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When will the Killing War in Iran Begin? It Already Has

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Economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health.”
–The New England Journal of Medicine [1]

By Stephen Gowans

While campaigns are organized to deter the United States and Israel from acting on threats to launch an air war against Iran, both countries, in league with the European Union (winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize) carry on a low-intensity war against Iran that is likely to be causing more human suffering and death than strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would. This is a war against public health, aimed at the most vulnerable: cancer patients, hemophiliacs, kidney dialysis patients, and those awaiting transplants. Its victims are unseen, dying anonymously in hospitals, not incinerated in spectacular explosions touched off by cruise missiles and bunker buster bombs. But ordinary Iranians who can’t get needed medications are every bit as much victims of war as those blown apart by bombs. And yet, we think, that as long as the bombs don’t rain down, that peace has been preserved. Perhaps it has, in formal terms, but bleeding to death in the crater of a bomb, or bleeding to death because you can’t get hemophilia drugs, is, in either case, death.

In Iran today there is an acute shortage of pharmaceuticals for kidney dialysis and transplants and for treating cancer, hemophilia, thalessemia, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders. Hospital equipment is breaking down for want of spare parts. And raw materials used by domestic pharmaceutical manufacturers—blocked by Western sanctions—are in short supply. It adds up to a healthcare crisis. The United States and European Union say their sanctions don’t apply to drugs and medical equipment, but US and European banks are unwilling to handle financial transactions with Iran. If they do, the US Treasury Department will deny them access to the US banking system. Since isolation from the world’s largest economy would guarantee their demise, banks comply and shun Iran. As a consequence, few goods from the West make their way into the country, the exemptions for drugs and medical equipment being nothing more than a public relations ruse to disguise the barbarity of the sanctions. Not that Washington is denying that its sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians. It’s just that responsibility for their consequences is denied. US president Barak Obama “has said the Iranian people should blame their own leaders.” [2] For what—failing to knuckle under?

“In contrast to war’s easily observable casualties, the apparently nonviolent consequences of economic intervention seem like an acceptable alternative. However…economic sanctions can seriously harm the health of persons who live in targeted nations.” [3] This has been well established and widely accepted in the cases of Iraq in the 1990s and the ongoing US blockade of Cuba. Political scientists John Mueller and Karl Mueller wrote an important paper in Foreign Affairs, in which they showed that economic sanctions “may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” [4]

“The dangers posed today by such enfeebled, impoverished, and friendless states as Iraq and North Korea are minor indeed”, they wrote in 1999. It might be added that the dangers posed by Iran to the physical safety of US citizens are not only minor but infinitesimally small. Notwithstanding the fevered fantasies of rightwing commentators, Iran has neither the means, nor the required death wish, to strike the United States. Nor Israel, which has the means—an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons—to wipe Iran off the face of the earth. However, the danger the country poses to the idea of US domination – and hence, to the banks, corporations, and major investors who dominate US policy-making – are admittedly somewhat greater.

“Severe economic sanctions”, the Muellers contend, ought to be “designated by the older label of ‘economic warfare’”. “In past wars economic embargoes caused huge numbers of deaths. Some 750,000 German civilians may have died because of the Allied naval blockade during World War I.” [5]

“So long as they can coordinate their efforts,” the two political scientists continue, “the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive and potent weapon for use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated…” [6] And with devastated economies, come crumbling healthcare systems and failure to provide for the basic healthcare rights of the population.

We might ask, then, why the United States and European Union, practitioners of economic warfare against Iran, are bent on destroying Iran’s economy, along with its public health system. “Sanctions,” New York Times’ reporter Rick Gladstone writes, have subjected “ordinary Iranians” to “increased deprivations” in order to “punish Iran for enriching uranium that the West suspects is a cover for developing the ability to make nuclear weapons.” [7] In other words, Iran is suspected of having a secret nuclear weapons program, and so must be sanctioned to force it to abandon it.

Contrary to Gladstone, the West doesn’t really believe that Tehran has a secret nuclear weapons program, yet even if we accept it does believe this, the position is indefensible. Why should Iranians be punished for developing a capability that the countries that have imposed sanctions already have?

The reason why, it will be said, is because Iranians are bent on developing nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. Didn’t Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to “wipe Israel off the map”?

Regurgitated regularly by US hawks and Israeli politicians to mobilize support for the bombing of Iran, the claim is demagogic rubbish. Ahmadinejad predicted that Israel as a Zionist state would someday disappear much as South Africa as an apartheid state did. He didn’t threaten the physical destruction of Israel and expressed only the wish that historic Palestine would become a multinational democratic state of Arabs and the Jews whose ancestors arrived in Palestine before Zionist settlers. [8]

No less damaging to the argument that Iranians aspire to take Israel out in a hail of nuclear missiles is the reality that it would take decades for Iran to match Israel’s already formidable nuclear arsenal, if indeed it aspires to. For the foreseeable future, Israel is in a far better position to wipe Iran off the map. And given Israel’s penchant for flexing its US-built military muscle, is far more likely to be the wiper than wipee. Already it has almost wiped an entire people from the map of historic Palestine.

