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Considered Position: Thinking Through Sanctions – Our Own Obligations

photograph of feet on asphalt before a branching decision tree

This piece concludes a Considered Position series investigating the purpose and permissibility of economic sanctions.

In this series of posts, I want to investigate some of the ethical questions surrounding the use of sanctions. Each post will be dedicated to one important ethical question.

Part 1: Do sanctions work to change behavior?

Part 2: Do sanctions unethically target civilians?

Part 3: What obligations do we as individuals have with regard to sanctions? 

In the first post, I suggested that sanctions are, on the whole, probably effective. In the second post, I suggested that sanctions, on the whole, probably do not violate the rights of innocent civilians (though I’m not totally certain about that).

The final question concerns how wide the scope of that obligation — that is, the duty to support these punitive economic measures — is.

There are two parts to this question.

First: who has responsibilities to boycott?

Do governments have an obligation to impose sanctions? Do companies have an obligation to pull out of Russia? Do sports organizations have an obligation to ban Russian athletes? Do academic journals have reason to reject papers submitted by faculty at state-sponsored Russian Universities? Do I have a responsibility to not purchase Russian-made products?

Second: who should be boycotted?

If I should boycott Russia, should I also boycott China given their treatment of the Uyghur people? Does it also apply to Saudi Arabia given their human rights abuses? Does it apply to the U.S. State of Georgia for its voting rights bill?

Who Has a Reason to Boycott?

For individuals and companies, there could be three different relations to boycotts. Boycotting could be morally prohibited, it could be morally required, or it could be morally permissible. Since it will be permissible just if it is neither prohibited nor required, let’s consider reasons it might be morally prohibited or required for individuals to boycott.

Are there any reasons to think it is morally wrong for individuals or companies to boycott? 

Yes, often there are.

There are some actions which should only be done by certain agents. For example, if I see you commit a crime, I cannot lock you up in my basement. Only the state has the authority to impose criminal punishments, I do not. Similarly, many philosophers historically have maintained that only the government can legitimately wage war.

There is good reason to think that, often, we should limit ‘coercive pressure’ to centralized agents. This is because when a group of people all try to collectively punish someone, the resulting punishment is often disproportionate.

Sometimes people do really bad things, and deserve some punishment. However, when the information goes viral, they don’t just struggle to get a job, they struggle to get any job. And so the bad action can destroy someone’s life. Each individual employer thinks they are just not hiring the person for this job, but when everyone thinks that way, the person is unable to get any job at all. But sometimes a person does not deserve to be unemployable, even if they really did something quite bad. And this provides one reason for why individual people or companies should not always take ‘boycotting’ or ‘coercive sanctioning’ into their own hands.

Could such considerations apply to Russia? Possibly, but I think it’s unlikely. The invasion of a democratic nation is such a serious violation of international norms, that it is hard to imagine any form of economic isolation that would be a disproportionate response. There could well be issues if, for instance, Russian civilians begin starving. But that is a general problem with targeting civilians and is not really a specific problem of mob injustice.

Are there any reasons to think it is morally required for individuals or companies to boycott? 

In general, there are two sorts of reasons one might be obligated to boycott a country or organization that is doing something unjust.

First, it might be necessary to help protect those suffering injustice. Thus, you might think that we owe it to the Ukrainian people to put as much international pressure on Russia as possible. Or, you might think we owe it to the people of Taiwan to signal as large a credible threat as possible. Here the thought would be that, collectively, such pressure can do real good in making the world a better place and protecting the rights of those being oppressed.

Second, it might be necessary to avoid complicity with injustice. Even if your refusal will not make the situation better, we often think that participation in evil can itself be evil. Thus, Google might worry that their map software could be used by invading troops. It might not make the situation any better for the Ukrainian people if Russian soldiers lacked access to Google maps; but Google might think they still have reasons to avoid associations with evil.

Of these two reasons, the first one strikes me as by far the most plausible argument. If you want to argue that academic journals should not publish papers written by those working at Russian state universities, or that gas companies should not buy Russian-produced oil, the best argument is that doing so helps send a broad and unambiguous signal that such invasions will not be tolerated now or in the future. This could, in turn, help protect rights. It is not that any one company makes a difference, but that everyone working together can send a uniquely powerful signal, and that such a signal only works if we all do our part.

