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It’s Time We Saw Sanctions for What They Really Are – War Crimes
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The first pathetic pieces of wreckage of North Korean fishing boats known as “ghost ships” to be found this year are washing up on the coast of northern Japan. These are the storm-battered remains of fragile wooden boats with unreliable engines in which North Korean fishermen go far out to sea in the middle of winter in a desperate search for fish.

Often all that survives is the shattered wooden hull of the boat cast up on the shore, but in some cases the Japanese find the bodies of fishermen who died of hunger and thirst as they drifted across the Sea of Japan. Occasionally, a few famished survivors are alive and explain that their engine failed or they ran out of fuel or they were victims of some other fatal mishap.

The number of “ghost ships” is rising with no less than 104 found in 2017, which is more than in any previous year, though the real figure must be higher because many boats will have sunk without trace in the 600 miles of rough sea between North Korea and Japan.

The reason so many fishermen risk and lose their lives is hunger in North Korea where fish is the cheapest form of protein. The government imposes quotas for fishermen that force them to go far out to sea. Part of their catch is then sold on to China for cash, making fish one of the biggest of North Korea’s few export items.

The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: North Korea is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.

The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. UN sanctions were imposed against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Supposedly, it was directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime, though it did nothing to dislodge or weaken them: on the contrary, the Baathist political elite took advantage of the scarcity of various items to enrich themselves by becoming the sole suppliers. Saddam’s odious elder son Uday made vast profits by controlling the import of cigarettes into Iraq.

The bureaucrats in charge of UN sanctions in Iraq always pretended that they prevented Saddam rebuilding his military strength. This was always a hypocritical lie: the Iraqi army did not fight for him in 1991 at the beginning of sanctions any more than it did when they ended. It was absurd to imagine that dictators like Kim Jong-un or Saddam Hussein would be influenced by the sufferings of their people.

These are very real: I used to visit Iraqi hospitals in the 1990s where the oxygen had run and there were no tyres for the ambulances. Once, I was pursued across a field in Diyala province north of Baghdad by local farmers holding up dusty X-rays of their children because they thought I might be a visiting foreign doctor.

Saddam Hussein and his senior lieutenants were rightly executed for their crimes, but the foreign politicians and officials who were responsible for the sanctions regime that killed so many deserved to stand beside them in the dock. It is time that the imposition of economic sanctions should be seen as the war crime, since it involves the collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps.

There is nothing very new in this. Economic sanctions are like a medieval siege but with a modern PR apparatus attached to justify what is being done. A difference is that such sieges used to be directed at starving out a single town or city while now they are aimed at squeezing whole countries into submission.

An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them.

An example of this is the draconian sanctions imposed on Syria by the US and EU which were meant to target President Bashar al-Assad and help remove him from power. They have wholly failed to do this, but a UN internal report leaked in 2016 shows all too convincingly the effect of the embargo in stopping the delivery of aid by international aid agencies. They cannot import the aid despite waivers because banks and commercial companies dare not risk being penalised for having anything to do with Syria. The report quotes a European doctor working in Syria as saying that “the indirect effect of sanctions…makes the import of the medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, near impossible.”

People should be just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing as they are by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire. But the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so un-dramatically and out of sight.


Embargos are dull and war is exciting. A few failed rocket strikes against Riyadh by the Houthi forces in Yemen was heavily publicised, though no Saudis were killed. Compare this to the scant coverage of the Saudi embargo on Houthi-held Yemen which has helped cause the largest man-made famine in recent history. In addition, there are over one million cholera cases suspected and 2,000 Yemenis have died from the illness according to World Health Organisation.

PR gambits justifying sanctions are often the same regardless of circumstances. One is to claim that the economic damage caused prevents those who are targeted spending money on guns and terror. President Trump denounces the nuclear deal with Iran on the grounds that it frees up money to finance Iranian foreign ventures, though the cost of these is small and, in Iraq, Iranian activities probably make a profit.

Sanctions are just as much a collective punishment as area bombing in East Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul. They may even kill more people than the bombs and shells because they go on for years and their effect is cumulative. The death of so many North Korean fishermen in their un-seaworthy wooden craft is one side effect of sanctions but not atypical of their toxic impact. As usual, they are hitting the wrong target and they are not succeeding against Kim Jong-un any more than they did against Saddam Hussein.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Economic Sanctions, Iraq, North Korea 
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  1. Virgile says:

    Fully agree.. Economic sanctions are war crimes

    • Replies: @Corvinus
  2. “It is time that the imposition of economic sanctions should be seen as the war crime, since it involves the collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps.”