But this is irrelevant, for the premise that the West suspects Iran of developing a nuclear weapons capability is false. To be sure, the mass media endlessly recycle the fiction that the West suspects Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program, but who in the West suspects this? Not high officials of the US state, for they have repeatedly said that there’s no evidence that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program.

The consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies is that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program years ago. Director of US intelligence James Clapper “said there was no evidence that (Iran) had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director, concurred with that view…. Other senior United States officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made similar statements.” [9]

Rather than weakening this conclusion, stepped up US espionage has buttressed it. Iran’s leaders “have opted for now against…designing a nuclear warhead,” said one former intelligence official briefed on US intelligence findings. “It isn’t the absence of evidence, it’s the evidence of an absence. Certain things are not being done” [10] that would indicate that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Even Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence agency “does not disagree with the US on the weapons program,” according to a former senior US intelligence official. [11]

So, contrary to the claim that the West “suspects” Iran of concealing a nuclear weapons program, no one in a position of authority in the US state believes this to be true. Neither does Israeli intelligence. Why, then, is the United States and its allies subjecting ordinary Iranians to increased deprivations through sanctions?

The answer, according to Henry Kissinger, is because US policy in the Middle East for the last half century has been aimed at “preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon.” This is another way of saying that the aim of US Middle East policy is to stop any Middle Eastern country from challenging its domination by the United States. Iran, Kissinger points out, has emerged as the principal challenger. [12]

Indeed, it did so as long ago as 1979, when the local extension of US power in Iran, the Shah, was overthrown, and the country set out on a path of independent economic and political development. For the revolutionaries’ boldness in asserting their sovereignty, Washington pressed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into a war with Iran. This served the same purpose as today’s economic warfare, sabotage, threats of military intervention, and assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists: to weaken the country and stifle its development; to prevent it from thriving and thereby becoming an example to other countries of development possibilities outside US domination.

Uranium enrichment has emerged as point of conflict for two reasons.

First, a civilian nuclear power industry strengthens Iran economically and domestic uranium enrichment provides the country with an independent source of nuclear fuel. Were Iran to depend on the West for enriched uranium to power its reactors, it would be forever at the mercy of a hostile US state. Likewise, concern over energy security being in the hands of an outside power has led Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and South Korea to insist over US objections that they be allowed to produce nuclear fuel domestically, without sanction. With US nuclear reactor sales hanging in the balance, it appears that their wishes will be respected. [13] Iran will be uniquely denied.

Secondly, uranium enrichment provides Tehran with the capability of developing nuclear weapons quickly, if it should ever feel compelled to. Given Washington’s longstanding hostility to an independent Iran, there are good reasons why the country may want to strengthen its means of self-defense. The hypocrisy of the United States championing counter-proliferation—and only selectively since no one is asking Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, and the United States hasn’t the slightest intention of ever relinquishing its own—reveals the illegitimacy of the exercise.

The reason, then, for waging war on Iran’s public health, a war that intensifies the suffering of the sick and kills cancer, kidney dialysis and other patients, is not because their government has a secret nuclear weapons program —which no one in the US intelligence community believes anyway—but because a developing Iran with independent energy, economic and foreign policies threatens Washington’s preferred world political order—one in which the United States has unchallenged primacy. Primacy is sought, not to satisfy ambitions for power for power’s sake, or to provide ordinary US citizens with economic opportunities at home, or to protect them from dangers that originate abroad, but to secure benefits for the plutocrats who dominate US public policy. The benefits uniquely accrue to plutocrats: opportunities to squeeze more for themselves from our labor, our land, and our resources and from those of our brethren abroad—the 99% in other lands, with whom we’re linked by a common economic position and interests. If the plutocrats and their loyal political servants in Washington and Brussels have to kill numberless Iranians to secure these benefits, they will. And are.

