• S. Peou

Why Smart Sanctions Are Still Dumb

If you look at what I have written on this topic, you will know that I am not one of those who are sanctions-happy. It doesn't mean I don't care about what evil regimes or their leaders have done. What I seek to explain is that sanctions imposed on them don't work well and can be counter-productive.

See my recent article on "Why Smart Sanctions Still Cause Human Insecurity," and you will learn that smart sanctions imposed on bad regimes in our globalized world tend to inflict pain on civilian populations rather than on dictatorial regimes willing to defend themselves at the expense of their own people. Why would repressive leaders care about the impact of sanctions when they don't care about their own people? Dictators care most about their own survival, and this explains why they don't have the political will to eradicate corruption, which should be understood as a policy tool to maintain loyalty among their supporters. One of the common myths about corruption is that it's a cultural phenomenon. Most scholars in developing countries like to think that their leaders are corrupt because they are either selfish or because of culture. Giving gifts, for instance, is part of the culture of corruption. Why this explanation may have some truth, it is not a powerful explanation. Blaming culture or selfish human nature is not enough to make a difference. By blaming culture, we run the risk of not knowing how to explain it. What is culture? How would one propose to change it? And by putting blame on human selfishness, one is not going to get rid of corruption, either. If people are selfish, then there is no way out. If you and I are selfish, then neither of us would be better than bad leaders if we were in their place. Some people may say they are not selfish, but the real test will come when they gain power.

Human nature alone, however, can't explain why 'good' people end up bad. In countries where state and civil society institutions are weak or fragile, the politics of survival remains intense. This is something lawyers don't fully understand because their thinking is based on legal standards, norms and judgment, not on the reality of power or security politics. Leaders in institutionally fragile states are almost always insecure. In Cambodia, for instance, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was immensely popular but was removed from power in 1970. When he returned to Cambodia in the early 1991, he placed his life in the hands of North-Korean bodyguards. Prime Minister Hun Sen maintains up to 6,000 bodyguards. Thus, it's not the question of what you think of such leaders but one of what they think of themselves.

Dictators may be very bad but are not stupid. As mentioned in my earlier reflection on "Why Dictators Are Dumb," they may have high IQ scores and can hold to power for a very long time. To say that they are smart does not mean to suggest that they are not bad or immoral. What I mean is that they can outsmart sanctions-happy actors because the latter are either reluctant to go all the way to topple bad leaders and have their hands tied by other factors such as security interests and globalization, which is a double-edged sword. The rise of China is one of the challenges to any global efforts to impose sanctions on repressive regimes. It's not true when someone says that China would be willing to end its support for repressive allies, if the West were to play the cards right. China cannot afford to abandon their real allies, because there are so few of them in the world. It's a matter of policy credibility! This is why even the United States can do very little to punish of any of its allies, such as Saudi Arabia.

Please read more of what I have written if you like to know more, but suffice is to say that smart sanctions (aimed at minimizing civilian suffering and maximizing pain for bad elites) are still dumb. In short, this insight may explain why the idea of smart sanctions adopted since the late 1990s has not been effective enough to stop the global slide toward authoritarianism or even the endtimes of human rights.

We still need to think much harder or be more creative when seeking to punish dictators.


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