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The dark side of economic sanctions

Humanitarian concerns led the US Office of Foreign Assets Control to revise some key elements of Iran’s economic sanctions last month, allowing American companies to export medical supplies to Iran. Medicine shortages have affected an estimated six million Iranians, according to the Center for Research on Globalization.

In a UN report released on October 5, General Secretary Ban Ki Moon said that the sanctions were adversely affecting humanitarian efforts in Iran. “Even companies that have obtained the requisite license to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions,” he wrote.

The story of Western economic sanctions with unintended consequences is quite common. Here’s a list of cases around the world where sanctions tipped the scale against civilians:


Western sanctions responding to Myanmar’s oppressive military regime lasted more than a decade before they were eased this year. Debate continues to surround the long-term sanctions, bringing into question their effects on the country’s poorest people. Many have blamed sanctions for stunting middle class growth and widening Myanmar’s gaping wealth gap.

The Globe and Mail described Myanmar’s situation as one where “the generals play and the people pay,” emphasizing the country’s mismanagement of wealth under international economic pressure. The sanctions have failed to affect the elite, who continue to harness power from the military junta’s powerful legacy. Meanwhile, Myanmar struggles with food shortages and high rates of HIV/AIDS and dengue fever—a result of the mere 0.5 percent of GDP allocation to healthcare. 

Additionally, the “aid boycott” resulting from Western efforts to derecognize Myanmar’s military regime further exacerbated humanitarian problems, a 2005 article from The Irrawaddy reported.


Long-term economic sanctions in Cuba have notoriously played a role in the country’s food shortages. Between 2006 and 2007, US sanctions caused a loss of $258 million in Cuba’s food sector, according to a Global Research study. 

Despite the authorization of US “humanitarian products” such as food and medicine to Cuba in 2000, the embargo continued to make food scarce and unaffordable. Medical supplies were limited for the same reasons. A Lancet Journal article reported that drug prices had a 30 percent surcharge under the embargo. 

North Korea

When Hilary Clinton announced increased US sanctions in North Korea in 2010, she ensured that the measures were not directed at the North Korean people but at the “misguided and malign priorities of their government.” However, as Shaun Rein wrote in a 2010 Forbes op-ed, the tightening of economic sanctions was criticized for doing little to help the country’s ordinary citizens, instead empowering the country’s despotic leader, Kim-Jong Il, by provoking more military muscle-flexing.

In the context of North Korea’s isolation and restricted access to outside media, the leaders continue to use sanctions as a justification for the food shortages and poor infrastructure. “People believe the country is in a bad condition because of outside forces,” Karin Janz, director of Welthungerhilfe’s North Korean branch, said at Beijing’s Foreign Correspondents Club.


In May, UN envoy Navi Pillay urged Western nations to lift economic sanctions in Zimbabwe due to their unintended side effects. Last year, the Herald reported that farmers in Zimbabwe were struggling to secure affordable inputs like fertilizer for their produce and were being shut out of markets.

Accounting for 23 percent of the country’s formal employment, Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector felt the negative impact of sanctions on the economy at large. Pillay blamed the stigmatization of imports and exports as a contributing cause of Zimbabwe’s worsening poverty.

The EU announced in July that it would relax sanctions, which were established more than a decade ago in response to human rights violations, once Zimbabwe holds a credible referendum on a new constitution.  

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