1. Eisenberg L, “The sleep of reason produces monsters—human costs of economic sanctions,” New England Journal of Medicine, 1997; 336:1248-50.
2. Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran sanctions take unexpected toll on medical imports”, The New York times, November 2, 2012; Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “In Iran, sanctions take toll on the sick”, The Washington Post, September 4, 2012
3. Karine Morin and Steven H. Miles, “Position paper: The health effects of economic sanctions and embargoes: The role of health professionals”, Annals of Internal Medicine, Volume 132, Number 2, 18 January 2000.
4. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of mass destruction”, Foreign Affairs, Volume 78, Number 3, May/June 1999.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Rick Gladstone, “Iranian President Says Oil Embargo Won’t Hurt”, The New York Times, April 10, 2012.
8. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
9. James Risen and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. agencies see no move by Iran to build a bomb”, The New York Times, February 24, 2012.
10. Joby Warrick and Greg Miller, “U.S. intelligence gains in Iran seen as boost to confidence”, The Washington Post, April 7, 2012.
11. James Risen, “U.S. faces a tricky task in assessment of data on Iran”, The New York Times, March 17, 2012.
12. Henry A. Kissinger, “A new doctrine of intervention?” The Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
13. Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon, “Obama to discuss North Korea, Iran”, The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2012.

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November 3, 2012 at 10:54 pm

US Senator comes clean on Zimbabwe sanctions

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By Stephen Gowans

The received wisdom among Western governments, journalists and some concerned progressive scholars is that there have been no broad-based, economic sanctions imposed upon Zimbabwe. Instead, in their view, there are only targeted sanctions, with limited effects, aimed at punishing President Robert Mugabe and the top leadership of the Zanu-PF party. The sanctions issue, they say, is a red herring Mugabe and his supporters use to divert attention from the true cause of Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown: redistribution of land from white commercial farmers to hundreds of thousands of indigenous families, a program denigrated as “economic mismanagement”.

Yet, it has always been clear to anyone willing to do a little digging that there are indeed broad-based economic sanctions against Zimbabwe; that there have been since 2001, when US president George W. Bush signed them into law; that they were imposed in response to Zimbabwe’s land reform program; and that Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown happened after sanctions were imposed, not before.

US sanctions, implemented under the US Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, effectively block Zimbabwe’s access to debt relief and balance of payment support from international financial institutions. In addition, the EU and other Western countries have imposed their own sanctions.

On occasion, Mugabe’s detractors have been caught out in their deceptions about sanctions being targeted solely at a few highly placed members of Zanu-PF rather than the economy, and therefore Zimbabweans, as a whole. At those times, they have countered that while sanctions may exist, they have had little impact, and anyway, they play into Mugabe’s hands. As progressive scholar Horace Campbell put it: “The Zimbabwe government is very aware of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments among oppressed peoples and thus has deployed a range of propagandists inside and outside the country in a bid to link every problem in Zimbabwe to international sanctions by the EU and USA.”

Campbell turns reality on its head. The fact of the matter is that the US government has deployed a range of propagandists, both within and outside Zimbabwe, in a bid to link every problem in Zimbabwe to the alleged folly of redistributing land stolen by European settlers to the descendants of the original owners.

Campbell’s argument echoes similar sophistry used to excuse the US blockade on Cuba. Economic sanctions on Cuba, the Castros’ detractors argue, have had little impact on the island’s economy, and are used by the Cuban government to falsely link its economic difficulties to US economic warfare. The Castros, they say, stay in power by diverting attention from their own mismanagement and laying blame for their country’s economic problems at Washington’s doorstep. That this argument holds no water is evidenced by the reality that Washington could easily deprive the Cuban communists of their alleged diversionary tactics by lifting the sanctions, but choose not to.

The idea that power-hungry leaders exploit mild sanctions as a dishonest manoeuvre to disguise their failings is insupportable. Far from having little impact, economic sanctions devastate economies; that’s their purpose. Denying the role they play in ruining economies is tantamount to denying that dropping napalm on villages creates wastelands. John Mueller and Karl Mueller pointed out in a famous 1999 article titled “Sanctions of Mass Destruction” – it appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the uber-establishment journal Foreign Affairs — that:

…the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive, and potent weapon for use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated…

The improbable idea that sanctions have little impact invites the question: If they make little difference, why do Western governments deploy them so often? Supporters of the view that sanctions are minor inconveniences that punish a few powerful leaders, who then exploit them to draw attention away from their own economic management, expect us to believe that the leaders of major powers are simpletons who devise ineffective sanctions policies – and that they persist despite their sanctions playing into the hands of the sanctions’ targets.

If the sanctions supporters’ laughable logic and the reality that US sanction legislation is on the public record for all to see weren’t enough, legislation brought forward by US Senator Jim Inhofe ought to lay to rest the deception that sanctions haven’t torpedoed Zimbabwe’s economy.

The title of Inhofe’s bill, the Zimbabwe Sanctions Repeal Act of 2010, makes clear that sanctions have indeed been imposed on Zimbabwe and have had deleterious effects. According to the bill, now that the Western-backed Movement for Democratic Change holds senior positions in Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government, US sanctions against Zimbabwe need to be repealed “in order to restore fully the economy of Zimbabwe.” In other words, sanctions are preventing Zimbabwe’s economy from flourishing – the same point Mugabe has been making for years, cynically say his critics.

