Nation's Catholic bishops have mixed support and concern

LOS ANGELES — Trade embargoes have long been one of America's favorite ways of making a point. The young republic was still wet behind the ears when, irritated by French and British restrictions on neutral shipping during the Napoleonic wars, it slapped a draconian ban on all foreign trade to and from U.S. ports in 1807. The rights of naval commerce were at stake, Congress declared.

Two things happened as a result of this bold initiative: American merchants immediately set about finding ways to evade the embargo, and the embargo's targets — Britain and France — went right on interfering with shipping to their hearts’ content. A sobered Congress promptly declared victory and lifted the ban.

Contemporary America, casting a far greater geopolitical shadow than it did two centuries ago, is still finding that using trade sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy is a very tricky business, raising a myriad of not only political and economic issues, but ethical ones as well.

Today we stand at the end of what might well be called “the sanctions century,” a period that has seen an unprecedented growth in the use of various forms of trade sanctions by U.S. governments. In the past four years alone, the Clinton Administration has imposed more than 60 unilateral economic sanctions on 35 countries, including the continuation or intensification of total embargoes on Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.

And yet, perhaps never has the effectiveness of such measures seemed more elusive.

India's surprise decision to conduct underground nuclear tests in mid-May, raising the possibility of a South Asian nuclear arms race, and the subsequent imposition of sanctions by the Administration under the 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act is only the latest chapter in the sanctions drama.

It's an illustrative case. On the one hand, the penalties are harsh. The law cuts off virtually all U.S. aid to India, bars American banks from making loans to its government, and restricts the export of computers and other technology that might have military uses. It also requires the United States to oppose loans to India from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

On the other hand, India can, according to most experts, evade most of the more painful consequences of the sanctions. For one thing, U.S. trade with India is relatively small with about $7.7 billion in U.S. exports and $7.3 billion in Indian imports from the United States. Further, compared with other Asian countries, India has relied less on borrowing from international banks.

More importantly, the annual summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) nations in Birmingham, England, ended May 17 without agreeing to a coordinated program of economic embargoes against India that would have had a far greater impact on the would-be nuclear power, and on Pakistan, India's regional rival, on the verge of testing its own nuclear device.

While Japan and Canada have joined the U.S. sanctions effort, and Australia is currently considering imposing trade sanctions in light of India's actions, it's unlikely that unless there is greater support from the other industrialized nations that India will be deterred from what commentator Fareed Zakaria has aptly called the country's dangerous path, a “cheap route” via nuclear weapons “to great-power status.”

U.S. Bishops' Concerns

The U.S. bishops weighed in quickly on the India affair.

In a May 15 letter to national security adviser Sandy Berger, Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the United States Catholic Conference's (USCC) International Policy Committee, said that “he shared the dismay of the Clinton Administration and so many others” that the Indian government had decided to test nuclear weapons “despite the obvious moral, political, and security risks posed by the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction” (See story page 2).

However, Archbishop McCarrick urged that U.S. credibility in dealing with non-proliferation issues depended on American commitment to nuclear disarmament, and that in designing any kind of sanctions regime in response to India, that “due care [be taken] to avoid imposing burdens on the poor that they can scarcely bear.” U.S. government aid, he noted, is vital for large numbers of India's most vulnerable people, and urged that “critical humanitarian and development aid” be exempted from any punitive economic measures.

That approach to what might be called the ethics of sanctions — allowing their legitimacy under certain conditions, but insisting on a humanitarian exemption — has, since the U.S. bishops’ 1993 statement The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, become the hallmark of the Church's response to the flurry of U.S.-led sanctions activity in the past decade involving the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Cuba, and Haiti.

“We're not like those on the [political] left or one the right who say that all sanctions are bad,” said John Carr, the USCC's director of social development and world peace. “As an alternative to war, sanctions can be useful.”

Even so, he told the Register, “sanctions can be a blunt instrument or a more precise, targeted one.” Obviously, he said, without second-guessing the politicians, the Church “prefers the use of precision tools. There are human lives at stake here.”

The problem with sanctions, the policy adviser said, was that they're often driven by factors other than the ones that orchestrated them in the first place — and they often result in outcomes far different than the ones intended.

The comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War, for example, were supposed to hold the government accountable for its actions. Instead, he said, “they ended up punishing the Iraqi people for the behavior of a government they couldn't influence or control.”

In addition, he said, long-lasting sanctions often have the effect of bonding people to a rogue government, not distancing them from it.

“People say, ‘Here's the international community ganging up on us again,'and rally ‘round the flag once more,” said Carr.

