Sanctions are one of those political issues that can make amiable dinner conversation turn unpleasant, as the battle lines are drawn down the table between those for and against.
Sanctions have certainly had mixed success, starting with the first recorded case of a trade embargo some 2,400 years ago between Athens and neighboring Megara. The embargo failed, sparking war.
Sanctions have never worked since then, argue some. “That is too reductionist,” may come the reply, while others prefer to pick-and-mix examples from embargoes through the ages to argue their case. The more pragmatic approach would be to not ask whether sanctions “work,” but to consider when and under what circumstances.
Sanctions that are meant to oust a dictator but result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians — Iraq for instance — can be considered counter-productive. Sanctions preventing a particularly nasty regime from getting hold of, say, chemical weapons, on the other hand, would appear desirable and effective.
In a report on the effectiveness of sanctions by the Washington-based Institute for International Economics, out of 211 cases from World War I until the year 2000, only 38 percent were successful.
Applying sanctions on the aviation sector can fall under the questionable effectiveness category. Impeding a country’s access to military aviation parts is understandable, but for commercial aircraft it ranks as dangerous. In the Middle East, this applies to Iran and until July, Syria, when the United States ended sanctions on the export of goods to the Syrian aviation industry. Sanctions were first imposed against Syria in 1979 and tightened in 2004 under the Bush administration.
Aviation sanctions have long been considered a risk to air safety, with airlines that own American and European manufactured aircraft (Boeing and Airbus) unable to purchase spare parts and navigation equipment, or to upgrade technology in line with international safety standards. A report prepared for the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization has made this clear.
The danger sanctions pose to aircraft and passengers was underscored in July when two Iranian commercial planes crashed within 10 days of each other, killing 184 people. Iran claims the sanctions were to blame, and foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said the Western aviation sanctions in place since 1979 “signify a violation of human rights.”
While no Western lives were lost in the two crashes, it may only be a matter of time before citizens of the primary imposer of sanctions, the US, also become collateral damage, whether onboard a doomed aircraft, or while picnicking below when a badly serviced plane drops out of the sky.
As Flight Commander General Hazim al-Khadra, director general of the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority, told me in Damascus a few years ago: “Sanctions are a big problem because US aviation interferes with the aviation industry, the spare parts for commercial airlines in particular, which maintain the safety of passengers. And these passengers aren’t only Syrians, but also Europeans, Americans and Asians.”
Perhaps there would have to be the rather ironic situation of a plane that lacked the spare parts or proper guidance systems accidentally crashing into a US embassy or military facility, for Washington to truly wake up to the hazards of unsafe aircraft.
After all, it is curious that the Air France jet that crashed en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris and the US Airways plane that ditched into the Hudson River in New York earlier this year garnered extensive media reports about aircraft safety, yet the aviation sanctions against Syria and Iran have not. Unsafe aircraft flying around the world are not safe for anyone, whether on the ground or in the air.
The US decision to end the sanctions against the Syrian aviation sector — which has rapidly opened up in recent years to include a handful of private airlines — is a step in the right direction. But the sanctions against Iran, and its aviation sector, continue. It even looks like the sanctions are going to be tightened further, with America proposing to ban Iranian airplanes from landing in Western airports, along with banning insurance on trade deals with Iran and the imposition of sanctions on any company that trades with the Islamic Republic.
While the heightened sanctions are meant to put further pressure on the Islamic Republic to change it ways, the policy should be scrutinized. The sanctions related to the curbing of Iran’s nuclear aspirations and funding to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are a political minefield, with strong arguments from both sides of the political spectrum as to whether such a policy is working. Civil aviation however should be in a special category. It should be a human right for people — civilians — to be able to fly safely.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for the International News Services