Yet, while the implication of Inhofe’s bill is that sanctions have undermined Zimbabwe’s economy (otherwise, why would economic recovery require their repeal?) Inhofe tries to disguise the role US sanctions originally played in creating an economic catastrophe in Zimbabwe, arguing that the sanctions were imposed only after Mugabe allegedly turned Zimbabwe into a basket case by democratizing patterns of land ownership. But it makes more sense to say that sanctions ruined the economy. After all, the purpose of economic sanctions is to wreak economic havoc. And what would be the point of trying to devastate Zimbabwe’s economy after Mugabe had allegedly already ruined it? Finally, in pressing for the repeal of sanctions to allow for economic recovery, Inhofe acknowledges that the sanctions do indeed have crippling consequences.

Inhofe may be able to argue (improbably) that the sanctions were imposed to punish Zimbabwe for Harare’s economic mismanagement (which would mean that Washington expected Zimbabweans to suffer an additional blow on top of the one already meted out by Harare’s alleged mismanagement — a pointless cruelty, if true); but he can’t argue that the sanctions didn’t undermine the country’s economy: his bill acknowledges this very point

Finally, the fact that Inhofe’s legislation seeks repeal of the sanctions because the MDC holds key positions in the Zimbabwean government, reveals that the MDC, as much as sanctions, is an instrument of US foreign policy. Sanctions were rolled out in response to land redistribution with the aim of crippling the economy so that the ensuing economic chaos could be attributed to land reform itself. With MDC members brought into a power-sharing government in key posts, it has become necessary in the view of Inhofe and others that sanctions be lifted to allow an economic recovery. If the bill is ratified and signed into law, the ensuing recovery will be attributed to the efforts of the MDC cabinet members, an attribution that that will be just as misleading as linking the destructive effects of sanctions to Zanu-PF’s efforts to fulfill the land redistribution aspirations of the national liberation struggle. The major part of Zimbabwe’s economic troubles – and a large part of the prospects for economic recovery – are sanctions-related.

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August 21, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Posted in Sanctions, Zimbabwe

Amnesty International botches blame for North Korea’s crumbling healthcare

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“Economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health.”
–The New England Journal of Medicine [1]

By Stephen Gowans

Amnesty International has released a report condemning the North Korean government for failing to meet “its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health of its citizens”, citing “significant deprivation in (North Koreans’) enjoyment of the right to adequate care, in large part due to failed or counterproductive government policies.” The report documents rundown healthcare facilities which “operate with frequent power cuts and no heat” and medical personnel who “often do not receive salaries, and many hospitals (that) function without medicines and essentials.” Horrific stories are recounted of major operations carried out without anaesthesia. Blame for this is attributed solely to the North Korean government. [2] While unstated, the implication is that DPR Korea is a failed state, whose immediate demise can only be fervently wished for (or worked toward.)

The attack is joined by Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, writing in the British newspaper, The Guardian. She acknowledges the DPR Korea’s considerable social achievements – an acknowledgement that would never have been permitted in the pages of a major Western newspaper in the depths of the Cold War – but does so only in order to show how far the country has regressed.

If we recognize that “economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health” and acknowledge, as a former US president has, that North Korea is “the most sanctioned nation in the world,” it is difficult not to draw the obvious conclusion: that the crumbling of North Korea’s healthcare system is due to sanctions. How is it, then, that a new Amnesty International report blames Pyongyang’s “failed or counterproductive” policies, while saying not a word about sanctions?

“The country once had an enviable healthcare system,” Demick writes, “with a network of nearly 45,000 family practioners. Some 800 hospitals and 1,000 clinics were almost free of charge for patients. They still are, but you don’t get much at the hospital these days.” Demick continues: “The school system that once allowed North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung (father of the current leader) to boast his country was the first in Asia to eliminate illiteracy has now collapsed. Students have no books, no paper, no pencils.” [3]

Nowhere is the role of sanctions mentioned in Demick’s account of North Korea’s “giant leap backwards” [4] or in Amnesty’s condemnation of Pyongyang for failing to safeguard the basic healthcare rights of its citizens. Instead, Demick and Amnesty point to a botched currency reform, as if it alone accounts for the country’s deep descent into poverty. Neither mention that no country has been subjected to as long and determined a campaign of economic warfare as North Korea, or that in recent years, a UN sanctions regime little different from the one that destroyed the healthcare system of Iraq in the 1990s, and led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five from 1991 to 1998 [5], has been imposed on a country that has struggled with food shortages since the collapse of the Soviet-led socialist trading community and as a result of a series of natural calamities. No mention either is made of Washington’s efforts to “squeeze North Korea with every financial sanction possible” with the aim of bringing about the collapse of the country’s economy, [6] and with it, its public healthcare and educational systems. What’s more, while Demick acknowledges that South Korea and other countries have sharply reduced food aid to the North, she blames North Korea’s leadership for refusing to dismantle its nuclear program and for “provocations” against the South, for inviting the aid reduction. (The provocations Demick refers to include the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March, attributed, with not a lot of evidence – and over the initial denials of the South Korean military [7] – to a North Korean submarine.) Demick and Amnesty could have condemned South Korea and the United States for using food as a weapon. Instead, Demick censures North Korea for putting itself in the position of being sanctioned, while Amnesty counsels major donors not to base food aid on political considerations, without acknowledging that this is exactly what major donors have done.

