Economic sanctions have been referred to as a blunt instrument that the international community has often wielded without full consideration of the impact that these measures will have on the population of the targeted countries, particularly the weakest elements of society. Case studies of sanctions against Cuba, Iraq, and Yugoslavia have demonstrated the impact that sanctions can have on the availability of food, clean water, and medicine, causing many to conclude that all sanctions have extensive public health consequences. In this article, we examine the generalizability of these conclusions in a quantitative cross-national study of sanctions and their public health effects. Additionally, we compare these effects to those associated with both civil and interstate conflicts as critics have recently suggested that sanctions are not a humane alternative to armed warfare. We find that when sanctions have a large economic effect on the target they can have severe public health consequences. These consequences are substantively similar to those associated with major military conflicts. However, when sanctions have little or no economic effect on the target, they also have no substantive effect on public health. Building on recent work to explore the human consequences of war, this work also helps to demonstrate the importance of smart sanctions and humanitarian exemptions in sanctions policy.
Economic Sanctions: A Blunt Instrument?