University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

George A. Lopez

Much attention is paid to noncombatant casualties caused by military strikes and terrorist bombings, but few observers have focused on the impact of non-military actions, such as economic sanctions, on civilians.

The shift more than a decade ago from general trade sanctions to more finely targeted, so-called “smart sanctions” lessened the negative humanitarian impact of sanctions. Restrictions aimed at some types of economic activity or embargoes on products with dual use military potential were intended to apply pressure on foes and their sympathizers while avoiding harm to civilians.

But sanctions are seldom imposed in a vacuum. Even targeted measures can become collective punishment depending on the scope of economic deprivation that already exists in a society. 


Beginning with UN sanctions on Iraq in 1990-91 through the more recent embargo wielded by Israel on the Gaza Strip, we can see that a population can be highly vulnerable to harm. Sanctions compound and accelerate the destructive impacts of war long after the bombs stop falling.

Pundits praised the brevity of the first Gulf War, pointing to the low numbers of civilians killed and the decision by coalition forces not to march into Baghdad. But the extension and intensification of sanctions after the ceasefire led to some of the worst violations of civilian immunity in any nation since World War II. The U.S. had bombed the Iraqi national electrical grid and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, including bridges that carried fiber-optic cables — all in the name of devastating Saddam Hussein’s war machine and eliminating his capacity to communicate with his troops.

The extension and intensification of sanctions after the ceasefire led to some of the worst violations of civilian immunity in any nation since World War II.

But the sanctions on specialized replacement materials damaged significantly the ability of Iraqi civil society to recover from the war. They also created widespread humanitarian suffering and social deprivation. As medical care and access to clean water and adequate sanitation declined dramatically due to sanctions, UN agencies documented rising disproportionate mortality rates among children under 5 and people over the age of 55. By any meaningful assessment, these people were noncombatant civilians whose deaths resulted from the purposeful actions of war, but war in the extended form of draconian economic sanctions.


The war-sanctions linkage was manifest more recently in the Israeli assault on Hamas and its aftermath in Gaza. Israeli airstrikes led to widespread destruction in urban areas totaling at least $2 billion in economic damage. This included wrecked police stations, hospitals, schools, ministries, and a United Nations compound, along with other damage to civilian infrastructure.

The Goldstone report and other assessments debated whether these military actions against civilian support structures were war crimes.Yet no one examined the link between such actions and the Israeli embargo imposed on Gaza, which prevented imports of urgently needed reconstruction materials. By blocking shipments of materials such as concrete and even nails, the Israelis prolonged the damage caused by military strikes in Gaza and multiplied the hardships faced by beleaguered Palestinian civilians.


Especially problematic in the so-called “war on terror” has been the expansion of blacklists of alleged terrorists and their sympathizers. Governments have cast a wide net of scrutiny and restriction over a broad range of groups, including humanitarian agencies and peacebuilders seeking to help people and prevent armed violence in zones of conflict.

The June 2010 Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project makes it a criminal act to provide “material support” to a proscribed organization, even when that support consists of advice or training aimed at promoting peace and nonviolence. This is another form of the war-sanctions linkage—the blocking of civilian efforts to provide humanitarian relief and resolve armed conflict in societies suffering from violence and terrorism. Sanctions are not smart when they hurt innocent civilians and impede efforts to build peace in the aftermath of war.

George A. Lopez holds the Hesburgh Chair in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.