It seems plausible, then, that many individuals and organizations plausibly have at least some reason to support various boycotts (especially in contexts where there is involvement by the Russian state).

Who Should be Boycotted?

Once we accept that sometimes individuals have good reason to boycott other institutions. There are tricky questions to be asked about the scope of those duties.

It seems plausible that I should boycott Russia, but what about other countries which are violating international norms? It seems clear that I should refuse to join a country club that discriminates against Black people. But do we also have reason to boycott a streaming service if we don’t like a podcast they host?

These are difficult questions, and I don’t know any easy solutions for how to sort the cases. That said, there are at least a couple of plausible principles that can help think through these things.

First, the worse the injustice, the more boycotting is justifiable. The basic reason for this is because the worse the injustice, the less likely it is that the ‘piling-on’ effect is going to result in some clearly disproportionate and unfairly punitive responses.

Second, the clearer the social norm, the more justifiable boycotting is. There are tons of unjust actions performed by governments. Invasion and war crimes are unjust, but so is the denial of religious freedom and gender parity. Nevertheless, it seems more justifiable to sanction Russia for invasion than to sanction the Maldives for its violations of religious freedom.

Partly this is because war crimes are plausibly more serious injustices. But partly it is because there are clearer norms against invasion. Invasion is less ‘generally acceptable’ and so coercive punishment seems less ‘ex post facto’ or ‘capricious’ when employed against an invading nation. There are lots of injustices in the world, and we probably don’t want to coercively punish every injustice anyone performs. Thus, to avoid maliciously targeting just those we tend to suspect or dislike, it is easier to justify boycotting those in violation of clear and broadly-accepted norms of justice.

Third, you want to watch out for inconsistency. In general, it is very dangerous to boycott, sanction, or coercively punish someone else if the main reason is just to improve your own moral image. But I think we often find ourselves tempted to boycott, less for the sake of the oppressed, and more to solidify our own moral reputations.

One way to keep an eye out for this, is to notice if your responses seem inconsistent or disproportionate. If you find yourself calling for the boycotting of Georgia for their pro-life laws, but not China for the oppression of the Uyghurs, then it should at least make you pause and wonder if your motivations are mostly about political posturing.

What Is the Wrong Lesson to Draw?

It is extremely difficult to give clear principles for when individuals should coercively respond to the bad actions of others. It is easy to get bogged down in complicated edge cases.

However, this itself can be a form of temptation. We can often bog ourselves down in edge cases in order to avoid clear moral duties. Thus, because I am not sure exactly how much money I am obligated to give to charity, I don’t end up giving any. Even though I’m quite certain that I ought to at least give some. (Those of us reading online articles about applied ethical puzzles are probably particularly susceptible to this vice.)

There are real, difficult, and complicated questions here. But just because some of the cases are difficult, does not mean all of them are. And sometimes there are clear cases that require us to stand up and sacrifice for the cause of justice.

Considered Position: Thinking Through Sanctions – The Ethics of Targeting Civilians

photograph of ATM line in Kyev

This piece continues a Considered Position series investigating the purpose and permissibility of economic sanctions.

In this series of posts, I want to investigate some of the ethical questions surrounding the use of sanctions. Each post will be dedicated to one important ethical question.

Part 1: Do sanctions work to change behavior?

Part 2: Do sanctions unethically target civilians?

Part 3: What obligations do we as individuals have with regard to sanctions?

In the first post I suggested reasons to think that imposing economic sanctions generally has a good effect. In this post, I want to consider what I think is the strongest objection to the use of sanctions – namely, that they target civilians in an unjust manner.

Double Effect and The Combatant/Non-Combatant Distinction

One of the fundamental principles of just war theory is the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In war, you are not supposed to target enemy civilians even if you think doing so might terrorize an enemy into giving up.

Now, this does not mean that you cannot ever harm civilians. Just war theorists acknowledge that sometimes civilians will die as a result of military action. You cannot wage a war without some collateral damage. Nevertheless, you are not supposed to target civilians. You are not supposed to intend that they be harmed.

We can illustrate this distinction by considering two different hypothetical cases of military bombing.

