The Argument

Don’t sanction dictators

It doesn’t work. By Jason McLure As Islamist militants tighten their grip over southern Somalia, the international community is searching in vain for ways to keep the country’s weak, U.N.-backed government from collapsing. The latest plan: sanctions for nearby Eritrea, which has channeled weapons to Somalia’s Shabab and other Islamist militias. At the recent African ...

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It doesn’t work.

By Jason McLure

As Islamist militants tighten their grip over southern Somalia, the international community is searching in vain for ways to keep the country’s weak, U.N.-backed government from collapsing. The latest plan: sanctions for nearby Eritrea, which has channeled weapons to Somalia’s Shabab and other Islamist militias. At the recent African Union summit in Libya, the continent’s leaders reiterated their call for the U.N. Security Council to take action; condemnation of Eritrea has resonated from every corner of the globe.

There’s no doubt that Eritrea has an awful government (Human Rights Watch recently labeled the country a “giant prison”). As gratifying as it may be to punish bad behavior, however, the question here is different: Would sanctions actually change this tiny dictatorial state or its delinquent behavior? It’s a quandary that has plagued policymakers for decades — from Cuba to North Korea to Burma. And despite sanctions’ status as a go-to foreign-policy gadget, the answer is often no. When used on already-isolated regimes, sanctions may even be counterproductive. The Eritrean example shows us why.

Sanctions are made to cut countries off from vital international exchange. The trouble is, Eritrea already trades less with the outside world than any country in Africa and places 210th out of all 226 countries and islands for global commerce. The country’s president, Isaias Afewerki, isn’t interested in being a globe-trotting statesman. He regularly skips African Union summits and meetings of East African leaders. And anyway, sanctions won’t deter his few, less savory allies in Libya, Sudan, and Iran who provide Eritrea with aid and diplomatic support. Sanctions will only drive the Eritrean government further into the arms of its dubious allies.

Nor will sanctioning Eritrea choke off the flow of arms and money heading toward Somalia’s militants. There has been an arms embargo on Somalia for more than a decade, and it has been about as effective as a chastity belt on Silvio Berlusconi. The country has a 3,000-km coastline that the world has struggled to patrol for pirates — let alone under-the-radar arms shipments. On land, Mogadishu is home to a dizzying array of traditional money-transfer services that keep Somalia’s economy from further collapse — and its Islamists propped up with foreign funds. Besides, as the United Nations has pointed out, both African Union peacekeepers and Ethiopian troops have apparently sold arms and equipment in Mogadishu to their ostensible enemies.

Aside from being ineffective, sanctions on Eritrea could carry a rather debilitating liability for the international community. Sanctioning Eritrea would dangerously border on taking sides in Eritrea’s frozen conflict with Ethiopia, one that has stretched on in one form or another for nearly a decade. Following the two countries’ border 1998-2000 war, Ethiopia refused to give back land that a U.N.-backed border commission awarded to Eritrea. So both sides took their struggle to Somalia, where Eritrea backs Islamist militias and Ethiopia props up a flailing government. Eritrea has behaved badly, true, but both countries have been arming Somali militias in a proxy war for years. The United Nations and the United States would do better to mediate the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict rather than taking sides.

These lessons apply to sanctions on dictators more broadly. How do you punish North Korea with sanctions when its trading partners are already limited to a handful of countries — none of which are likely to pay heed to a harsher set of rules? How do you choke Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe when his strongest rationale for staying in power is to save his country from the hands of countries who would (and do) impose sanctions? Perhaps it’s no wonder that such countries’ leaders not only survive sanctions, but use them to justify bad behavior.

After 18 years of civil war, it’s possible there’s nothing outsiders can do to fix Somalia. Certainly, sanctions on Eritrea are not the answer. Trying to get Ethiopia and Eritrea to stop using the country as a proxy battleground would be worth a shot.

Jason McLure is a journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His reporting has appeared in Newsweek, The Economist, and Bloomberg News.

Photo: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

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