Sanctioning Sanctions

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective
February 15, 2001

I cannot understand why the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) is so exercised and seeking to prevent the imposition of sanctions against the government of Liberia for the reasons that the United Nations Security Council's Panel of Experts have documented. Did ECOWAS not know that there was going to be actions taken against Liberia based upon the report to the UN Security Council? Of course I have some ideas about the next line of argument that normally follows such maneuvers.

If my suspicions hold up, ECOWAS will soon invoke the ''African problems need African solutions'' axiom that has kept many a guilt-stricken Western nation out of African troubles and therefore allowed African-on-African violence to fester. It was, however, Charles Taylor whose action, as a rebel leader seeking power in Liberia, brought out the ECOWAS experiment called Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) which, instead, functioned mainly as witnesses to violence - if they were not being a part of it. To that end the West African nation of Burkina Faso was able to pick up Liberian power generating plants and ship them back home to electrify Ouagadougou.

Today, Liberians, in total darkness, have called for sanctions against their own government as a cheaper way of pressuring President Taylor to stop violence both in Liberia and in countries where he is currently exporting it. But suddenly the sanctions being urged by Great Britain and the United States - and already debated by the UN Security Council - must wait for some West African review which has a built-in opportunity for Taylor to act to contravene the same sanctions.

It will perhaps be up to ECOWAS to determine what token actions by Taylor will meet its test of sufficiency in forestalling the sanctions. It makes you wonder whether the ECOWAS Foreign Ministers understand that sanctions are not an end, but a means to an end that is not yet in sight. If we are stuck on getting sanctions started, when will we ever hope for an end that sanctions were meant to facilitate?

The loot out of the war zones among Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and Guinea radiates throughout West Africa even before it reaches the world market in exchange for arms to keep the conflict alive. It is therefore worth wondering whether those who are now calling for some cooling-off period have not been paid to sing that line. We must remember that though the focus is on Liberian crooks, West African thieves are mostly in high places in their respective home governments.

That brings me to what exactly sanctions are. English has a terrible word for these synchronized actions that the United Nations Security Council is threatening against the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor. But though ''sanctions'' is an inadequate word, it is a good idea when other forms of persuasion have failed. Sanctions are a collection of penalties for forcing compliance with moral authorities. But sanctions have never yielded immediate results. They were never meant to. Sanctions also have a history of failing. But this happens only when there is no full agreement within the international community about the need to apply them against a certain country.

By all those indications, the government of President Charles Taylor of Liberia is an ideal system against which sanctions are likely to achieve their desired effects. Now, one of the first things sanctions will do is contain the government of President Charles Taylor right there within Liberia. This means government officials will not be able to travel to other countries. When that happens, the foreign nationals upon whom President Taylor depends to carry out the illicit deals that bring him extra money will be more inclined to cheat Taylor in those deals, if they are carried out at all. In that case, Taylor will lose the control he used to exercise through his own travel and the dispatch of his many officials abroad to milk their contacts.

Another thing that sanctions will do is cut off trade. Not just illicit trade, but also some transactions that look clean on the surface. Trade in timber, for instance, is arguably legal, but once hit with sanctions, it will go the way of diamonds stolen from Sierra Leone. This means that President Taylor will not be able to meet his big payroll for those who maintain his security forces and supply them with arms for intimidating citizens. If Taylor cannot pay those he has armed, there is no telling what might enter into their minds. Whatever it is, it will certainly worry Taylor.

But just because the international community has applied sanctions against Liberia does not mean that Taylor will skip a meal. However, even as Taylor gets to eat what he wants, the United Nations will make sure that there is at least the same unattractive food choices that Liberians have gotten accustomed to in refugee camps -- wheat, soybeans, etc. We still will not have electricity in Liberia, but there will also be no point in cutting down the Liberian forests because there will be no market for Liberian timber.

While the sanctions are in place, the United Nations may help our kids with school materials and salaries for teachers to teach them. Books and other educational supplies are usually not attractive targets for attentive thieves looking for things to convert into cash. So Taylor's security forces may not steal books or take them at gunpoint. That will give us enough time to plant the seed of knowledge in the heads of enough of our children to give ourselves something on which to pin some hope.

President Taylor has already shown - by his unusual concern about the sanctions and his apparent willingness to try another bag of tricks to see if he can produce an appearance of compliance with international law and order - that sanctions are among the few things that will get his attention. Taylor's aim, however, is to hoard Sierra Leonean and Liberian wealth to pay for adventures throughout West Africa. But now that we've got his attention, who knows? We may scare Taylor enough to get him to leave office. And that's the chief aim of these sanctions, even though Taylor thinks we want to get him to sign another agreement to buy him time for another couple years of mischief.

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