    In my opinion, the sanctions are not war crimes, but are instead crimes against humanity, which actually carry more opribrium, to wit the Holocaust was not a war crime, it was a crime against humanity, and for that reason it carries more weight today than the multitudes of actual war crimes committed in WW2.

    BTW, here are a few salient provisions from the Charter constituting the Nuremburg Tribunal:

    The following acts, or any of them, are crimes coming within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal for which there shall be individual responsibility:

    (a) CRIMES AGAINST PEACE: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;

    (b) WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;

    (c)CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

    Leaders, organizers, instigators and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan.

    • Replies: @SolontoCroesus
  3. vx37 says:

    A sovereign nation can trade with whoever it wants to, if they are willing. Or not. This implies that nations have a moral obligation to trade with everyone. They do not. The decision not to trade may be bad policy or unjustified, but sanctions are not generically a crime.

  4. This is an excellent article which everybody should appreciate and it is one which requires some courage to produce by a writer working for legacy media. The fact is that the yankee regime, its Israeli dominators, and its Saudi and EU acolytes have been acting as war criminals in operating this system of economic extortion over the last thirty years or so.

  5. Realist says:

    You obviously don’t know what a sanction is.

  6. Our criminal legislators love them some sanctions. They will sanction your ass in a heart beat. These are the same legislators who, elected to govern, shut down the government. I will take a North Korean fisherman over a United States senator every time.

    This is the first time I have ever agreed wholeheartedly with Cockburn. Attaboy Patrick!

    • Replies: @The Alarmist
  7. jojo says:

    The crime is not the withholding of trade by a given sovereign nation; the crime is the sanctioning of other parties who wish to trade with the sanctioned nation.

    • Agree: Realist
  8. @vx37

    “A sovereign nation can trade with whoever it wants to, if they are willing. Or not. This implies that nations have a moral obligation to trade with everyone.”

    Your logic is flawed. The first statement does not necessarily lead to the second.

    The crime is when one or more nations use their undue influence to lock other nations entirely out of world markets, causing mass civilian suffering, sickness, and death. The sanctions regimes imposed on Russia don’t rise to that level and might reasonably be seen as within international law. Cuba is arguable, as the US has not successfully bullied the world to lock it out completely. Venezuela sanctions are more likely than not a crime against humanity because the principle exports are effectively frozen out of world markets and the civilian population are suffering. The sanctions against North Korea, much like those against Iraq before it, are designed to starve the populace into forcing regime change: This is both a crime against humanity and a crime against peace, if one follows the Nuremburg principles.

  9. mr cockburn is of course correct, yet he unspeaks the elephant in the room.

    if sanctions are indeed war crimes then those who make them are………war criminals with all the international opprobrium directed towards them that fits.

    to use an incredibly popular cinematic allegory the west as typified by the current neocon/liberal interventionist crowd in washington are in fact the BORG……….trying to assimilate the rest of the world into its collective hive consciousness and every nation resisting is played by the role of the NOBLE and democratic federation in the star trek movie series

    how is that for white is black and black is white…………….in the orwellian world that IS the reality of the west the fit is perfect.

    • Replies: @anonymous
  10. So Russia against Ukraine in 2013?

  11. Economic sanctions are a Jewish invention used as a substitute for diplomacy.

  12. @WorkingClass

    “These are the same legislators who, elected to govern, shut down the government.”

    Since they don’t actually shut the government down, but usually make a big stink about it, or what they do shut down is targeted at the little people, one could fairly call them economic terrorists, especially when they toss around the D-word (default) to deliberately roil world markets to get their way.

  13. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    to use an incredibly popular cinematic allegory…

    Good one. Of course, there are other cinematic creations which seem to fit too.

    I had images of the world in the Terminator series, with the super technologically advanced Skynet as the Evil Empire, and the ragtag army of heroes who oppose its evil, as anyone which the evil empire and its minions try to eliminate, with no consideration for collateral damage (think now of attack drones and such, blowing up marriage parties, etc…).

  14. KA says:

    Something is deeper is touched in this article
    How do we come to regard certain activities abnormal, unethical , immoral, sinful, illegal or beyond human realm of most heinous imagination depends on repeating , repeating , and repeating by the Power that be at that particulate point of time in history .

    Most of us by nature happen to be just moral followers with morality defined by the most vocal assertive often most oppressive system that is in place . Morality is a hollow entity once applied to collective .

  15. Moi says:

    Strangling a country’s economy IS an act of war.

  16. Anonymous [AKA "midstream"] says:

    Sanctions represent a decision to prevent trade, not to withdraw politely from it. The leaders and countries involved are not turning their backs. They are actively preventing a foreign society from accessing markets.

  17. @vx37

    A sovereign nation can trade with whoever it wants to, if they are willing. Or not.

    Well yes, but you’re describing free trade, not sanctions.

