The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions: Event Summary

Sanctions Fact Sheet sanctions_pdf_small

To see the transcript of the event please click here

On May 19, 2023, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) brought together leading experts in the study of economic sanctions to help to answer a critical, but often-ignored, question: What are the human consequences of US economic sanctions?

Assessing a wide range of evidence, the findings of our panelists were unanimous: economic sanctions, even when touted as targeted, often have widespread deleterious effects on entire national economies, and therefore severely harm millions of everyday people.

Members of the panel included:

  • Dr. Assal Rad (moderator)nonresident fellow at the Eurasia Group. She is the former Research Director of the National Iranian American Council  and is the author of State of Resistance: Politics, Culture, and Identity in Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press).
  • Dr. Francisco Rodríguez — Rice Family Professor of the Practice of International and Public Affairs at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of the recent report “The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions,” and the Financial Times op-ed “The harm that sanctions do to the vulnerable.”
  • Dr. Joy Gordon — Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. Professor of Social Ethics at the Loyola University Philosophy Department. She specializes in questions of international law and ethics in international affairs, and is the author of Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Harvard University Press).
  • Dr. Raúl Rodríguez — Director of the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies at the University of Havana where he focuses on U.S.-Cuban relations, and the author of “U.S. Economic Sanctions on Cuba: An International Ethics Perspective” (LASA Forum). Since 2004, he has taught courses on history and U.S.-Cuban relations to U.S. students through programs with Harvard University, University of North Carolina, American University, Tulane University, University of Alabama and Webster University.
  • Dr. Mark Weisbrot — co-founder and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is author of the book Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press), and has written extensively on US sanctions policy, including “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela” by Mark Weisbrot and Jefferey Sachs

The following are highlights from the briefing:

Dr. Joy Gordon

“With direct physical violence, such as a military intervention, it’s empirically clear what’s going on. A bomb is dropped, you see the crater it leaves, and you see the human carnage that results. The causation is clear. But economic sanctions work very differently. Unlike a bombing or a shooting, with the erosion of economic conditions, it’s very difficult to show exactly what causes a child’s malnutrition, the worsening of an adult’s diabetes, or the premature death of a woman in her 60s.”

“The Iraq [sanctions] debacle gave rise to ‘smart sanctions’ which would ostensibly affect only government or military leaders, or the wealthy, while leaving the civilian population largely unaffected. That turned out not to be the case at all. However, the claim that ‘we are now in the era of smart sanctions’ had a crucial consequence. It made it seem like the moral problem of sanctions, of which excess child mortality was the most extreme example, had been dealt with. In this mindset, there is no need to be concerned with humanitarian effects, since there are no humanitarian effects. In reality, we see that the same patterns of widespread indiscriminate harm to civilian populations continue unabated.”

Dr. Francisco Rodríguez (View Presentation)

“The use of sanctions has significantly increased in recent decades… There are now 54 countries — that’s 27% of all countries — that are subject to either UN, EU, or US trade sanctions. If we look at this as a share of the world economy, we find that the number rises to 29%.”

“Of 32 studies, 30 of them found consistent, negative, significant effects on living standards… We find that the effects that are estimated are generally very large. To cite two examples: Multilateral sanctions lead to declines in income per capita which, accumulated over the duration of the sanctions episode, reach 26% of initial GDP per capita. To put this in terms of its magnitude, this is almost the same as the estimated magnitude of the decline in per capita income during the US’s Great Depression. We also find that sanctions episodes are associated with a reduction of 1.4 years in female life expectancy — this is similar to the effect on global life expectancy of the Covid pandemic. Generally, the effects that are estimated in these studies are not only only statistically significant, but also very large in magnitude, and resemble the effects that are seen during armed conflicts.”

Dr. Raúl Rodríguez

“The US system of sanctions [on Cuba] is complex, confusing, non-transparent, while the humanitarian exemptions are ineffective, inefficient, and inadequate, despite the latest pronouncements of the US Treasury Department. This results in enhanced due diligence and often overcompliance by potential trading partners and humanitarian organizations who choose not to engage with Cuba and Cuban companies out of fear of running into trouble with OFAC.”

“Within weeks of being put back [on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list] by the Trump administration, 45 international banks and financial institutions stopped doing business with the island, leading to devastating impacts. Cuba still, today, by virtue of its presence on that list, runs into commercial or financial organizations that refuse to interact with Cuban companies out of fear of reprisals from the United States. It is a very formidable obstacle for Cuba’s international economic relations, especially when there are pressing needs today of transportation, fuel, electricity generation, and materials for the pharmaceutical industry, which all have a strong humanitarian impact on the whole human population.”

Dr. Mark Weisbrot (View Presentation)

“The economic violence [of sanctions] has not been lost on some members of Congress. Here’s a quote from a letter two years ago by Congressman Jim Mcgovern. He said:

‘The impact of sectoral and secondary sanctions is indiscriminate, and purposely so. Although U.S. officials regularly say that the sanctions target the government and not the people, the whole point of the “maximum pressure” campaign is to increase the economic cost to Venezuela… Economic pain is the means by which the sanctions are supposed to work.… It is not Venezuelan officials who suffer the costs. It is the Venezuelan people.’”

“These [sanctions] violate a number of treaties that are signed by the United States; the UN Charter, the OAS Charter, and I would say most importantly the Geneva Conventions, which ban collective punishment — in the fourth Geneva Convention. And of course, the technicality here is that the Geneva Conventions only apply during  war, when there’s an actual war… this would be a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, an actual war crime, if it were taking place during a war. And the United Nations experts have argued that something that’s a crime when people are shooting each other should be a crime when there’s no declared war.”

“The media, and members of Congress… are beginning to recognize the relationship between sanctions and the migration that we have at the border. According to the US government, you’ve had the arrival of 414,000 Venezuelan and Cuban migrants in 2022. This was an increase of 361% from the previous year. And this is very clearly driven by the sanctions that we’re talking about… This could become a political issue. People like Senior Obama advisors like Ben Rhodes have basically said we could lose everything in 2024 because of what Republicans are going to do on immigration.”

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of these experts, and how US economic sanctions affect everyday people, please refer to the Sanctions section on the CEPR website, as well as the following resources:

This virtual Congressional briefing was co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Demand Progress Education Fund, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Just Foreign Policy, MADRE, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, National Iranian American Council, Progressive Talent Pipeline, and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. 

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