Argument: Sanctions violate the principle of just war

Issue Report: Ending US sanctions on Cuba


  • Philip Peters. “U.S. Sanctions Against Cuba: A Just War Perspective”. Lexington Institute. Aug 5, 2006 – “These new sanctions brought to mind an article that historian Luis Aguilar, my former professor at Georgetown University and a university classmate of Fidel Castro, wrote in El Nuevo Herald in 1999 as Congress began to consider legislation to allow food sales to Cuba. In the article, “Reevaluando el embargo,” Professor Aguilar argued through an analogy that the embargo may have lost its practical and moral justification:
… it is possible to defend the bombing of a town, if this hard punishment succeeds in weakening or defeating an enemy. But if it is demonstrated that the bombardment, or any such action, is hurting the people but is far from weakening the military power of the enemy, it would be necessary to stop the attack and resort to other methods.”
Without citing Just War theory, Professor Aguilar was making clear reference to this body of thought by focusing on two of its standards. First is one of the theory’s standards for judging the decision to wage war (jus ad bellum), that the party may only reach that decision in a just manner if it has a clear prospect of success. Infliction of endless suffering, even in a just cause, is not a justifiable use of force. Second is one of the standards for judging jus in bello, or just means of waging war, which holds that a warring party has an obligation to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants in its use of force.
While the United States is using economic sanctions and not military force against Cuba, I argue that its actions can fairly be evaluated under Just War standards for two reasons.
First, while economic sanctions are often used to exert an intermediate level of pressure that falls between diplomatic statements and the use of force, the aim of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba is equal to that of an armed conflict: to bring an end to a foreign government. The Administration does not apply the term “regime change” to its Cuba policy, but it clearly aims to change Cuba’s political order — to “hasten the end of the dictatorship in Cuba,” in Secretary Rice’s words. When the commission’s 2004 report was released, the State Department announced that when Cuban President Fidel Castro leaves office, the United States “will not accept a succession scenario,” and “there will not be a succession” from one socialist government to another — two clear signals that the aim of the policy is to interrupt the process set forth in Cuba’s socialist constitution. And in specific regard to the 2004 family sanctions, a State Department official noted:
‘What is important to remember is that these are a means to an end: the end of the Castro dictatorship.’
Second, while U.S. sanctions affect the finances of the Cuban government, they also affect the welfare of Cuban citizens who are ‘noncombatants’ — they are targeted by the sanctions because they live in Cuba, not because they have a specific affiliation with the Cuban government. While U.S. sanctions are ultimately intended to change the Cuban government’s behavior, the 2004 family sanctions in the first instance target family welfare, and use that impact as leverage to attempt to change Cuban government behavior.”