Human Rights and International Law (1): Boycotting the China Olympics Because of Human Rights Violations in China and Sudan/Darfur

Some time ago, there was a story in the press about Steven Spielberg canceling his decision to work for the China Olympics. As a consequence, the discussion about a possible boycott (comparable to the boycott of the USSR Olympics after the invasion of Afghanistan) got some more publicity. Here are some general words about sanctions for the sake of human rights.

Boycotts, embargoes and other international sanctions (economic sanctions for example or a ban on foreign direct investments or bank loans) are peaceful means, used by the international community, to convince a country to stop violating human rights or to stop assisting a third country that is violating rights.

A disadvantage of sanctions is that they are most effective against relatively weak states. They can only work when they are directed against countries that are vulnerable to outside pressure (that, for example, depend on imports of products which are not, or not sufficiently, produced at home) and when a critical mass of countries, especially large countries, join in. Moreover, sanctions are not very popular in the countries imposing them. They often hurt that country’s economy. Its businesses can no longer export to or invest in the target countries, and jobs may be lost.

Sanctions are allowed in international law when

“they are taken in consequence of a breach of international rules imposing duties erga omnes, hence conferring on any State a right to claim respect for the rules”. Antonio Cassese

These rules are, for example, human rights. However, even if every state is allowed to impose sanctions in these cases, it is better that the international community as a whole imposes the sanctions, and not only for efficiency reasons. Collective measures allow us to dismiss the charge of partiality and self-interest. They will also emphasise the symbolic value of the sanctions.

Sanctions have often been successful, for example in the Philippines and in Nicaragua, as well as in Argentina and Uruguay under the Carter administration. Sanctions can be successful when the aim is to weaken the industrial, technological and military powers of a state. Purely symbolic sanctions, such as a boycott of the Olympic Games, are probably less useful. Cultural sanctions are even worse, because they are harmful. They cut off the flow of information. It becomes very difficult to monitor rights violations, the opposition cannot contact the outside world and new ideas cannot take root. Perhaps even the rulers will start to see that other systems can be successful if they are allowed to communicate with the outside world.

It is advisable to impose selective sanctions rather than all-out embargoes that harm the population indiscriminately. Sometimes, it can be enough to stop arms deliveries or oil exports. Not all kinds of sanctions necessarily harm the civilian population.

It can never be the purpose to punish an entire population collectively. All-out embargoes are not only unjust, they are also counterproductive. They do not harm those who are supposed to be harmed, namely the rulers. On the contrary, they reinforce the rulers. The population will identify, not always without reason, the “foreigners” as those responsible for their predicament, a predicament which may be even worse than the one which caused the sanctions. They will rally behind their rulers because the sentiment of “we against the world” will spill over in virulent nationalism. Popular dissatisfaction will be directed to the outside world and away from the rulers. Sanctions are least effective in countries ruled by people who are insensitive to their population’s hardship, or, in other words, in countries where they are most needed.

And even if large-scale hardship caused by sanctions can persuade some rulers to step down or reform, it does not seem right to use or abuse the population in this way. Using people or punishing innocent people is perhaps the most serious violation of human rights.

If sanctions are imposed, then it is important to estimate the possibility of success. One should try to evaluate their efficiency beforehand. The imposition of sanctions and the choice of the kind of sanctions should be decided on the basis of, among other things:

  • the fact that less far-reaching measures have been tried and have failed
  • an evaluation of the type of adversary and the sorts of pressure he is unable to resist
  • the “collateral damage” that is likely to result from the imposition of sanctions
  • an evaluation of the stamina of those imposing the sanctions, their willingness to go ahead, and the number of countries that are willing to go ahead
  • an evaluation of the possible negative consequences for those imposing the sanctions and of the effect of these consequences on their stamina
  • an evaluation of the possibility to evade the sanctions
  • the possibility and the willingness to enforce the sanctions by way of a blockade, for example.
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