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Help or hinderance? Targeted network sanctions during Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has brought social issues to the fore of everyone’s mind, but none more so than isolation. For the first time, millions of people are having to get use to the idea of being cut off from the rest of the society. But for some, the notion of being isolated is not a new reality.

The plight of Iran has made stark the effectiveness of sanctions, and the impact they have on public services. There is no doubt that US financial pressure has hindered Iran’s ability to combat the Covid-19 outbreak there.

Designed to inflict maximum pressure, sanctions have been imposed on the regime for decades. They target the military, the nuclear industry, the energy sector, banking institutions, shipping and insurance, amongst others. In October, Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, reported on how they have crippled the health sector. There is a reasonable moral argument for these to be eased.

But calling for a blanket rollback ignores the specificities of the issue at hand. There are two forms of economic sanctions: comprehensive, like we see with Iran, North Korea and Venezuela; and targeted networks. These are distinct methods of achieving vastly different outcomes.

The case for targeted network sanctions has never been stronger. These refer to those that freeze the assets of individuals or networks engaging in illegal activity. In Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, sanctions imposed do not target the populations at large, merely those that have abused their positions for political and financial gain.

In Uganda, for example, Kale Kayihura, the former Inspector General of Police, was added to the US State Department’s list, for “using corruption and bribery to strengthen his political position, as units under his command committed serious human rights abuses”. Similarly, Paul Makonda, a top official in Tanzania, was sanction in February for launching a surveillance squad designed to hunt gay people. Kenya’s former attorney general, Amos Wako, has also had his name added, after being involved in “significant” corruption during his tenure.

These men have been targeted in an attempt to crush the systemic graft that exists across East Africa. They are designed to stop them looting the public purse, so as to shield others from their nefarious actions.

Transparency International, a charity, estimates that corruption within the global health sector costs US$500bn a year. That’s greater than what the cost of universal health coverage would be. The International Red Cross, who led the fight against Ebola in West Africa, believe that over US$6m of their assistance was lost during that time, needlessly wasting life.

Of course, careful consideration must be undertaken during times like these. Hilary Mossberg, an anti-money laundering specialist at The Sentry, an investigative policy team set up by American actor George Clooney, highlights the danger of unintended consequences. She writes that “governments should be mindful about imposing new financial tools at this time to ensure the free flow of medical equipment”. But that should not put a stop to ongoing investigations.

Targeted network sanctions should not have any negative effect on a country’s ability to combat the coronavirus. On the contrary, there is a strong suggestion they will improve it. A robust response to graft within the health sector will save lives, and could play a larger role in deterring more widespread corruption beyond the pandemic. A blanket rollback would undermine the work already done in this field, and could cause a significant slide back to the status quo.


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