Both Amnesty and Demick operate within the framework of Western propaganda. As the North Korea specialist Tim Beal points out, Western propaganda invokes economic mismanagement as the explanation for North Korea’s collapsing economy, despite an obvious alternative explanation: sanctions. “The results — those malnourished babies,” Beal wrote prophetically three years ago, “can be blamed on the Koreans, which in turn is produced as evidence that the sanctions are desirable and necessary.” [8]

Sanctions of Mass Destruction

“In contrast to war’s easily observable casualties, the apparently nonviolent consequences of economic intervention seem like an acceptable alternative. However, recent reports suggest that economic sanctions can seriously harm the health of persons who live in targeted nations.” [9] This has been well established and widely accepted in the cases of Iraq in the 1990s and the ongoing US blockade of Cuba. Political scientists John Mueller and Karl Mueller wrote an important paper in Foreign Affairs, in which they showed that economic sanctions “may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” [10]

While unstated, the implication of Amnesty International’s new report on North Korea’s healthcare is that DPR Korea is a failed state, whose immediate demise can only be fervently wished for (or worked toward.) The rights organization covers up the role played by the United States and its allies in undermining the conditions that would allow Pyongyang to fulfill the healthcare rights of North Koreans, and then blames the disaster on Pyongyang.

“The dangers posed today by such enfeebled, impoverished, and friendless states as Iraq and North Korea are minor indeed”, they wrote in 1999. It might be added that the dangers posed by North Korea to the physical safety of US citizens are not only minor but infinitesimally small. Notwithstanding the fevered fantasies of rightwing commentators, North Korea has neither the means, nor the required death wish, to strike the United States. However, the danger the country poses to the idea of US domination – and hence, to the banks, corporations, and major investors who dominate US policy-making – are admittedly somewhat greater.

“Severe economic sanctions”, the Muellers contend, ought to be “designated by the older label of ‘economic warfare’”. “In past wars economic embargoes caused huge numbers of deaths. Some 750,000 German civilians may have died because of the Allied naval blockade during World War I.” [11]

“So long as they can coordinate their efforts,” the two political scientists continue, “the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive and potent weapon for use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated…” [12] And with devastated economies, come crumbling healthcare systems and failure to provide for the basic healthcare rights of the population.

Sixty Years of Sanctions

From the moment it imposed a total embargo on exports to North Korea three days after the Korean War began in June 1950, the United States has maintained an uninterrupted regime of economic, financial, and diplomatic sanctions against North Korea. [13] These include:

o Limits on the export of goods and services.
o Prohibition of most foreign aid and agricultural sales.
o A ban on Export-Import Bank funding.
o Denial of favourable trade terms.
o Prohibition of imports from North Korea.
o Blocking of any loan or funding through international financial institutions.
o Limits on export licensing of food and medicine for export to North Korea.
o A ban on government financing of food and medicine exports to North Korea.
o Prohibition on import and export transactions related to transportation.
o A ban on dual-use exports (i.e., civilian goods that could be adapted to military purposes.)
o Prohibition on certain commercial banking transactions. [14]

In recent years, US sanctions have been complemented by “efforts to freeze assets and cut off financial flows” [15] by blocking banks that deal with North Korean companies from access to the US banking system. The intended effect is to make North Korea a banking pariah that no bank in the world will touch. Former US President George W. Bush was “determined to squeeze North Korea with every financial sanction possible” until its economy collapsed. [16] The Obama administration has not departed from the Bush policies of financial strangulation.

