This week, the United States sanctioned the former Sri Lankan navy chief, Adm. Wasantha Karannagoda. Earlier, Canada had sanctioned former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

These listings have been portrayed as measures to enforce human rights. But, in fact, human rights have been a veneer, a fig leaf so to speak, to cover hard-nosed geopolitical objectives.

The history of sanctions clearly demonstrates that the West, particularly the US, uses sanctions as an instrument of geopolitics to browbeat weak and dependent nations and cripple leaders who would not bend to the American will.

Sanctions are not applied against strong countries or strong leaders who are pro-US. For example, the US will not sanction Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for human rights violations because he is now a powerful, pro-US leader. Earlier, when he was a provincial leader (Chief Minister of Gujarat), the US had no problem about barring his entry into the US for alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat killings.

The sanctioning power would not punish its own citizens who had committed war crimes abroad.

The UK had tried to bring legislation to prevent its troops from being dragged to courts in “vexatious” litigations. Eventually, under pressure from rights groups, that move was abandoned.

The US had been a major violator of human rights in Afghanistan. But it had threatened to arrest and sanction judges and other officials of the International Criminal Court (ICCC) if they moved to charge any American who served in Afghanistan with war crimes.

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton had called the ICC "unaccountable" and "outright dangerous" to the United States, Israel and other allies. He said that the US was prepared to slap financial sanctions and criminal charges on officials of the court if they proceeded against any Americans.

“We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the US financial system, and we will prosecute them in the US criminal system,” he fumed. "We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans."

Actually, Canada sanctioned the Rajapaksa brothers and the US blacklisted Adm.Karannagoda not for the reasons stated (war crimes) but for not letting the separatist Tamil Tigers off the hook in the crucial final phase of the war in Sri Lanka as per the West’s wish. And after the war, they had brazenly invited China to take the lead in infrastructural development worth billions of dollars.

Likewise, the US sanctioned top officers of the Bangladesh anti-terrorist outfit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), not for extrajudicial killings and disappearances, as claimed, but because Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was accommodative toward China. She had refused to be bullied into joining the Indo-Pacific anti-China line-up “Quad”.

Both the Rajapaksas and the RAB were assessed only from the US foreign policy angle in total disregard of their role in ridding their countries of terrorism and separatism (and drug running and Islamic radicalism in the case of Bangladesh).

The Rajapaksas took the Canadian sanctions in their stride, perhaps given Sri Lanka’s dependence on the West for the IMF bailout. But the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen summoned the US Ambassador Earl Miller and delivered a protest about the sanctioning of RAB.

The sanction against Bangladesh came in for adverse comment in the US itself. Derek Grossman, national security and Indo-Pacific analyst at RAND Corporation and Michael Kugelman, South Asia Senior Associate at the Wilson Center, viewed the US action “in the context of strategic competition against China,” and noted that the Biden administration had not been happy about Dhaka’s growing ties with China.

In an unprecedented step against geopolitical rival Russia, which had invaded Western ally Ukraine, the US and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions. These included, cutting off economic and trade links, seizing Russian assets, and blocking Russians from global payment systems like SWIFT, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard. Sanctions made Russia’s Central Bank struggle to support the rouble.

The long term goal of sanctioning Russia is to overthrow the recalcitrant Vladimir Putin and to prevent Russia from being a global challenger to the hegemony of the US and its allies.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague has also become an instrument of Western hegemonic politics. Since the inception of the ICC, Africans have been brought to trial, predominantly. None from the West. In protest against such anti-African bias, Burundi left the ICC and the Kenyan parliament voted to leave it in 2013. South Africa threatened to quit.

“The fundamental problem is that the court is operating in a world that is unequal politically and economically,” James Goldston, a former attorney in the ICC prosecutor’s office, was quoted as saying.

Do sanctions deliver the goods? Mostly not, says Daniel W.Drezner in a piece entitled: The United States of Sanctions: The Use and Abuse of Economic Coercion in Foreign Affairs (Sept-Oct 2021).

Sri Lanka’s ideas or policies on human rights have not changed as a consequence of sanctions because the existing policies have the approval of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, and because these policies are considered necessary for the survival of Sri Lanka as a single entity.

In the case of Bangladesh too, the sanctions did not lead to any change in policy because Sheikh Hasina’s political clout has been based on her merciless action against drug peddlers, drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists, actions which are necessary for law and order and economic development.

Globally too, sanctions have not worked, though they have been the most often used tool of US foreign policy. Daniel Drezner points out that during President Barack Obama’s first term, the US designated an average of 500 entities for sanctions per year, for reasons ranging from human rights abuses to nuclear proliferation to violations of territorial sovereignty. That nearly doubled during Donald Trump’s presidency. President Biden imposed new sanctions against Myanmar, Nicaragua and Russia.

Drezner says that economic sanctions have hurt the targeted countries but have not broken them. But this is not grasped by the US leadership. A 2019 Government Accountability Office study concluded that not even the federal government knew if sanctions were working.

“The truth is that Washington’s fixation with sanctions has little to do with their efficacy and everything to do with something else: American decline. No longer an unchallenged superpower, the United States can’t throw its weight around the way it used to. In relative terms, its military power and diplomatic influence have declined.

“Two decades of war, recession, polarization, and now a pandemic, have dented American power. Frustrated US presidents are left with fewer arrows in their quiver, and they are quick to reach for the easy, available tool of sanctions,” Drezner says.

Sanctions have hurt the US too, but the US is oblivious to this.

“Sanctions strain relations with allies, antagonize adversaries, and impose economic hardship on innocent civilians. Thus, sanctions not only reveal American decline but accelerate it too.

“To make matters worse, the tool is growing duller by the year. Future sanctions are likely to be even less effective,” Drezner predicts.

Sanctioned countries attract sympathy and material help. China and India came to sanctioned Russia’s rescue. China will help Sri Lanka and India will not give up its policy of wooing Sri Lanka, irrespective of US sanctions. Geopolitics is the determining factor.