Case 1 – Strategic Bomber: A pilot is told that by destroying an enemy’s munitions factory, she will be able to end the enemy’s ability to wage war. By ending the war, the pilot will be able to save 200,000 lives. However, she is also told that the enemy has placed the munitions factory near a retirement center. If the pilot blows up the munitions factory, the secondary explosion will destroy the retirement center as well, killing 2,000 elderly civilians.

Case 2 – Terror Bomber: A pilot is told that the enemy is near the breaking point and might soon give up. However, it will require one last decisive strike against morale. The military’s psychologists have realized that the other country particularly values the lives of the elderly, and so if the pilot could kill several thousand elderly civilians that would demoralize the enemy, ending their ability to wage war. By ending the war, the pilot will be able to save 200,000 lives.

In both cases, the pilot faces a choice of whether to drop a bomb which will both end the war and kill 2,000 civilians. However, there is an important difference. In the strategic bomber case, she is not targeting the enemy civilians; in the terror bomber case, she is.

Here is one way to see the difference.

Suppose that in the first case, after the bombing the pilot comes home and turns on the TV. The TV announcer explains that a surprise bombing destroyed the enemy’s primary munitions factory. The announcer then goes on to explain that in a weird twist of fate, the bombing happened at the exact same time that everyone at the retirement center had left for a group trip to the zoo, and so no civilians were killed.

In the first case, the pilot would be thrilled. This is great news. The munitions factory was destroyed, and no civilians were harmed.

In contrast, suppose the second pilot targeted the same retirement center. When she gets home she also hears that no civilians were killed. But in this second case, the pilot will not be thrilled. The reason the pilot bombed the retirement center was to kill civilians. Killing civilians was the means to the end of ending the war. If the people don’t die, the pilot will not have helped stop the war at all.

In the terror bombing case, the pilot intends civilian deaths, because the harm to civilians is how the pilot plans to end the war. The civilians are, therefore, used as a means to an end. The civilians are viewed, as Warren Quinn says, “as material to be strategically shaped or framed.”

This distinction is core to just war theory, and for good reason.

But the distinction is often misunderstood. For example, many people mistakenly think that one’s ‘intention’ is just your ultimate goal (ending the war). Thus, some tried to use the intention/foresight distinction to say that Harry Truman did not intend civilian deaths when he authorized dropping atomic weapons on Japan. The thought was that Truman only intended to win the war.

But this is not how the principle of double effect works. Truman still intended those civilians’ deaths because it was by killing civilians that Truman hoped to win the war. This is why Harry Truman is a murder and a war criminal (as was argued by the great ethicist Elizabeth Anscombe).

The Problem for Sanctions

How do these principles apply to sanctions?

They create a real ethical challenge for the use of sanctions. That is because sanctions tend to directly target civilians. The goal of most sanctions is to inflict damage to a nation’s economy in order to change the government’s cost-benefit calculation. But it seems to do this damage by harming civilians.

Thus, sanctions seem to be a direct violation of the principle of double effect. Or so Joy Gordon argues:

Although the doctrine of double effect would seem to justify “collateral damage,” it does not offer a justification of sanctions. . . . The direct damage to the economy is intended to indirectly influence the leadership, by triggering political pressure or uprisings of the civilians, or by generating moral guilt from the “fearful spectacle of the civilian dead.” Sanctions directed against an economy would in fact be considered unsuccessful if no disruption of the economy took place. We often hear commentators objecting that “sanctions didn’t work” in one situation or another because they weren’t “tight” enough — they did not succeed in disrupting the economy. Thus, sanctions are not defensible under the doctrine of double effect.

Now, this objection does not apply to all sanctions. Some ‘smart sanctions’ do try to directly target the leaders of a military, and so do respect a distinction between civilians and combatants. But many other sanctions do not, including many of the sanctions that the west is currently levying against Russia.

A Possible Reply

There is a plausible reply that one can make on behalf of sanctions. That is because there is a big difference between dropping a bomb on someone and refusing to trade with someone.

