human consequences of sanctions are not immediately apparent and, when reports on sanctions-linked deaths emerge - as was the case in the early 1990s when economic sanctions were imposed on Haiti - they are often ignored. 

    Fortunately, some US policymakers have begun bucking the cynical bipartisan consensus on sanctions and have been speaking out against their dire effects and lack of tangible results. In December 2018, fourteen members of Congress sent a letter to the administration seeking "answers regarding the humanitarian impact that recently imposed US sanctions are having on the Iranian people".

    In March 2019, 16 members of the House signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposing Trump's economic sanctions against Venezuela and noting that they were having "lethal effects on innocent people" and were "contributing to the ongoing outbound migration of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans". 

    On February 12 of this year, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar decided to take decisive action to reign in the president's unilateral use of sanctions with a new bill entitled the Congressional Oversight over Sanctions Act (or COSA). Part of a bold new package of legislation aimed at promoting peace, human rights and respect for international law, COSA would amend the National Emergencies Act and the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, which - together - allow the president to order sanctions of all types without Congressional approval, simply by invoking a "national emergency", regardless of whether there is evidence of such a thing. 

    Omar's bill establishes strict legislative control over the executive branch's use of sanctions by requiring Congressional approval within 60 days of the announcement of emergency sanctions powers - as well as requiring additional approval for the renewal of these powers every six months thereafter.

    The legislation will also force a reckoning over the actual impact of sanctions by mandating studies on the impact of unilateral sanctions before and after their implementation. The US government would be required to report on whether sanctions advance stated goals and benchmarks. Importantly, the legislation would also require that the State Department report on whether or not presidential sanctions comply with the US's international treaty obligations; many international law experts would argue that they do not. 

    COSA has already garnered strong support from a broad coalition of civil society groups. A letter urging members of Congress to co-sponsor the legislation and signed by over 40 groups that include faith-based organisations like American Friends Service Committee and United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries, peace groups like Veterans for Peace and Win Without War and think-tanks like the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Center for International Policy. As the letter notes: "The power to impose sanctions (…) should not be in the hands of a single individual. Too many lives are at stake and there is too much potential for abuse or overuse."

    As awareness grows around the injury and suffering resulting from sanctions imposed by Trump and his predecessors, we can hope that citizens and policymakers who support human rights, the constitution and international law will back COSA and any other effort to limit the president's power to unilaterally wage economic warfare against civilian populations. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


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