Posted on August 03, 1998 in Washington Watch

The U.S. Senate put the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (FRPA) on indefinite hold last week. As a result of this action, the legislation, which only one month ago seemed almost certain to become law (it had overwhelmingly passed the Congress 375 –41), will not be voted on in the Senate this year. If it had passed both houses and been signed into law, the FRPA might have resulted in some form of sanctions being imposed against over 70 countries that have been found by the U.S. State Department to restrict religious freedoms.

The decision to terminate action on the FRPA is due to a growing anti sanctions movement that has been gaining ground in the Untied States. This movement began in late June with President Clinton’s remarks in a press interview. The President observed, “we seem to have gotten sanctions happy…we’re in danger of looking like we want to sanction everybody who disagrees with us.”

Next came the introduction of anti-sanction legislation sponsored by two of the Congresses’ more respected foreign policy experts, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), and Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN). The Lugar-Hamilton bill proposes to severely limit the use of sanctions by introducing several restrictions on all such efforts. The bill would mandate a presidential waiver provision for all sanctions programs; it would automatically limit the duration of future sanction efforts to two years; before sanctions could be introduced, a preparatory study would be required demonstrating impact and alternatives; and it will be required, before sanctions could be imposed that the precise objectives of the sanctions be defined.

In arguing for his legislation, Senator Lugar noted that there is a sanctions “epidemic” that must be stopped. The United States, he noted, has used sanctions 115 times in the past 80 years–61 of them have been imposed in the past five years alone. The Congress has passed four new sanctions bills already this year and is currently considering six more.

Congressman Hamilton commenting on this bill noted that the widespread use of sanctions by the United States was alienating many U.S. allies. “Our allies,” wrote Hamilton, “bristle at what they see as an overbearing–even domineering–style.”

This combined push by the President and these senior members of Congress has spawned a number of articles and editorials in major U.S. papers decrying “sanctions addiction” and calling for a “more reasonable, less hysterical” approach to foreign policy.

One analysis published in the Washington Post demonstrated that “more than one half of the world’s population are currently subjected to U.S.-imposed sanctions. Of the 25 countries under the most stringent sanctions, noted in the article, five are Arab (Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia), three others are Muslim countries (Iran, Indonesia, and Pakistan), eight are sub-Saharan African and seven are Asian.

The authors of the article agreed with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who noted recently that “sanctions rarely work.” In fact most recent commentaries on this subject have found only one clear-cut instance where sanctions have produced real change–South Africa. In fact, the analysts continue, when applied unilaterally, economic sanctions can backfire. Today U.S. imposed sanctions have cost the U.S. economy $20 billion in exports and a loss of 200,000 jobs. It is for this reason that major U.S. businesses have become vocal opponents against sanctions.

A number of other factors have combined to spur this growing anti-sanctions effort.

The White House has become increasingly frustrated with the difficulty they encounter each year in attempting to renew Most Favored Nation (MFN) status for China. The White House and businesses fear that the United States might end up excluding itself from major markets resulting from: the automatic U.S. sanctions (required by U.S. law) against India and Pakistan; the inflexible and controversial congressional legislation imposing penalties on our allies who trade with Iran and Cuba; and the fear of international backlash if the FRPA were to pass. In general, there is a growing concern that a variety of ideological groups have been able to use the Congress to pursue their narrow agendas and to force the United States into an isolationist stance through the use of sanctions.

Now that the tide has begun to turn, it can be hoped that a more reasoned debate can take place on the use of sanctions. One must not, however, underestimate the difficulties ahead. Advocates of sanctions representing a diverse set of issues and causes, are often times imbued with a moral self-righteousness and have won powerful congressional allies. Cuban-Americans, for example, will continue to press hard against Castro and pro-Israel groups will continue to seek to punish Iraq, Iran, and Libya, while the fundamentalist right wing will continue to press hard against Sudan and China. All of these groups represent powerful constituencies that are organized into strong voter blocs in some key states. Their presence will, therefore, not be easily overcome.

What is important, though, is for the first time in recent years these narrow ideological groups have some vocal opposition in both political parties. In an unprecedented move, for example, over 35 Democratic members of Congress have written to the President urging reconsideration of the sanctions against Iraq.

The Republican Party, which has always been viewed as the party of big business, has become, in recent years, a captive of the Christian right wing. These ties led the party to support extreme anti-business sanctions bills. Now, with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), outspoken against “sanctions addiction,” the fight within the Republican Party has begun.

It is not clear what the outcome of this debate will be. The battles over sanctions will probably continue into the next session of Congress. But what is certain is that just as the FRPA was buried last week, the efforts to impose new sanctions will no longer be automatic or easy.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus