A bi-weekly publication in support of informed public discourse. Our inspiration is I.F. Stone’s weekly, a digest published from1953 to 1971 that made sense of the news coming out of Washington.¬†

Like I F Stone’s weekly, our goal is to tell the story that lies behind the news. It is to put ourselves, ordinary people that we are, in a position to read/watch the news with an informed eye. To do this, we gather and digest information from many sources on topics selected for their importance.

Unlike I F Stone’s weekly, we publish every two weeks from Canada. Bulletins focus on issues that extend beyond the USA.

Muckrakers Bulletin is published by Plainspeak.ca, a non-profit, non-partisan group.  Plainspeak is dedicated to turning complicated public issues into plain language and graphics so that they become intelligible to ever-wider audiences.
Although any reader can identify a point of view in each Bulletin, people with different views should find them useful.

Muckrakers Bulletin is available at no charge.  Readers are welcome to copy, use or redistribute any Muckraker Bulletin, but only in its entirety and only in in support of informed public discourse.

Vol 4, No 5. October 29, 2020


Back to Index

Slings and Arrows


As we see it:

A few days ago, the US imposed sanctions on the head of the International Criminal Court, freezing not only her assets at a UN bank but, for now, those of her uninvolved family.

The ICC's mandate is to investigate crimes against humanity.

The rationale:  ICC was looking into actions taken in Afghanistan, cases concerning primarily Afghanistan and the Taliban. In the background is a possible investigation into Israeli actions in Palestine.

All of this constituted a human right abuse, according to Mike Pompeo. The ICC was potentially treading on "American activities abroad" and engaged in “illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction." (NYTimes Oct 18, 2020) 

And you thought "sanctions" were boring? 


Why care:

For one:  Sanctions are increasingly the weapon of choice in a new cold war with identifiable enemies. President Trump imposed 3,700 of them. (Obama, 2000)

For another, we think of sanctions as being about human rights, but most sanctions are justified on other grounds.  Sometimes, but definitely not always, sanctions fall under an all-encompassing label of "anti-terrorism".

Sanctions aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation have been notoriously unsuccessful and are selectively applied.

Sanctions gum up international trade, often to the detriment of third world countries and the impoverished.

Despite some noteworthy successes, sanctions rarely achieve their stated purpose.

Sanctions present no obstacle whatsoever to the cold war becoming hot (very hot in the case of nuclear).

And this is just the beginning of the story


What are we talking about?

Sanctions are restrictions imposed by one country on another country, corporation or individual. 

They are always imposed by governments, making them different from boycotts for example.

Sanctions can take the form of freezing assets, prohibiting travel, diminishing or eliminating foreign aid and withdrawal of diplomatic relations.  They can prohibit the export of labour, restrict fishing rights, and severely limit banking activities. They can restrict governments, or anyone, doing business with government. They can restrict any country, business or person from exporting or importing specific goods and services or indeed, anything at all, to and from a sanctioned country.  Embargos are all-encompassing "sanctions" affecting whole countries or whole sectors (e.g. arms trade).

Any country that deals directly with a sanctioned country may be itself subject to sanctions.  In short, sanctions can reach well beyond the sanctioned country to punish and block trade.

Remember the Huawei Muckraker Bulletin.  It involved imprisoning someone from one company (Huawei) that did business with another company (HKBC) that was doing business with a sanctioned country (Iran).

China and Chinese businesses) are sanctioned in part when they do business with North Korea and Iran, sanctioned countries.

Not just countries impose sanctions.  The UN and the EU have lots of sanctions in place.

Why sanctions as opposed to visa restrictions or tariffs?

Sanctions are much more than just restrictions.

Sanctions signal that the actions of the sanctioned country/company/individual are dangerous, immoral or contrary to the values of the sanctioning country.  They are supposed to change behavior.

An ever-increasing percentage of sanctions explicitly further the competitive political and economic interests of the sanctioning country and its companies.  They are legally attached to national interests and foreign policy.  They are enacted explicitly to promote the adoption of the sanctioning country's values or ideology.

As such, they are a form of warfare. Like all weapons of wars, sanctions are justified in the name of great ideals.