Washington has also acted to broaden the bite of sanctions, pressing other countries to join its campaign of economic warfare against a country it faults for maintaining a Marxist-Leninist system and non-market economy. [17] This has included the sponsoring of a United Nations Security Council resolution compelling all nations to refrain for exporting dual-use items to North Korea (a repeat of the sanctions regime that led to the crumbling of Iraq’s healthcare system in the 1990s.) Washington has even gone so far as to pressure China (unsuccessfully) to cut off North Korea’s supply of oil. [18]

Dual-Use Sanctions: 1990s Iraq Redux

The Amnesty report blames Pyongyang for a shortage of syringes at hospitals. Yet in the 1990s Iraq suffered from a similar shortage, not due to failed government policies, but because “the importation of some desperately needed materials [had] been delayed or denied because of concerns that they might contribute to Iraq’s WMD programs. Supplies of syringes were held up for half a year because of fears they might be used in creating anthrax spores.” [19] Like Iraq in the 1990s, North Korea is under sanctions that ban dual use items – goods that have important civilian uses but might also be used in the production of weapons. “Medical diagnostic techniques that use radioactive particles, once common in Iraq, [were] banned under the sanctions, and plastic bags needed for blood transfusions [were] restricted.” [20] On October 14, 2006 the United Nations Security Council banned the export to DRP Korea of any goods, including those used for civilian purposes, which could contribute to WMD-related programs – the very same sanctions that led, at minimum, to hundreds of thousands of deaths in 1990s Iraq when the export of potentially weapons-related material, also essential to the maintenance of sanitation, water treatment and healthcare infrastructure, was held up or blocked. Not a word of the escalating sanctions regime against North Korea is mentioned in the Amnesty report, an omission so glaring as to resemble a report on the post-World War II devastation of Europe that says nothing of the string of Nazi aggressions that caused it.

Kaesong, the vast industrial park of South Korean factories employing North Korean workers situated near the South Korea-North Korea border, provides an example of how ridiculously wide the dual-use sanctions net can be cast. “U.S. officials blocked the installation of a South Korean switchboard system at Kaesong on grounds that the equipment contained components that could have been adapted for military use. As a result…the 15 companies operating at Kaesong share a single phone line, and messages must often be hand-delivered across the border.” [21] While dual-use sanctions may appear to be targeted, just about any item required for the provision of basic healthcare, sanitation, and educational rights – chlorine, syringes, x-ray equipment, medical isotopes, blood transfusion bags, even graphite for pencils – can be construed to have military uses and therefore banned for export.

Most of North Korea’s trade after the fall of the Soviet Union was with China, Japan and South Korea. In 2002, Japan banned the export of rice to North Korea and effectively prohibited North Korean ships from using Japanese ports. [22] In 2009, Tokyo went further, imposing a total ban on exports to the beleaguered country. [23] No wonder former US President George W. Bush called North Korea “the most sanctioned nation in the world”. [24]

Food as a Weapon

The Amnesty report recommends that “major donors and neighbouring countries…ensure that the provision of humanitarian assistance in North Korea is based on need and is not subject to political conditions”. In making this recommendation, the rights organization tacitly acknowledges that humanitarian assistance has indeed been subject to political conditions. (If this practice was unheard of, why make the recommendation?) In fact, the United States, Japan and South Korea have used food aid as a weapon. “After Pyongyang test-fired missiles in July (2006), South Korea announced plans to eliminate the 500,000 tons in annual food aid it provides directly to North Korea.” At the same time, food aid from China dropped one-third. [25] And in 2005, the Bush administration cut off all food aid to North Korea. [26] In all instances, humanitarian assistance was withheld to exact concessions from Pyongyang.

Amnesty International and Imperialism

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized in 1997 that sanctions “often cause significant disruptions in the distribution of food, pharmaceuticals and sanitation supplies, jeopardize the quality of food and the availability of clean drinking water, severely interfere with the functioning of basic health and educational systems, and undermine the right to work.” [27] These disruptions were evident in Iraq in the 1990s, and led to the crumbling of the country’s healthcare system, contributing to what the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, called “a de facto genocide.” [28] Additionally, the deleterious effects of US economic warfare on the Cuban healthcare system are uncontested except by anti-Castro émigrés and the US government. [29] If we recognize that “economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health” and acknowledge, as a former US president has, that North Korea is “the most sanctioned nation in the world,” it is difficult not to draw the obvious conclusion: that North Korea’s crumbling healthcare system and “great leap backwards” are not due in large measure to Pyongyang’s “failed or counterproductive” policies, but to the inhumane policies of the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Amnesty International’s contributions to US imperialism are not unprecedented. In 1991 the rights organization claimed that Iraqi soldiers had thrown Kuwaiti babies from incubators, a hoax, perpetrated by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. When US President George H.W. Bush appeared on television to announce that he was readying for war on Iraq, he had a copy of the Amnesty report in his hands.

