Economic sanctions have taken on new importance in modern international relations. Increasingly since World War II, international bodies have sought to influence countries' behavior by means of peace-keeping forces, Amnesty International-type campaigns, and economic sanctions in the form of boycotts and trade embargoes. They are an attempt to answer a centuries-old question: How can the international community influence a country's behavior without resorting to war?
Sanctions are brought to bear when a country clearly violates the principles, stated or unstated, by which the nations of the world generally live. Those who impose the sanctions say, in effect, We cannot continue in this specific economic relationship with you as long as you ignore accepted norms of behavior.
South Africa offers the clearest and most successful example of such pressure. Apartheid violates the most elemental notion of governance by, for, and of the people. The United Nations imposed economic sanctions against the white-dominated South African government, and these have helped the movement for change there.
Sanctions presuppose the suspension of aid--obviously, nations do not continue assistance to a country while imposing sanctions. If the sanctions produce unacceptable levels of suffering for innocent people in the offending country, the option remains to bypass the government and re-establish humanitarian aid through international organizations such as the Red Cross. In such cases sanctions remain in force but people's basic needs are met.
The decision to resort to this form of coercion is a serious one--sanctions generally affect the most vulnerable people--and two considerations are key: how prepared are the people to suffer the consequences, and who speaks for the people. In the case of South Africa, legitimate black leaders insisted that their people were prepared to absorb the pain that U.N. sanctions caused in order to achieve freedom.