Justifications for sanctions:

The usual justification for sanctions is that they punish those who violate international norms of behavior. 

Needless to say, there is no agreement about the meaning of "international norms".  What passes in the US or UK as "international norms" is hardly the same as what passes in many other countries, which have no aspirations to become liberal democracies.

But even if all countries were to agree that, at the very least, genocide contravenes international norms, not all genocide-practicing countries or individuals are sanctioned or punished.  Indeed, some are well supported.

The point here is simple:  The legal justification for sanctions is only sometimes (maybe only rarely) human rights. 

It is worth noting that, because of domestic pressures, countries can issue exceptions to their sanctions in particular cases.

To repeat, US sanctions apply to countries that are not themselves sanctioned, that is, to countries that trade with sanctioned ones.  The choice for these countries is either doing an end-run around US sanctions or else adopting US "foreign policy" sanctions as their own.


Do sanctions work - Yes!

Everyone talks about the power of sanctions in the apartheid case, South Africa. 

Did sanctions, in and of themselves, bring down apartheid?  Of course not.  But clearly the willingness of many governments, organizations and the public to take up cause against apartheid South Africa magnified the effect of sanctions.    More importantly, the ANC supported sanctions.  Doing so aided it immeasurably in raising support and funds.

However, sanctions mattered in the South African case only in light of many actions taken by South Africans themselves.  Impact follows upon what happens locally.  Sanctions can support local action; sanctions do not generate local action.

Sanction appeared to have worked in the Indonesia-Timor case. 

These sanctions included an arms embargo against Indonesia. They were accompanied by withdrawal of IMF and World Bank loans, reduced economic cooperation from many countries and the use of UN peacekeeping forces. There were also military sanctions.  None of this might have mattered were it not for the actions by rebels in Timor.


According to one analyst, sanctions work 31% of the time.  

Many commentators say sanctions work only if the sanctions are limited, if they are targeted to specific individuals and companies, and if sanctions seek to change very specific and easily changeable behaviors.

Sanctions are obviously not an effective instrument of regime change.   But sanctions do impose costs, often big ones, on the sanctioned country, companies or individuals. 

A famous case of fines being imposed on a French bank that violated US sanctions resulted in a huge fine in 2001, but this decision has been appealed.  Thirteen companies received US civil penalties in 2020.


Do sanctions work: No!

Country-wide sanctions can fail because they don't resonate with people in the sanctioned country/corporation or with the public. Sanctions can readily be seen as an act of war, as for example they are in the North Korea case.

They fail because other countries do not follow, albeit usually or their own geo-political or economic reasons. 

Sanctions fail because the sanctioning country does not have enough economic clout. military resources or political will to back them up, to make good on the intended punishment.

Sanctions fail because sanctioned countries/corporations, individuals have their own geo-political allies, which come to their rescue.

Sanctioned countries, corporations and individuals are ingenious about finding alternatives - alternative routes, markets or suppliers for their goods and services, and alternate ways of transporting goods.  Much that happens in international trade can be made opaque.

Sanctions fail if they impose too great a cost on sectors in the sanctioning country, generating political opposition for the government.

Sanctions fail because there are alternatives to using US financial capacity to facilitate trade:  alternatives such as bartering, currency swaps, newly developing crypto-currency regimes, and emerging alternatives to the US dollar as the medium of exchange.

Sanctions fail when the leadership in the sanctioned country does not itself bear the costs, when this leadership is willing to tolerate and justify suffering of others. 

Sanction fail (even though they impose costs and hardship) because sanctions are always countered by an indigenous rhetoric that suggests that resistance is heroic in the face of foreign intervention. Sanctions are, by definition, foreign intervention.

Leaders in sanctioned countries know that people will put up with a lot in order to feel (rightly or wrongly) heroic in their own eyes, to stand up against what they feel is wrong or unjustified.


If they usually fail, why do countries resort to sanctions?

Sanctions can cost the sanctioning country relatively little (sometimes nothing). Even if they impose costs, cost-benefit calculations are easily over-written by ideology.

Sanctions convey an image of power.