Amnesty’s failure to point to the role played by the United States and its allies in undermining the conditions that would allow Pyongyang to fulfill the healthcare and other rights of North Koreans, and its willingness to play a part in legitimizing Washington’s foreign policy agenda, is not without precedent. While Amnesty was critical of the human rights record of apartheid South Africa, it alone among human rights organizations refused to denounce apartheid itself. [30] The organization also refused to condemn the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia [31], even though it was an exercise in imperial predation that denied the rights of many innocent Yugoslavs to life, security of the person and employment. Amnesty excused its inaction on grounds that it is not an antiwar organization, as if war and human rights are not often inextricably bound. The war on Yugoslavia certainly was, at least rhetorically, since NATO invoked the language of human rights to justify its attack. But Amnesty’s most egregious service to the propaganda requirements of US foreign policy came in 1991, when the rights group released a report in the run-up to the Gulf War claiming that Iraqi soldiers had thrown Kuwaiti babies from incubators. This was a hoax, perpetrated by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, orchestrated by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, which had been hired to launch a propaganda campaign to galvanize public support for a US war on Iraq. When US President George H.W. Bush appeared on television to announce that he was readying for war on Iraq, he had a copy of the Amnesty report in his hands. [32]

Conclusion

A Western-based organization, Amnesty has proven itself time and again to be incapable of operating outside the propaganda system of Western governments, and at times has acted to justify the imperialism of dominant powers or turned a blind eye to it. In its latest North Korea report it has made an invaluable contribution to the campaign of the United States and its East Asian allies to bring down one of the world’s few remaining top-to-bottom alternatives to capitalism and Third World dependency on the United States and former colonial powers. It has done so by fulfilling the two requirements needed for an anti-North Korea propaganda campaign to work: First, to cover up the role played by the United States, Japan and South Korea in starving the country’s healthcare and educational systems of necessary inputs, and second, to blame the ensuing chaos on the North Korean government. The action of Amnesty in misdirecting responsibility for this tragedy is no less shameful than that of the governments that have perpetrated it.

1. Eisenberg L, “The sleep of reason produces monsters—human costs of economic sanctions,” New England Journal of Medicine, 1997; 336:1248-50. http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/336/17/1247
2. Amnesty International, “The crumbling state of health care in North Korea”, July 2010. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA24/001/2010/en/13a097fc-4bda-4119-aae5-73e0dd446193/asa240012010en.pdf
3. Barbara Demick, “North Korea’s giant leap backwards”, The Guardian (UK), July 17, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/17/north-korea-famine-fears
4. Ibid.
5. “Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency’”, UNICEF.org, August 12, 1999. http://www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm
6. The New York Times, September 13, 2006.
7. Stephen Gowans, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, PSLweb.org, May 27, 2010. http://www.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=14044&news_iv_ctrl=2801
8. Tim Beal, “Invisible WMD- the effect of sanctions”, Pyongyang Report, Volume 9, Number 4, October 2007. http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~caplabtb/dprk/pyr9_4.mht
9. Karine Morin and Steven H. Miles, “Position paper: The health effects of economic sanctions and embargoes: The role of health professionals”, Annals of Internal Medicine, Volume 132, Number 2, 18 January 2000. http://www.annals.org/content/132/2/158.abstract
10. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of mass destruction”, Foreign Affairs, Volume 78, Number 3, May/June 1999.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Dianne E. Rennack, “North Korea: Economic sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rl31696.pdf
14. Ibid.
15. Mark Landler, “Envoy to coordinate North Korea sanctions”, The New York Times, June 27, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/27/world/americas/27diplo.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
16. The New York Times, September 13, 2006.
17. According to Rennack, the following US sanctions have been imposed on North Korea for reasons listed as either “communism”, “non-market economy” or “communism and market disruption”: prohibition on foreign aid; prohibition on Export-Import Bank funding; limits on the exports or goods and services; denial of favorable trade terms.
18. The Washington Post, June 24, 2005.
19. Mueller and Mueller.
20. Ibid.
21. The Washington Post, November 16, 2005.
22. Rennack.
23. “KCNA dismisses Japan’s frantic anti-DPRK racket”, KCNA, June 23, 2009.
24. U.S. News & World Report, June 26, 2008; The New York Times, July 6, 2008.
25. The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2006.
26. The Washington Post, May 16, 2008.
27. United Nations Economic and Social Council, “The relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights”, December 12, 1997. http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/0/974080d2db3ec66d802565c5003b2f57?Opendocument
28. Denis J. Halliday, “The Deadly and Illegal Consequences of Economic Sanctions on the People of Iraq”, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Winter/Spring 2000 – Volume VII, Issue 1. http://www.watsoninstitute.org/bjwa/archive/7.1/Essays/Halliday.pdf
29. Richard Garfield and Sarah Santana, “The Impact of the Economic Crisis and US Embargo on Health in Cuba”, American Journal of Public Health, January 19997, Volume 87, Number 1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1380757/
30. Francis A. Boyle and Dennis Bernstein, “Interview with Francis Boyle. Amnesty on Jenin”, Covert Action Quarterly, Summer, 2002. http://cosmos.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/php/art.php?aid=4573
31. Alexander Cockburn, “How the US State Dept. Recruited Human Rights Groups to Cheer On the Bombing Raids: Those Incubator Babies, Once More?” Counterpunch, April 1-15, 1999. http://cosmos.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/articles/article0005098.html
32. Boyle and Bernstein.