The difference is that people have a right not to be killed, but it is not at all clear that anyone has the right to trade in Western markets. It is wrong for me to threaten to take your money unless you clean my house. But it is not wrong for me to offer to pay you if you clean my house. In both cases, you have more money if you clean my house than if you don’t, but in one case your rights are being violated and in the other they are not. If I threaten to sabotage your children’s grades unless you give me money, then I am using your children as a means to an end.  But there is nothing wrong with me saying I will only tutor your kids if you give me money.

So, you might think that the use of sanctions are not designed to harm civilians unless the government changes behavior. Instead, we are just refusing to help unless the government changes behavior.  And that seems, on the whole, far more ethically justifiable.

Real World Complications

So which view is right? Do sanctions violate the right of innocent civilians, using them as a means to an end to put pressure on a foreign government?

It’s a difficult question. And partly I think it might depend on the details of the sanction. Take the action of PepsiCo as an example. The company recently announced that they would no longer sell Pepsi, 7 Up, or other soft drinks in Russia. However, the company will continue to sell milk, baby food, and formula.

This strikes me as, plausibly, the right balance. I think it is plausible that people have a right to certain basic goods (like food, water, or baby formula), but not rights to Diet Pepsi. As such, it would make sense to refuse to sell luxuries, even if one continues to supply civilians with necessities.

Thus, it seems that we should probably oppose any sanctions that prevent the sale of life-saving medications to Russian civilians; but it seems justifiable to support sanctions that prevent the sale of American-made cars.

Considered Position: Thinking Through Sanctions – Do Sanctions Work?

image of Russian banknotes

This piece begins a Considered Position series investigating the purpose and permissibility of economic sanctions.

In this series of posts, I want to investigate some of the ethical questions surrounding the use of sanctions. Each post will be dedicated to one important ethical question.

Part 1: Do sanctions work to change behavior? 

Part 2: Do sanctions unethically target civilians?

Part 3: What obligations do we as individuals have with regard to sanctions?

In this first post I want to address a particularly fundamental question. Do sanctions even work?

Why It Matters if Sanctions Work

If sanctions are ineffective, then there are very strong reasons to reject their use. That is because sanctions cause massive harm to innocent civilians. We can already see this happening in Russia.

In the Spring 2010, the high school debate community debated whether or not it is permissible to use economic sanctions to achieve foreign policy objectives. I remember that at the time, it was widely accepted that sanctions directed against Iraq had killed over half a million children. And while we now know that the number was almost entirely fabricated by the Iraqi government, the very fact it was widely accepted by the United Nations shows just how plausible it is that sanctions can cause incredible amounts of harm. Even so-called “smart sanctions” — such as the choice to freeze the banking assets of a nation’s leaders — can sometimes be circumvented with harms passed onto civilians.

Because sanctions are accompanied by high costs to civilians, it is therefore important that sanctions work. Otherwise, we cannot possibly justify the harm they cause to innocent people.

How Sanctions Don’t Work

This raises a problem, however. Because at first blush it looks like sanctions are generally ineffective. If you look at the various times in the past that the United States and United Nations have imposed sanctions, they do not seem to really change a nation’s behavior.

Indeed, some studies suggest that sanctions are actually counterproductive — resulting in an increase in repression and human rights abuses.

Why would this be? There seem to be a couple of mechanisms.

First, economic sanctions often lead the populous of a nation to think they are being victimized by the international community. This can often produce a ‘rally around the flag’ effect where the populace comes to support national leaders more strongly in response to an external threat.

Second, sanctions decrease economic and information exchange between a nation and the wider community. This, at least historically, meant that sanctions made it easier for a government to control the information available to a citizenry (though this is changing in the world of modern computers).

Third, sanctions often cause the sanctioned government to crack down and increase control over the populace (as we are currently seeing in Russia), and this can result in the prosecution of opposition parties or free media. Thus solidifying the government’s control.

This forms the foundation for the standard objection to sanctions. Imposing sanctions does not actually work to change behavior. So, given the harms they cause, we should not use them.

However, there are good reasons to doubt this argument. The problem is that these studies find that sanctions are ineffective because they misunderstand how sanctions work in the first place.

I tend to think that sanctions are actually fairly effective. So, it is worth looking at the two mechanisms by which they actually seem to change behavior.

