Promoting Human Rights through sanctions? The Case of Burma

Seminar Paper, 2010

16 Pages, Grade: 1.3




1 Human rights as a subject of foreign policy
1.1 From a domestic to an international issue
1.2 The universalism of human rights
1.3 Enhancing a self-image and domestic factors
1.4 Summary

2. Economic sanctions as foreign policy instruments
2.1 Modes of sanctions –a definition
2.2 Purpose of sanctions
2.3 What factors make sanctions succeed or fail?
2.4 The use of sanctions to expedite human rights

3. The case of Burma
3.1. The human rights situation in Burma
3.2 Burma policies –between sanctions and aid
3.3 What has Western sanctions policy accomplished so far?
3.4 Possible explanations for its failure
3.5 Alternative approaches




Since the end of the Cold War a new option in the decision on how to respond to threats to state security and freedom has gained popularity in foreign policy: economic sanctions. This middle course between military intervention and inaction has assumed an increasingly prominent role in many countries. The United States used sanctions against Haiti, Yugoslavia, Lybia and Iraq;[1] the list of countries on which UN sanctions have been imposed includes embargoes against Al Quaeda, Iran, Liberia, North Korea and several more.[2] With the emergence of an increasing demand for human rights by governments and institutions, sanctions have become a popular instrument to underscore and pressure for human rights claims.

Economic sanctions have been imposed on the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma/Birma[3], for more than 20 years[4], so based on this case, the question arises what economic coercion in the form of sanctions can achieve and has been able to achieve so far.

In the following paper, I will discuss that sanctions are only of limited use when it comes to the promotion of human rights and that they are not appropriate means in the campaign for democracy and human rights in Burma. I will illustrate this thesis by first looking at the status of human rights in foreign policy and look into the motives of Western states and institutions to internationally promote human rights. Subsequently, I will discuss the theory of the forms and the potential of sanctions. The last step will apply this theory to the situation of Burma: What have sanction policies accomplished so far and what are their deficiencies? Finally, I will take a look at alternative approaches to improve the human rights situation in Burma.

1 Human rights as a subject of foreign policy

During the past decades the term human rights has been used to justify a series of foreign policy acts, including the sentencing of sanctions[5], however there are several reasons why states and supranational organizations have an interest in promoting human rights in the first place. In the following, I will not address the question of why it was possible for various human right mechanisms to emerge at all, seeing that many International Relations theories fail to explain this development without gap, but rather look into the issue of why states and supranational organizations choose to monitor and promote human rights in other states as part of their foreign policies.

1.1 From a domestic to an international issue

After the occurrences in World War II, non-governmental groups and human rights activists called for an institutionalization of human rights on an international level. Until the late 1940s human rights were predominantly seen as a matter of domestic policy. This changed with the proclamation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Based on this document and the aligned binding conventions, an international human rights agenda was able to expand. The adoption of an international human rights declaration resulted in the (almost) world-wide perception of human rights as an “international responsibility”[6]. This meant that the international public and policy makers made efforts to create regional human rights mechanisms and binding conventions. The process was decisively supported and expedited by non-governmental actors, however, the result of this development were a number of human rights instruments and the generally observable supportive attitudes of states towards human rights institutions and human rights themselves.[7]

1.2 The universalism of human rights

The idea of natural rights can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment. The concept of human rights as the rights to which all human beings are equally entitled by the existence of human dignity, as we know it today, is a universalist concept. It is based on the assumption that there are undisputable moral standards that make it imperative to implement and protect human rights for all individuals with their ethnicity having no impact on this.

Among scholars it is seen with skepticism that it is mainly Western states that cling to the belief that human rights are absolute moral truths and generally do not accept alternative approaches to human rights. Among others, Anthony Langlois criticized the imperial attitude which is implied by such a universalist human rights idea.[8] One can however argue, like Dilys M. Hill, that it is a fact and an important justification for human rights that they are founded on fundamental moral principles that are undeniable. He states that “some kind of human rights policy has to continue; and it has to have a universal dimension”[9] in order to be accepted.

