Archive: January, 1996

Critical Dialogue versus Sanctions

Instruments of International Politics – Critical Dialogue versus Sanctions:

The Role of the United Nations Reconsidered

Mohamed Beshir Hamid


Paper presented to the Bertelsman Foundation and Munich University Workshop Project on Critical Dialogue and Economic Sanctions, Munich, Germany, 1996





The post-Cold War period has seen the emergence of a number of approaches that seek to reexamine some of the strategies for international security and organization in the light of the transformation taking place in the international system. The renewed focus on a dialogue approach can be seen as a reaction to the increased multilateral and unilateral recourse to the sanctions regime. But while sanctions raise difficult questions in terms of practical application as well as of tensions with humanitarian concerns, the European critical dialogue is conceptually vague to the point of abstraction. The experience of economic sanctions demonstrates the need, first, to balance the humanitarian implications of sanctions with their expected political gains and, second, to avoid obscuring their explicit political goals with implicit agenda. Since there is no consensus on an alternative to economic sanctions, the challenge is how to refine them to reduce their negative impacts. In this context, the dialogue approach can come into play as a complement of, rather than a counterpoint to, the sanctions approach. The goal should be not to inflict collective punishment but to signal international censure in a process of gradual and limited application that places more premium on incentives than on coercion. Such a combined sanctions-and-dialogue approach might more readily bring about the desired changes of behavior by reinforcing recognition of mutual interests in observing international norms and in reintegrating the sanctioned state. This international reintegration, in turn, might encourage a similar process of internal reintegration. But just as the sanctions approach needs to be precisely clear in determining its target and goals, a dialogue policy should be unambiguous in defining its means and objectives. The focus of this dual process must be on its multilateral and not unilateral application. The United Nations constitutes a comprehensive forum that facilitates both dialogue and sanctions and provides the legitimating authority to endow the combined approach with political and moral force. But the tensions arising from new power realities and relations can no longer be effectively contained by Cold War security arrangements. For the international community to meet these challenges, the United Nations has to be reformed to make it more democratic and representative and more effective in transmitting its constitutive norms. The process of restructuring the emergent power relations of the new international order would likely be less disruptive if it is placed within the context of reforming the UN system.

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