The Primary Mechanism: Threats

Most people critical of sanctions assume that sanctions work by changing behavior once the sanction is imposed. However, it is actually the preliminary threat of sanctions that changes behavior. Elizabeth Rogers makes this point in a discussion paper for the Belfer Center:

The literature focuses on the ability of imposed sanctions to compel the target to change its behavior, but does not systematically study whether the threat of sanctions can deter the target from taking a certain action. Hence the literature asks if sanctions can achieve compliance (which is difficult) without asking if they can achieve deterrence (which is easier). Deterring an untaken action is easier than compelling a policy reversal because leaders do not face the higher political costs that accompany reversing course.

Sanctions can deter in two ways. Target states can be threatened with sanctions directly, or sanctions can deter indirectly, by example. States seeing the economic damage sustained by sanctioned states may decide to avoid actions that will make them the targets of similar sanctions. Press accounts imply that this logic was part of the rationale for sanctioning Haiti in 1991 and Niger in 1996 after military coups in those states.

If sanctions work via a credible threat then you should not expect sanctions to change behavior once they are imposed.  Once you issue a threat of sanctions, then the other nation decides if it is still worth performing the triggering action. Normally, the sanction will tip the balance against the action. But where it doesn’t, the other nation has already factored in the chance of sanctions, and so is unlikely to change just because the sanction is actually imposed.

That does not mean that sanctions don’t work. It just means when you impose sanctions, then they have already failed. As such, if you try to test the efficacy of sanctions by looking at where imposed sanctions change behavior, you are basically trying to assess if sanctions work by only evaluating sanctions that failed.

So is the threat of sanctions effective? It turns out this is a really difficult empirical question to study. Nevertheless, we can get some indirect evidence that these threats are effective. For instance, it does seem as though one reason that Russia was willing to invade Ukraine now is because there was a fairly weak international response to the original invasion of Crimea in 2014. This would suggest that it was partly because Russia thought that serious threats were uncredible that they were willing to begin a larger invasion.

At this point you might wonder. If it is the threat of sanctions that does all the work, why actually ever impose sanctions? After all, imposing them won’t actually do much once the threat has failed.

The problem, however, is that to have a credible threat in the future you need to be willing to follow through with it even when deterrence has failed. For example, if we want China to think that there is a credible threat of sanctions should they invade Taiwan, then we need to sanction Russia even if we don’t expect it to change Russia’s actions (or even if we think it will increase Russian aggression).

The Secondary Mechanism: Norm Internalization

Sanctions also seem to work by reinforcing clearer international norms.

There is a big difference between a real social norm, and merely something that everyone in society pays lip service to. For instance, most highways have a speed limit of 55 miles per hour; but that is not the norm for how fast we drive. Most people drive 5 to 10 miles above the ‘official’ speed limit.

Why? At least in part because no one ever enforces the actual speed limit. The norm tends to get solidified where the punishment kicks in, not where a piece of paper says the norm should be. This also occurs with social norms that are not imposed by the government. Things that our social norms consider rude, are pretty much those things that might get other people to respond to you negatively.

Sanctions, in the broad sense, help to define norms.

Not only that, but when other nations impose sanctions because of the violation of some value, it tends to deepen that value in the sanctioning nations. So, nations that come together to sanction Russia, are likely to have a renewed commitment to certain international norms (if for no other reason than to not look like hypocrites).

So, one way that sanctions seem to work is providing a non-military form of punishment by which international norms are solidified.

This would also explain why sanctions are effective, even if they don’t tend to change behavior after they are imposed. After all, the nations who violate the sanctions tend to also be the ones that don’t care about the norms in the first place. That does not mean the sanctions don’t have an important effect on most other countries, however.

Ukraine, Digital Sanctions, and Double Effect: A Response

image of Putin profile, origami style

Kenneth Boyd recently wrote a piece on the Prindle Post on whether tech companies, in addition to governments, have an obligation to help Ukraine by way of sanctions. Various tech companies and media platforms, such as TikTok and Facebook, are ready sources of misinformation about the war. This calls into question whether imposing bans on such platforms would prove helpful to deter Putin by raising the costs of the invasion of Ukraine and silencing misinformation. It is no surprise, then, that the digital minister of Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, has approached Apple, Google, Meta, Netflix, and YouTube to block Russia from their services in different capacities. These methods would undoubtedly be less effective than financial sanctions, but the question is an important one: Are tech companies permitted or obligated to intervene?