1.3 Enhancing a self-image and domestic factors

David Forsythe[10] suggests that many states turn their attention to human rights in order to convey a certain national self-image. Such a self-image can be part of a country’s political culture and is closely connected with the actions that are taken by governments in international relations. In this spirit, the United States see themselves, for instance, as a nation that sets an example for freedom and a precursor in the fight against oppression. The dominant image of the Netherlands is formed by “a special history of support for international law and free trade in peaceful international relations”.[11]

The strong position of the European Union on human rights promotion can, at least to a great extent, be ascribed to the will to construct a moral identity on the world stage. In order to build an identity in international politics, the EU has made human rights a crucial part of its development policy and its foreign policy in general since 1991. The topic of human rights dominates the EU’s political dialogue and creates a basis for support and sanctions for other states.[12]

Additionally to thoughts about a nation’s self-image, national domestic factors are taken into the consideration of a states’ foreign policy for human rights. This means that governments are more likely to engage in the protection of human rights if this is backed by general public opinion. Polls indicate that costly interventionary protection is in most cases not endorsed by the public; it is therefore improbable that states will intervene if such a situation arises as they would then incur material expenses and risk public discontent.[13]

1.4 Summary

We can conclude that there are different explanations as to why states engage in the promotion and protection of human rights. The self-interest to perpetuate a situation without conflicts and war in order to protect one’s own country can mainly be outlined by liberal theory. The point that international engagement is motivated by rational decisions balancing the costs of a negative internal and external image with material expenses of intervention fits in the liberal argument as well. Constructivists may instead stress the moral argumentation that states promote human rights as a logically appropriate action.

2. Economic sanctions as foreign policy instruments

Economic sanctions are rapidly becoming one of the major tools of international governance of the post-Cold War era. […] Sanctions seem to lend themselves well to international governance.[14]

As stated in the quote above, sanctions appear to have become a popular instrument in foreign policy. This chapter intends to look at the expectations that policy makers have when applying economic sanctions.

2.1 Modes of sanctions –a definition

“The term ‘economic sanctions’ encompasses the deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations.”[15] Economic sanctions are boycotts, trade restrictions and embargoes that are imposed on a nation in order to punish unacceptable actions; mostly behavior against the democratic values, i.e. which violate human rights. Restricting economic interaction is regarded as ‘less grave’ and less costly than military intervention, but yet shows more engagement than mere diplomacy.[16] Sanctions can either be imposed by one actor (unilateral) or by multiple countries cooperating in order to achieve a common goal (multilateral).

Economic sanctions can be realized in several ways: Trade sanctions delimitate or prohibit export and import; penalties can be incurred for the delivery of production factors by private companies. Financial sanctions aim at interrupting the cash flow in and out of a country by cutting off aid assistance and loans. Alternative creditors, such as private banks and investors, will either consider the risk of supporting the concerned state too high or raise their interest rates. Further sanctions can include the denial of visas and entry permits to citizens of a country.[17]


[1] cf. Selden, Zachary A. (1999): Economic sanctions as instruments of American foreign policy. Westport, Conn. u.a.: Praeger: 3

[2] UN Sanctions on Specific Countries. Available at:

[3] The government changed the name from Burma into Myanmar in 1968. In the following, I will stick with the name ‘Burma’ as this term is predominantly used in most literature in the English language.

[4] The US ban on arms exports was set in place in 1988.

[5] cf. Schmitz, Hans-Peter, und Kathryn Sikkink (2002): “International Human Rights.” In Handbook of International Relations. Sage Pubn Inc: 527

[6] Hehir, J. Bryan (1994): “Trade & human rights.” Commonweal 121(12): 10

[7] cf. Schmitz/Sikkink (2002): 524f.

[8] cf. Langlois, Anthony J. (2001): The Politics of Justice and Human Rights: Southeast Asia and Universalist Theory. Cambridge University Press.

[9] Hill, Dilys M. (1989): Human rights and foreign policy. Basingstoke et al.: Macmillan: 19

[10] cf. Forsythe, David (2000): Human rights and comparative foreign policy. Tokyo, New York: United Nations Univ. Press.

[11] Forsythe (2000): 2f.

[12] cf. Williams, Andrew (2004): EU Human Rights Policies: A Study in Irony. Oxford University Press: 193-205

[13] cf. Forsythe (2000): 4ff.


[15] Elliott, Kimberly Ann et al.: “Sanctions.” In The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Liberty Fund Inc. Available at:

[16] Gordon (1999): 1

[17] Hefeker, Carsten, and Karl Wolfgang Menck (2002): Wie wirkungsvoll sind Sanktionen? Das Beispiel Sudafrika. AgEcon Search: 11

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Promoting Human Rights through sanctions? The Case of Burma
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Candy Warpole (Author), 2010, Promoting Human Rights through sanctions? The Case of Burma, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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