    Sanctions are imposed on nations and they are imposed to prevent a sovereign nation from trading with whomever it wants.

    Sanctions are not merely war crimes; in fact they constitute acts of war.

  18. TG says:

    Indeed, it has long been settled as a matter of principal that a blockade is an act of war.

    But. When one considers how corrupt modern finance is, perhaps sanctions could, in some cases at least, be a good thing…

    Look at how Greece is being reduced to poverty by being part of the EU – and yet for Russia, sanctions are resulting in the nation becoming not that bad off, and developing considerable domestic industries. Argentina for a while was largely cut off from international finance, and did really well – now they are back and getting loaded down with debt, and I suspect the prospects for the average Argentinian are going to get worse…

    For those nations wanting to get rid of sanctions, there is the old warning to be careful what you wish for, you may get it…

  19. mr meener says:

    Cockburn is an idiot and a deep state snake. first he says saddam rightly got hung then says the sanctions caused all the misery in Iraq . with the vile disgusting demonic jew madeline Albright trying to keep Talmudic foam from coming out of her mouth said 500K dead kids plus another 600K adults in Iraq was worth it. he does say the people that imposed the sanctions should have been hung KNOWING that it would NEVER happen in fact you would get promoted for it not killed. so Cockburn makes believe he wants those people bush Albright etc brought to justice

  20. @vx37

    I think it’s a bit autistic to start from such first principles. Yes, in general that’s true, but suppose there were just two countries, North Korea and the World Government ruling the rest of the planet. Then a “trade embargo” would effectively be an attempt at strangling North Korea and its effects wouldn’t be terribly different from a blockade (which is an act of war). Under the UN, the world in effect does behave like a world government, so that is what we are talking about.

  21. MEexpert says:

    Don’t we have more pressing issues in the United States? Congress can’t solve our own budget problems but it has time to slap sanctions on Iran, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, and every other country in the world that it wants.

    It is not only the US that is guilty of war crimes but all the complicit nations of European Union, Canada, Australia and others. The United Nations whose charter it is to prevent such acts of war and to diffuse if such acts occur is totally impotent. Why because it gets most money from the United States and the power of US veto. The United Nations headquarters should be moved out of New York.

  22. @The Alarmist

    Your comment does not reflect a thorough assessment of all the facts.

    Almost a decade before there was the inkling of a holocaust of Jews, Jews declared economic war on Germany — sanctions, by another name — with the stated intent to destroy Germany economically.

    Jeff Herf discussed his book on Nazi propaganda at a DC bookstore in 2006. The late Carla Cohen, then owner of the shop, asked Herf: “Are you saying if there had been no war there would have been no holocaust?”
    Herf answered, “[That is correct.] No war, no holocaust.”

    The most important element of Herf’s argument in his book is that Hitler blamed Jews and other western financiers for deliberately trying to destroy Germany. Herf called those claims of Hitler’s “paranoid” and “delusional,” “the signs of his increasing insanity.”

    But that financial war was real.

    So who is crazy?

    Herf also said it would have been reasonable for the Germans to have expelled Jews, or removed them from positions and sinecures, for their financial machinations on German economy, but not genocide. I argue that there is no firm evidence of a genocide of Jews. Indeed, The Holocaust was not enshrined until well into 1960.

    • Replies: @Corvinus
  23. anon • Disclaimer says:

    Tillerson’s comment to Condi Rice at Hoover Institution,

    The Japanese made a comment yesterday in our session [in Vancouver] that they have had over 100 North Korean fishing boats that have drifted into Japanese waters – two-thirds of the people on those boats have died – they weren’t trying to escape – and the ones that didn’t die, they wanted to go back home. So they sent them back to North Korea. But what they learned is they’re being sent out in the wintertime to fish because there’s food shortages, and they’re being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.So we’re getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt.

    Ask an American and he will say that the sanctions are right policy approach . Ask him about the boats carrying dead Koreans, they will say it is the fault of Korea ( without knowing what it means but knowing fully well that US is not responsible ) .

  24. William says:

    The inhuman sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Iraq are the best example of sanctions that rise to
    the level of war crimes. What the U.S. did to Iraq was despicable and indefensible. The actions of the U.S. member of the 661 committee was shameless. It was pure, unadulterated spite. Malicious, hateful spite. And since the U.S. as a whole feels no hatred for Iraq, it seems logical to me to assign the hatred and spite to the neo-cons who initiated the later war with Iraq, the same ones who have designed policies that have devastated Syria, and the same neo-cons, dual national Israeli-U.S. persons, and the fanatical Christian fundamentalists and fanatical Jewish Zionists who are at this very time pushing with all their resources for war against Iran.