One of the arguments Kenneth entertains against this position is that there could be side effects on the citizens of Russia who do not support the attack on Ukraine. As such, there are bystanders for whom such a move to ban media platforms would cause damage (how will some people reach their loved ones?). While such sanctions are potentially helpful in the larger picture of deterring Putin from continuing acts of aggression, is the potential cost morally acceptable in this scenario? The answer, if no, is a mark against tech and media companies enacting such sanctions.

I want to make two points. First, this question of permissible costs is equally applicable to any government deciding to put sanctions on Russia. When the EU, Canada, U.K., and the U.S. put economic sanctions on Russia’s central bank and involvement in Swift, for instance, this effectively caused a cash run and is likely the beginning of an inflation issue for Russians. This affects all in Russia, spanning from those in the government to the ‘mere civilians,’ including those protesting. As such, this cost must be addressed in the moral deliberation to execute such an act.

Second, the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) helps us see why unintentionally harming bystanders is morally permissible in this scenario (Not, mind you, in the case of innocent bystanders in Ukraine). So long as non-governmental institutions are the kind of entities morally permitted or obligated to respond (a question worth discussing, which Kenneth also raises), DDE applies equally to both the types of institutions in imposing sanctions with possible side effects.

What does the Doctrine of Double Effect maintain? The bumper sticker version is the following from the BBC: “[I]f doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect, it’s ethically OK to do it providing the bad side-effect wasn’t intended. This is true even if you foresaw that the bad effect would probably happen.”

The name, one might guess, addresses the two effects one action produces. This bumper sticker version has considerable appeal. For instance, killing in self-defense falls under this. DDE is also applicable to certain cases of administering medicine with harmful side effects and explains the difference between suicide and self-sacrifice.

A good litmus question is whether and when a medical doctor is permitted to administer a lethal dose of medicine. It depends on the intentions, of course, but the bumper sticker version doesn’t catch whether the patient must be mildly or severely ill, whether there are other available options, etc.

The examples and litmus question should prime the intuitions for this doctrine. The full version of DDE (which the criterion below roughly follows) maintains that an agent may intentionally perform an action that will bring about an evil side effect(s) so long as the following conditions are simultaneously and entirely satisfied:

  1. The action performed must in itself be morally good or neutral;
  2. The good action and effect(s), and not the evil effect, are intended;
  3. The evil effect cannot be the means to achieve the good effect — the good must be achieved as directly (or more directly) than the evil;
  4. There must be a proportionality between the good and the evil, in which the evil is lesser than or equal to the good, which serves as a good reason for the act in question.

One can easily see how this applies to killing in self-defense. While impermissible to kill someone in cold blood or even kill someone who is plotting your own death, it is morally permissible to kill someone in self-defense. This is the case even if one foresees that the act of defense will require lethal effort.

As is evident, DDE does not justify the death of individuals in Ukraine who are unintentionally killed (say, in a bombing). For the very act of untempered aggression is an immoral act and fails to meet the criterion.

Now, apply this criterion to the question of tech companies who may impose sanctions to achieve a certain good and with it, an evil.

What are the relevant goods and evils? In this case, the good is at least that of deterring Putin from further aggression and stopping misinformation. The bad is the consequences upon locals. For instance, the anti-war protestors in Russia who are communicating their situation, and perhaps the individuals who use these media outlets to secure communication with loved ones.

This type of act hits all four marks: the action is neutral, the good effects are the ones intended (presumably this is the case), the evil effects are not the means of achieving this outcome and are no more direct than the good effects, and the good far outweighs the evil caused by this.

That the evil is equal to or less than the good achieved in this scenario might not seem apparent. But consider how the civilians have other means of reaching loved ones, and how news reporters (not only TikTok and Facebook) are still prominent ways to communicate information. These are both goods. And thankfully, they would not be entirely lost because of such potential sanctions.

As should be clear, the potential bad side effects are not a good reason to refrain from imposing media and tech sanctions on Russia. This is not to say that it is therefore a good reason to impose sanctions. All we have done in this case is see how the respective side effects are not sufficient to deter sanctions and how the action meets all four criteria. And this shows that it is morally permissible.