There is always an element of truth to the accusations that underlie a sanction.  Moral condemnation is often justified. Facts (not just disinformation) can be marshalled to support sanctions. The media cooperate, willingly or blindly.

But there is another, perhaps even more powerful reason why some countries rely on sanctions in their arsenal.  Who is to judge whether the moral response (sanctions) are justified?

For tariffs and similar instruments of economic clout, the WTO can offer judgment.  For arms and even war, NATO and similar alliances worldwide and various treaties offer judgment and provide the necessary deterrence or prohibitions.

In the case of atrocities, genocides etc.  the UN can act as the judge and jury, either through the Security Council actions or through the independent International Criminal Court. 

But for country-initiated sanctions, there are no overarching bodies or treaties that have the right or power to say whether a sanction is justified. Sanctions are an unassailable.  Country-tp-country sanctions can be reciprocated, but there is no avenue for challenge them, let alone arbitrate a solution.  There is no recourse for corporate and individuals which are sanctioned.

Sanctions are the assertion of one country's national sovereignty over other's actions.   Sanctions end-run international institutions, much to the delight of at least the US. They are as good as gold in making a country "great again".

Sanctions are allied with military might:

Sanctions are portrayed as being a "third way" solution.

 In theory, sanctions send more powerful messages than diplomacy.  Research suggests the opposite. 

Sanctions are tough love. Sanctions are no talk, no negotiation unless there is submission to the rules imposed by the sanctioning country.

Sanctions are seen as an alternative to military action but are often accompanied by military threats or engagement.

The new breed of sanctions:

Given the failures of country-to-country sanctions, targeted sanctions are now much more widely used. 

Targeted sanctions are said to stem from a philosophy of "follow the money". (But remember, the head of the ICC has just had her assets frozen as a sanction, and no one would say she is a terrorist, money launderer or narcotics trader.)

Targeted sanctions can be human rights abuses in their own right.  Those who stand accused are sanction-punished without any capacity to respond or defend themselves in any court. They are "guilty" by government fiat, and often according to secret (and not always accurate) investigations.   

Needless to say, a genuine terrorist organization, narcotics empire or money-laundering kingpin has access to other ways of doing business.

 Moral judgments:

Sanctions always come with a lot of rhetoric, that is, words used to persuade. 

Rhetoric's power comes when it operates in an echo chamber.  Words uttered in one place and time reverberate in other places and times. 

Echo chambers happen when one country's rhetoric is picked up and used by other countries.

Or when one country's moral judgment is seen to be "a true reflection" of public opinion everywhere.  

Even groups that fundamentally disapprove can join the chorus when the sanctions rhetoric is effective.  Even groups who fundamentally disagree take up the key rhetorical phrases, adopting the same way of speaking. 

When rhetoric takes hold, there seems no escaping it.

In the case of Iran, Venezuela or China today, it is almost like watching a traffic accident in progress.   Every day, we watch the uptake of the rhetoric accompanying sanctions, resulting in
widespread moral condemnation singling out these particular countries from all the other likely offenders.  

Sanctions always occur in the context of the geo-politics at the time.  One country's moral judgment is countered by other countries' moral judgments especially when conflicting interests, political agendas, ideology or religion are involved.

The UN as actor in the sanctions game:

UN sanctions approved through the Security Council can, in theory, be vetoed by the General Assembly.  These sanctions are often about human rights abuses or nuclear proliferation,

Fourteen countries are currently UN sanctioned, but the emphasis now is on targeted sanctions.

In the past four years, only Mali has been subject to new UN sanctions.    Sanctions on Eritrea have been lifted.  It is recommended that sanctions on Sudan be lifted.

In sum:

Needless to say, countries will always pursue their political and economic interests.  It is the overlay of moral schmush and the lack of accountability that render sanctions so suspect.