  25. anon • Disclaimer says:

    In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, four former US diplomats provided remarkably candid commentary on recent US involvement in the Middle East,
    One of the former diplomats, James Jeffrey,
    “Anything we do to contain Iran, to push back, will bring with it great risks to us and to people in the region,” Jeffrey said. These were the lessons of history, he explained, citing “the chaos we deliberately created” to confront past challengers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

    I am sure sanction is on the mind of these 4 thugs know ans diplomat.

    This is what they do– “chaos we deliberately created “. What a pathetic degenerate

  26. KA says:

    SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, you know, I think that what we’re looking for is a world where we solve problems, and we don’t shred trust.  We don’t militarize features in the middle of international waters.  We don’t invade other countries, in Russia’s case — Georgia, Ukraine.  That we settle things by international rule of law, you know, this sort of thing.  And so I think that in terms of great power and competition.  One point I want to make is we respect these as sovereign nations with a sovereign voice and sovereign decisions, and we don’t think anyone else should have a veto authority over their economic, their diplomatic or their security decisions

    Yes we know it .Why does it need to be repeated ?

  27. Sanctions are both war crimes and crimes against humanity – the distinction is real, as evidenced by the excerpts from the Nuremberg Winner’s Star Chamber posted by “The Alarmist”.

    However if we’re going to get energised enough to engage in futile attempts at bringing-to-account the corrupt, megalomaniacal sociopaths of the political class… let’s also talk about the NATO/US/UK practice of bombing essential infrastructure in the first hundred sorties in any campaign.

    Unlike sanctions, the intent of those sorties is absolutely clear: to incapacitate electrical networks (and therefore, to incapacitate water treatment and distribution, and sewage treatment and removal). The aim is to induce water-borne disease (cholera, typhoid and so forth), which disproportionately affects (i.e., kills) babies and the elderly. This is a Rumsfeldian ‘known known’, and is ipso facto intentional: let that sink in… deliberately doing things that you know will disproportionately kill babies, and calling yourself the good guys.

    They are always far more interested in bombing electricity grids, water treatment plants and waste treatment plants than communications infrastructure (in part because knocking out the electricity grid will tend to severely compromise communications – although I hasten to add that they do not affect military communications, since the military have abundant generators).

    Not only are these sorties a form of collective punishment, and a deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure: they are baby-killing by design. They are a form of democide.

    And they are the opening salvo in literally every NATO/US/UK war.

    Any time a child dies in the target nation as a result of military action outside a country’s borders, the children of the most senior political figure in the aggressor nation should be executed. Although they are sociopaths through and through, the vermin of the political class have some (vestigial) human emotions… their depraved disregard for human life is put to one side when they are made to think about their DNA legacy. (That said: eradicating the DNA of homo politicus cheney-blairensis would be a salutary progress for our species: and let’s be clear – it’s us or them).

    We need to start making them fear the midnight sound of breaking glass. If we don’t, we are all doomed – because their next move is to (try to) weaponise nanotech and synthbio: they will get it wrong, but getting it wrong in the wrong way will be an extinction-level event.

  28. OK, I’ll bite….

    By your lights, then, we need to invade North Korea and removed Kim and put him on trial for crimes against humanity. Same with Assad, Xi, Putin, and a long list of others.

    Removing Assad would be another act of idiocy as he has protected religious minorities. Same with Saddam Husssein. In the case of Iraq, we could have preserved the regime and simply removed Saddam and given the keys to the next guy with the warning “don’t make us have to come back.” If Bush had only been so wise.

    Essentially, you are leaving the world only way to deal with someone like Putin and the Norks – war. I think even someone as stupid as you can see the problem with that.

    • Replies: @jojo
  29. jojo says:

    Sanctioning, is in effect, an act of war — although a bit more cowardly than the full monty. But why would it be America’s business to remove someone like Mr. Putin or Mr. Kim? What makes the US the world’s policeman?
    The South Koreans seem to think they can talk to the Norks. If they can do that, why can’t the US?

  30. Corvinus says:

    No, economic sanctions are a tool for civilized nations to combat uncivilized nations.

  31. Corvinus says:

    “I argue that there is no firm evidence of a genocide of Jews.”

    Argue all you want, the evidence is overwhelming that there was a genocide inflicted by Germany on Jews.

  32. Anonymous [AKA "RedPillOfHergest"] says:

    It appears that the sanctions are working. NK has begun some dialogue with SK, and they are sending Olympians to compete. That seems pretty huge. I also expect that family must matter to the North Koreans, and at some point an officer near Kim is going to have extended family suffering from the sanctions. He then has opportunity and motive to rid the world of Kim. Following, the Chinese and the USA will argue about who should lead a Korean reunification. They’ll expect us to get out of SK, and that will get interesting.

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