Sanctions — Part 2 — They do harm

OK, so maybe you agree that sanctions probably don’t work.  But, you’re wondering what’s so bad about sanctions?  Is it so terrible, that we don’t want to be a party to sending money to the junta?

The answer is no, its not so terrible, so long as we understand that current sanction policy has some negative repercussions.    First, and, to my mind, most importantly, by allowing our politicians to get away with patting themselves on the back for imposing broad economic sanctions, we allow them to abdicate their responsibility to put forth more well thought out policy that may actually make a difference, such as better targeted individual sanctions and pressure on other countries in the region.  More on this later.

What happened after pressure groups and western governments forced the end of western investment in Burma?  Did investment stop?  Did the exploitations of Burma’s natural resources stop?  Did forced relocation and forced labor stop?  Of course not.  Companies from other countries, most notably China, moved into the void.  I have no illusions about any kind of an altruistic streak among western companies.  But, at least with companies from the west, there is an avenue for activists to pressure them into making at least some incremental improvements in their conduct and there is an avenue for at least some punishment if they fail to do so.

A prime example of the effect is seen in the Total/Chevron Yadana pipeline joint venture, one of the few remaining western projects still active in the country.  By most accounts, Total/Chevron have been complicit, or at best, willfully ignorant, of gross human rights violations by the junta, while at the same time contributing handsomely to the coffers of the generals.  This is  unquestionably bad.  But, in response to these actions, there has been some consequence.  Total has established a social-economic program that provides at least some benefit to local villagers.  On, on the other side of the coin, a human rights organization filed a lawsuit which resulted in a settlement providing some compensation to victims.

Is this a perfect situation?  Even a good one?  Of course not.  That will only be achieved by an end to junta and peace and freedom for the Burmese people.  But, I ask you this:  If Total and Chevron leave Burma and China moves in, what have we accomplished?  Do you foresee any social projects set up by a Chinese company?  And how successful do you suppose a human rights lawsuit would be when it gets filed in Beijing?  Perhaps, instead of spending our time enforcing sanctions by government action and public pressure, we should be allowing western companies to operate in Burma and put pressure on them to protect the human rights of the population.

There is one more reason why I’m against general economic sanctions.  It seriously hampers the ability of small groups to help individual Burmese.  There is no dollar minimum on the sanctions.  This means that the following activities are against US law:  investing in a small business to help a farmer or tradesman sell his/her goods; assisting a local artisan by marketing his/her handmade products at a craft fair in the United States; or opening a socially conscious business venture in the country where you provide fair working conditions and pay for local people.  Even if some argument can be made for forbidding large companies from contributing millions to the junta, I fail to see how  anyone could object to small projects that might help individuals learn business skills, market their goods, or improve their working conditions.

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