Written by what's left

July 20, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Sophists for sanctions

with 5 comments

By Stephen Gowans

Tony Hawkins, a professor of economics at the University of Zimbabwe, thinks that Western sanctions on Zimbabwe should be maintained but that their effects “are minimal” and that “their continued existence really plays into the hands of some people in Zanu-PF.”

You would think, then, that Hawkins would favor the lifting of sanctions. After all, why continue to play into the hands of Zanu-PF, if, like Hawkins, you’re opposed to the party, its direction and its program, and the sanctions’ effects are minimal anyway?

For decades, supporters of the U.S. economic war on Cuba have lied that a near total U.S. blockade of the island has had little effect on the Cuban economy. On the contrary, they say, the blockade has actually worked against the U.S., by handing Fidel Castro, and now his brother, Raul, a way of diverting attention from their “failed” economic policies. The Castros, they say, blame Cuba’s problems on the blockade and thus evade responsibility for their much larger role in crippling the island’s economy.

Yet none of these people has recommended that the blockade be lifted, a measure you would think Cuba-opponents would immediately latch onto for its supposed benefits in making clear to Cubans that socialism, not the U.S. blockade, is the source of their poverty, something that might impel them to fulfill U.S. foreign policy goals by overturning socialism. So, why aren’t these people, if they truly believe what they’re saying, pressing for the blockade to be lifted?

The answer is simple: they don’t really believe the blockade has minimal effects, but have to say it does, so they can blame Cuba’s poverty on the Castros.

Likewise, people like Hawkins don’t really believe sanctions on Zimbabwe have minimal effects, but have to say they do, so they can blame Zimbabwe’s economic troubles on Zanu-PF policies, particularly land reform.

Hawkins acknowledges his position is “a bit of a contradiction” (a bit?) but that he opposes the lifting of sanctions because ending them “would convince Zanu-PF that they are winning and make them even more intransigent than they are already.”

But you would think that if the effects of the sanctions were truly minimal, that Hawkins could scarcely care if lifting them allowed Zanu-PF something so insignificant as to think it was winning, when, by being denied the sanctions issue, it would really be losing. For how could Zanu-PF blame Zimbabwe’s troubles on sanctions if sanctions no longer existed? Surely, Hawkins can see that ending the sanctions has little downside (the effects are minimal anyway, he says) and a huge upside (Mugabe would no longer be able to blame the country’s difficulties on sanctions.)

To be effective, a sanctions regime requires more than sanctions alone. It also requires an understanding of the sanctions’ effects: are they devastating the economy or only creating inconvenience for a few highly placed political operatives? And what is the cause of the country’s economic woes: sanctions or failed policies?

The purpose of sanctions is to force a change of government. It’s critical that the people the sanctions are imposed on attribute the effects of the sanctions to their government’s policies, not to the sanctions themselves, otherwise, they won’t act to change their government, as the imposers of the sanctions intend.

This is where Hawkins comes in. Washington, London and the E.U. impose sanctions to wreck the economy. Hawkins’ task is to persuade Zimbabweans that sanctions aren’t devastating, and that the problems Zimbabweans face, come from within the country (Zanu-PF’s policies), not outside (sanctions). But in trying to make his case, he ties himself into knots – just as proponents of the U.S. blockade on Cuba do.

Hawkins wants Zanu-PF gone for the same reason the U.S. State Department, Whitehall and other supporters of the U.S. blockade on Cuba want the Castros gone: to create political jurisdictions congenial to Western investors, where the interests of the domestic population don’t matter. Hawkins says Zimbabweans “need a return to conditions that will attract investment that will foster confidence and so on.”

A return? Does he mean to go backward, to a time when the land and resources were in the hands of the British and their descendants, when indigenous Zimbabweans were relegated to roles as farm-workers, miners and employees, never owners?

It should be recalled that the British government, in the person of Clare Short, refused to back Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform program because returning the land to the people British settlers stole it from would, she said, damage “prospects for attracting investment.”

Returning to conditions that will attract investment is code for undoing Zimbabwe’s land reform program, and giving the country back to the British. Making the case for so regressive a program could only rest on the kind of sophistry Hawkins, and other promoters of neo-colonialism, are prepared to try to bamboozle the Zimbabwe population with. Pity for them they keep tripping over their own contradictions.

Written by what's left

February 9, 2010 at 11:39 pm

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