Empowerment of victims of economic sanctions
by Elias Davidsson (2004)
It has been observed that victims of gross human rights violations, require a long recovery time to feel sufficiently confident to assert their rights that had been violated in the past.
This is due to the traumatic, sometimes indelible, effects of such violations not only upon the health of victims, but on their self-perception.1 Victims of gross human rights violations are thus often doubly victimized: First by being stripped of their substantive rights and secondly by having internalized a feeling of personal failure and powerlessness. A humanitarian approach to victims of gross human rights violations further aggravates their self-perception and undermines their sense of dignity.
In order to redress the situation in which victims of gross human rights violations find themselves, a need exists to exorcise the reluctance of victims to recognize their rights.2 This is done by a firm and unambigious assertion and support of their rights.
Assertion of rights does not necessarily mean legal action. It is first of all a process: Defeating victims‘ apathy, demoralisation, fear, meekness, self-blame or despair and replacing such attitudes with a conscious assertion of one’s human dignity. This process of empowerment is essentially that of healing. Danieli (1992) proposes the „[r]eestablishment of the victims‘ equality of value, power, esteem (dignity), the basis of reparation in the society or nation.“3
The barbarians of the Third Reich understood how human dignity can help individuals withstand torture and oppression. Conversely one of the most effective means to oppress a population is to demoralise it, impress upon it a sense of total powerlessness and undermine any attempts at solidarity between its members. Frantz Fanon described in a magistral way how peoples under colonial rule internalized colonisers‘ views of themselves. Their self-deprecation disabled them from asserting their universal humanity, the first step to liberation. Liberation from colonialism began when colonized individuals began to assert their rights and free themselves from their own mental imprisonment.
Leaders of sanctioned countries generally place the blame of the harmful effects of economic sanctions on the „outsiders“ who impose these sanctions. By doing so, they help defeat a sense of powerlessness and contribute to the phenomenon of „rally around the flag“, an often observed consequence of economic sanctions against non-democratic countries. A sense of despair can however be observed among intellectuals in sanctioned countries who see through their government‘s posturings and the callousness of the „international community.“ When the oppressive domestic regime is removed, a sense of powerlessness would typically extend to the more popular segments of the population. At that point no charismatic leader is present to deflect popular resentment to external actors: Each one is left to his or her own devices.
A humanitarian approach to victims of economic sanctions, such as the provision of donations and relief, may be based on genuine compassion and prompted by urgent material needs. In the case of natural calamities, accidents or temporary unrest, humanitarian assistance is bothnecessary and generally well received by the victims. The case is different in the case of protracted economic sanctions. Nobody wants to be treated to any length of time as a recipient of charity. When whole nations are treated as relief recipients, such a policy undermines both individual and collective assertion.
The above lines are not meant as a critique of the invaluable contribution by organizations whose mandate is specifically humanitarian, such as the ICRC or Oxfam.
An approach to economic sanctions based on the principle of solidarity with the victims and on norms of human rights may include humanitarian dimensions but should equally include elements of empowerment, such as asserting the rights of the victims. Among such rights figure particularly an entitlement to effective remedies for the unjustified harm they have suffered and which was caused by others.
1 See for example Danieli (1992), pp. 196-213, in Seminar on the Right to Restitution… (Van Boven B45)
2 We assume here that empowerment strategies of victims of gross human rights violations are not totally blocked by
3 Danieli (1992), p. 211