Since the end of the Cold War, sanctions have served primarily as a way for relatively united Western powers — led by the United States — to impose their preferences on weaker states. The era of unipolarity that has facilitated such one-sided coercion is, however, drawing to a close, and with it perhaps the age of ever-proliferating sanctions.
The legal concept and practice of “peaceful sanctions” is ridden with contradictions. To understand these antinomies, and to make sense of the changes in the legal treatment of sanctions over time, we must attend to the material basis of the international legal order – namely, a global but contradictory, crisis-prone, and conflictual capitalist imperialism structured along racial, gender, and spatial lines.
Humanitarian concerns have generally failed to bring about concrete legal limits on the use of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. However, as the ongoing saga concerning the Afghan central bank’s assets indicates, they have succeeded in something much more fundamental: they have legitimized the use of sanctions as a tool for undoing and re-assembling the sovereignty of a postcolonial state.
In this moment of U.S. financial imperialism, a host of “new” colonizers have emerged, including private plaintiffs holding unsatisfied civil judgments against so-called terrorists, terrorist organizations, and countries designated by the U.S. State Department as state sponsors of terrorism. And just as the colonizers of yesteryear used imperial policies to destroy and deplete the colonized’s resources, these new colonizers pillage in their own modern way, leveraging and expanding the U.S. government’s imperialist reach.
At a time when human rights NGOs rigorously count civilian deaths in armed conflicts, no equivalent accounting is available to victims of a war waged via exchange rates, inflation, and interest rates. The opaque mechanisms through which economic coercion inflicts harm have made it difficult to identify causation, let alone to prosecute its agents under international law, while the rise of neoliberalism and an individualized human rights politics have led to a turn away from the concerns with economic coercion that animated post-colonial legal activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
To what extent do the very building blocks of international law enable the weaponization of economic asymmetry? How has the expansion of the U.S. financial system shifted the locus of economic coercion in the global order? And what possibilities exist for legal analysis and advocacy to contest such forms of imperialism? To answer these and other questions about the role of law in economic sanctions, this symposium draws together insights from scholars working at the intersection of LPE and Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL).