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More Ethical than Not: Sanctions as Surgical Tools

  • George A. Lopez


Joy Gordon has made a major contribution to both the ethical analysis and the policy evaluation of economic sanctions. But her claims against sanctions should be understood as critique rather than condemnation and rejection of sanctions on ethical grounds.

Through a series of arguments and examples, this response points out that Gordon may be too narrow in defining sanctions' success, and that, where sanctions have gone awry, it is because they were unimaginatively formulated and poorly implemented, not because sanctions are categorically unethical. Multilateral sanctions in the late 1990s are simply more finely tuned than a few years ago. As a technique of coercive diplomacy, sanctions are meant to change dramatically the costs and benefits that leaders of a nation calculate operate in their favor as they pursue policies that the majority of the international community have declared abhorrent. We can, with the help of Gordon's critical claims, accomplish this goal in a more ethical manner, and by so doing, increase the likely success of sanctions in the future.



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1 This is no mean feat, as virtually all ethical assessment of sanctions to date has been undertaken within this “genre.” Most notable in this regard are Winkler, Adam, “Just Sanctions,” Human Rights Quarterly 21 (1999), pp. 133–55; Rudolf, Peter, “Power Without Principles? Ethical Problems of International Economic Sanctions,” Law and State 57 (1998), pp. 921; Pierce, Albert C., “Just War Principles and Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 4(1996), pp. 99113; and Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Powers, Gerard F., “Economic Sanctions and Just-War Doctrine,” in Cortright, David and Lopez, George A., eds., Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 97120.

2 See, especially, Lopez, George A. and Cortright, David, “Pain and Promise,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 54 (1998), pp. 3943.

3 For one such study see Weiss, Thomas et al. , eds., Political Gain and Civilian Pain: The Humanitarian Impact of Economic Sanctions (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

4 For such an argument see Lopez, George A., “The Sanctions Dilemma: Hype Doesn't Help,” Commonweal, September 11, 1998, pp. 1012.

5 For some of the conceptual underpinnings of “smart sanctions” see Lopez, George A. and Cortright, David, “Financial Sanctions: The Key to a ‘Smart’ Sanctions Strategy,” Die Friedens-Warte 72 (December 1997), pp. 327–36; and “Toward Smarter, More Effective United Nations Sanctions,”An Executive Summary of a Symposium on Security Council Targeted Sanctions, December 7, 1998, New York City, 9 pp.

* Many of the ideas in this article reflect my shared work with David Cortright, although he was not involved in the writing of this particular piece. I am also indebted to colleagues Todd David Whitmore and Daniel Philpott for their insights on the ethics of sanctions.


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