Our sources include:  Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, Gary Clyde Hulbauer et al, Financial Times,  Creative Commons, BBC news Dec. 2019, July 26, 2020, The Economist Jan 18, 2020, Global Americans, Jan 5, 2018, International Organizations and Anti-terrorist Sanction: No Accountability for Human Rights Violations, Carmen Draghici,  Critical Studies on Terorism,2 (2) 2009, US Govt. website: Sanctions Programs and Country Information,  The New York Times, Wikipedia, US Congressional Research Service Mar 23, 2020, European Commission Restrictive Measures, 2008, Reuters, May 1, 2015, Al JazeeraAsia News Monitor Sept 2017, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, June 2018, Council on Foreign Relations August 12, 2019, SIPRI arms embargo on Indonesia 2000, Journal of Peace Research 2016 .

Plainspeak is a non-governmental, non-profit  organisation.  For more than twenty years, Plainspeak has been making sense of complex information (treaties, agreements etc.) mainly for Indigenous groups and socially/economically disadvantaged communities in Canada.  Plainspeack publishes Muckrakers Bulletin, about 5 times annually.  Plainspeak is an initiative of Rick and Liora Salter.  Additional research: Yasmeena Kibaida.

Some examples of sanctions

The US initiates its sanctions by reference to emergency powers that respond to "unusual and extraordinary threats" and "Countering Americas Adversaries" Sanctions support US foreign policy and national security objectives. Any country that is said to present a "clear and present danger" to the US foreign policy or economic interests, might well be subject to sanctions. 

Sanctions can be issued by legislation or executive order under a wide variety of statutes.

In 2017, the US President, though Executive Powers, expanded the scope of an existing law permitting sanctions for human rights abuses, allowing the US to now freeze assets and impose travel bans.

The US, the world sanctions leader, has sanctions against Nicaragua, Gambia, Congo, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria. Iraq, Venezuela China, Turkey and Russia, among others (interesting choice of countries).  The US has had sanctions against Iran  since 1979, but the rationale for these has changed over the years.
The US is an extensive user of secondary and targeted sanctions. It uses its all-but-monopoly over international financial supports for international trade as a means of implementing its sanctions. 

In 2012, the US passed the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program (under Obama) explicitly concerning human rights abuses, reportedly as a result of death in prison of someone investigating corruption in Russia.  

Several fines have been levied against companies.


The EU imposes sanctions (It sometimes calls them "restrictions"),  Its sanctions are intended to  "safeguard common values, fundamental interests, independence and integrity of the EU", and to "develop and consolidate democracy..."  Sanctions must a foreign policy dimension, and should further international law and the actions of the WTO.

The EU has sanctions against companies in Libya, a bank in Syria, and individuals in Congo, Russia, Rwanda, Egypt, Algeria and France for examples. 

The EU allows for exemptions to sanctions. 

Countries within the EU can impose their own sanctions as France, among others, has done.


The UK rationale stems from a newly launched Global Human Right Sanctions Regulations. It too passed an act similar to the Magnitsky Act authorizing sanctions with regard to human rights abuses.

The UK targets Russia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, sometime in extensive ways, sometimes in very limited ways. 

China was long opposed to sanctions, but now resorts to them as "reciprocity:  US individuals such as Ted Cruz, and organisations such as  Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have been sanctioned by China. China has asked the WTO to impose sanctions for violations of WTO rules.

China's sanctions mainly affect travel and diplomatic visas.

Like Australia, Canada imposes sanctions, although it does not usually have the military or economic heft to make its sanctions powerful in their own right.  Rather, its sanctions support mainly US sanctions. Canada has sanctions against Iran, Lebanon, South Sudan and Russia among others. In 2017, it passed an equivalent modelled on the US Magnitsky Act.

Russia uses sanctions for reciprocity.. It has responded, for example, with sanctions against a number of countries, including a total ban on food imports from the EU, United States, Norway, Canada and Australia. It has threatened reciprocity sanctions against the EU arising from uses of military intelligence.

India, Pakistan Turkey Indonesia, Although countries with significant political and economic heft, these countries do not impose sanctions as far as we can determine.

Belt and Road The Iceberg Right Thinking Water Politics in North America Fierce trade WindsWhat Kind of Country is North Korea? PUSH BACK Cyber Currencies Mexico: the OTHER Wall Ban the Bomb Hard Times Ahead: BREXIT Big Deal? [Big Data] Truth and Reconciliation? Pipelines - Which One is Which The Future of Oil