Russia, Ukraine, and Digital Sanctions

image of Putin profile, origami style

Russian aggression towards Ukraine has prompted many responses across the world, with a number of countries imposing (or at least considering imposing) sanctions against Russia. In the U.S., Joe Biden recently announced a set of financial sanctions that would cut off Russian transactions with U.S. banks, and restrict Russian access to components used in high tech devices and weapons. In Canada, Justin Trudeau also announced various sanctions against Russia, and many Canadian liquor stores stopped selling Russian vodka. While some of these measures will likely be more effective than others – not having access to U.S. banks probably stings a bit more than losing the business of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation – there is good reason for governments to impose sanctions as a way to attempt to deter further aggression from Russia.

It is debatable whether the imposition of sanctions by governments is enough (for example, providing aid to Ukraine in some form also seems like something that governments should do), but it certainly seems like something that they should do. If we accept the view that powerful governments have at least some moral obligation to help keep the peace, then sanctioning Russia is something such governments ought to do.

What about corporations? Do they have any such obligations? Companies are certainly within their rights to stop doing business with Russia, or to cut off services they would normally supply, if they see fit. But do the moral obligations that apply to governments apply to private businesses, as well?

Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov may think that they do. He recently asked Apple CEO Tim Cook to stop supplying Apple products to Russia, and to cut off Russian access to the app store. “We need your support,” wrote Fedorov, “in 2022, modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers … and missiles.” Fedorov asked Meta, Google, and Netflix to also stop providing services to Russia, and to ask that Google block YouTube channels that promote Russian propaganda.

It is not surprising why Fedorov singled out tech companies. It has been well-documented that Facebook and YouTube have been major sources of misinformation in the past, and the current conflict between Russian and Ukraine is no exception. There has been a lot said already about how tech companies have obligations to attempt to stem the flow of misinformation on their respective platforms, and in this sense, they clearly have obligations towards Ukraine to make sure that their inactions do not contribute to the proliferation of damaging information.

It is a separate question, though, as to whether a company like Apple ought to suspend its service in Russia as a form of sanction. We can consider arguments on either side.

Consider first an argument in favor: like a lot of other places in the world, many people in Russia rely on the services of companies like Apple, Meta, and Google in their daily lives, as do members of Russia’s government and military. Cutting Russia off from these services would then be disruptive in ways that may be comparable to the sanctions imposed by the governments of other countries (and in some cases could very well be more disruptive). If these companies are in a position to help Ukraine by imposing such digital sanctions, then we might think they ought to.

Indeed, this kind of obligation may stem from a more general obligation to help victims of unjust aggression. For instance, I may have some such obligation: given that I am a moderately well-off Westerner with an interest in global justice, we might think that I should (say) avoid buying Russian products and give money to charities that aid the people of Ukraine. If I were in a position to make a more significant difference – say, if I were the CEO of a large company popular in Russia – we might then think that I should do more, in a way that is proportional to the power and influence I have.

However, we could also think of arguments opposed to the idea that tech companies have obligations to impose digital sanctions. For instance, we might think that corporations are not political entities, and thus have no special obligations when it comes to matters of global politics. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the relationship between corporations and governments; regardless, we still might think that corporations simply aren’t the kinds of things that stand in relationship to governments. These private entities don’t (or shouldn’t) have similar responsibilities to impose sanctions or otherwise help keep the peace.

One might also worry about the effect digital sanctions might have on Russian civilians. For example, lack of access to tech could have collateral damage in the form of preventing groups of protestors from communicating with one another, or from helping debunk propaganda or other forms of misinformation. While many forms of sanctions have indirect impacts on civilians, digital sanctions have immediate and direct impacts that one might think should be avoided.

While some tech companies have already begun taking actions to address misinformation from Russia, whether Fedorov’s request will be granted by tech giants like Apple remains to be seen.

The Venezuela Crisis and National Self-Determination

Photograph of a Venezuelan flag in the foreground and a crowd of protesting people in the background

In January, the political turmoil facing Venezuela escalated when National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of the nation, directly challenging the authority of the recently sworn-in President Nicolás Maduro. This event has further fractured the government of Venezuela, which was divided in 2017 when Maduro formed a new legislature, called the National Constituent Assembly, to compete with the opposition controlled National Assembly. Guaidó has defended his action under Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which allows for such a declaration in the event of a president’s absence or inability to serve. According to Guaidó and other members of Maduro’s opposition, Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent and invalid, leaving Venezuela without a true president.