On the other hand, he noted, the arms embargo imposed during the Bosnian conflict, which was a far more targeted measure, played a real role in persuading the combatants to come to the peace table.

Humanitarian Exemptions

“No matter what the sanctions policy, the Church always argues for the exemption of humanitarian assistance,” said Carr.

That means not only emergency food and medicine, Carr stressed.

“The humanitarian exemption involves those materials needed to carry on normal civilian life.”

There are people who argue that such exemptions undercut the effectiveness of sanctions, Carr said, or that they end up benefiting indirectly the regime you're trying to isolate.

“I don't buy that,” he said. “The reason why you impose sanctions, finally, is that you're trying to defend the life, freedom, and dignity of people. You can't do that if you've starved them to death in the process.”

Carr's colleague, Jerry Powers, the USCC's director of the office of international justice and peace, put it this way:

“No embargo would intentionally starve people,” he said, “but you have to look at the likely outcome of a sanctions regime. From a moral point of view, you can't target the civilian population with egregious suffering, with deprivations that would make it difficult for them to survive.”

Powers likened it to the “just war” provision that forbids combatants to target civilian populations in the prosecution of a military objective.

“Civilian immunity in war provides a useful analogy in terms of the morality of a particular trade embargo,” he said.

However one sees it, the Church's pastoral concerns are placing it right in the middle of the growing public debate on the efficacy of sanctions.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ongoing battle regarding trade relations with China, and, with it, the broader question of trade restrictions as a tool in the struggle for international human rights.

On March 25, the House Committee on International Relations passed the landmark Freedom From Religious Persecution Act (HR 2431) by an overwhelming 35-1 vote. The legislation, introduced last year by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), calls for U.S. sanctions against governments that systematically oppress religious minorities as a matter of government policy, and boasted a remarkable lineup of organizations that testified on its behalf — from the Christian Coalition to Amnesty International.

The U.S. bishops were also supportive of the measure's objectives, although they, along with others, campaigned successfully for a number of key revisions in the final bill. Chief among the bishops’ concerns, as outlined in a May 11 letter of support signed by Archbishop McCarrick, were “ample waivers [in the imposition of penalties] for national security reasons and for cases where the [U.S.] president deems sanctions counterproductive.”

“The important thing for the Church in the Wolf-Specter bill,” said Powers, “is that it's not really sanctions legislation as such. We don't support the imposition of automatic trade sanctions or comprehensive aid cut-offs in such cases.”

“That's a blunt instrument,” he said.

What's important is that “the worst kind of religious persecution,” where it's “systematic, a part of government policy, involving torture and imprisonment — the kind of persecution going on in China and Sudan, for example — gets targeted.”

Powers indicated that what the “revised bill” envisions is holding up military aid, technological assistance, overseas private investment, and government-to-government development money to regimes guilty of the most egregious forms of religious oppression.

Powers stressed that the measure was not designed to address “all forms of religious discrimination” in countries with which the U.S. has trade relations.

“It's a matter of a carrot and stick approach,” he said. “It's saying to these governments, 'Look, if you're going to get assistance, then you're going to have to meet some basic human rights requirements. We're not going to assist you in the killing and torture of your people.'”

“Obviously,” said Powers, “from the Church's point of view, such provisions must exempt humanitarian and development aid.”

While for many religious believers, the Wolf-Specter legislation is a modest sign that, as Archbishop McCarrick's letter of support states, “the issue of religious liberty ... must play a proper role in shaping the U.S. foreign policy agenda,” the bill's critics, including religious organizations like the largely Protestant National Council of Churches and evangelist Billy Graham, decry the initiative as government invasion into sensitive cultural questions.

Business Opposition

More significantly, the measure has brought the growing clout of business-oriented trade sanctions foes out into the open.

For example, USA*Engage, an anti-sanctions coalition formed last year, claiming to represent business and agriculture associations in 40 states, has bombarded cyberspace with pro-free trade material and, according to several recent articles in The New Republic and Mother Jones, was the principal backer of religious-based opposition to Wolf-Specter.

“In the ‘beltway,’ you tend to have two schools of thought about sanctions,” Carr told the Register. For one school, nothing should interfere with trade — not human rights, not persecution, not weapons violations. “For these people, free trade is a kind of global ‘cure-all.’”

The other point of view has a sweeping sanction for every occasion. “We've even got cities and states now that want to impose their own trade sanctions on foreign countries for various real or perceived violations of international norms.”

“The Church occupies a balanced, and, I might add, an easily misunderstood position, between these two extremes,” he said. “For us, as the bishops have often said, sanctions can't be the answer. If they're used, they have to be part of a diplomatic process, a means of provoking a real, onthe-ground solution to injustice.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.