Alongside these political controversies, an equally serious economic crisis has unfolded. Venezuela’s struggling economy has collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation over the past few years, with the annual inflation rate up to November 2018 reaching 1,300,000 percent. This has caused widespread shortages in food and medical care. The failure of Maduro’s administration to prevent this financial crisis contributed to his low popularity in 2018. Opponents say his desperate grasp for power in the face of a possible election defeat resulted in illegal measures and a rigged election.

Many foreign governments have taken sides in the dispute over the presidency, recognizing either Maduro or Guaidó as the legitimate leader. The United States and most South American countries support Guaidó, whereas Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey support Maduro. The U.S. has also contributed aid in the form of food and essential supplies to ease shortages. While this aid may seem immediately to be beneficial to the Venezuelan people, Maduro has argued that accepting the aid would constitute a fatal blow to the self-determination of the nation. In a speech regarding the aid, Maduro denounced the effort as a ploy to undermine the sovereignty of his government, saying “We are not beggars.” Following this reasoning, the military, which supports Maduro, has blocked the aid shipment from reaching Venezuela.

Is the U.S. aid effort a cover for a more nefarious foreign policy aim? It seems far-fetched, but some people and organizations have lent support to the theory. Notable independent aid organizations, including the Red Cross, have decided not to get involved for fear of politicizing their efforts. Former United Nations special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas has argued vocally against U.S. involvement in Venezuela. According to de Zayas, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Maduro’s government were a major factor in the economic crisis now facing the country. He also claims that the goal of U.S. intervention is not to help the citizens of Venezuela, but rather to gain access to the country’s significant oil reserves. De Zayas was among over 70 academics who signed an open letter to the Trump administration decrying the United States’ involvement in Venezuelan domestic affairs. The current U.N. organization has also made a statement against U.S. sanctions in Venezuela, and the U.N. charter includes “self-determination of peoples” as part of its mission.

It is also important to note that the U.S. has a long and well-documented history of interference in Latin American governments. According to John H. Coatsworth, the U.S. has successfully brought about regime changes at least 41 times, usually to bring about political or economic goals. Although there were many direct interventions, some of the interventions were more indirect. Whether any coup d’états came about because of humanitarian aid is debatable, but Bolivia did expel USAID, the agency providing aid to Venezuela, from its borders after the Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the agency of a conspiracy against the country.

Considering the evidence, it is difficult to determine who is telling the truth. The United States may be genuinely interested in preventing further starvation and disease, or it may be seeking to undermine the Maduro government and install a pro-U.S. regime. Maduro might be working to head off a hostile coup d’état, or he may be clinging to power against the will of people. In all likelihood, each story carries some truth to it, but neither shows the whole picture. Assuming some degree of truthfulness, there is still a salient ethical question of values. In the U.N., Russia and the United States have presented opposing proposals for action; Russia has argued for a non-interventionist policy, while the U.S. argues for the rescuing of human life at all costs. Is human life worth the cost to national self-determination? Aside from the possibility that the lot of Venezuelan citizens would be worse in the long term after taking U.S. aid, is self-determination alone a value worth sacrificing lives for? The starving masses are innocent and probably had nothing to do with any of the political decisions which led to the current situation—do they deserve to die as a result of political forces outside of their control? On the other hand, some would argue that a life without dignity—national or otherwise—would not be worth living.

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International Sanctions: A War of Their Own?

"North Korea - Pyongyang" by (stephan) liscened under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

In the current political climate, it is hard to avoid the topic regarding sanctions. The United States has been recently revising the sanctions it has placed on different countries in the past few years, such as North Korea, Russia, and Cuba. Economic sanctions are penalties or blockades against a targeted country, and are a “foreign policy tool” used when diplomatic relations aren’t as effective as intended. These sanctions can take many forms, such as tariffs, embargos, quotas and asset freezes.

Continue reading “International Sanctions: A War of Their Own?”