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It was disheartening to see General Colin Powell use the occasion of his nomination as U.S. secretary of state to speak so glowingly about the use of sanctions against Iraq. Apparently he hasn't read all the reports pointing out that such sanctions don't work.

Gen. Powell is keen to "re-energize" sanctions put in place a decade ago that still have not achieved their goal of toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. And in those 10 years, the world has seen the terrible toll sanctions have had on ordinary Iraqis, while Mr. Hussein still thrives.

Yet, Mr. Powell appeared convinced in his first remarks to the media that the only way to punish Mr. Hussein and rid the world of his "evil technologies" was to continue with a policy that clearly has not worked.

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"We're doing this to protect the peoples of the region, the children of the region, who would be the targets of these weapons of mass destruction if we didn't contain them and get rid of them," he insisted.

Before Mr. Powell goes too much further down this path, he should read a paper recently released by the C.D. Howe Institute called Financial Sanctions: A Better Way to Target Rogue Regimes (available at http://www.cdhowe.org ). Written by Samuel Porteous, it draws together much of the recent work on sanctions.

If he doesn't have time to read the entire work, he can skip to the conclusions.

Mr. Porteous recommends that governments abandon the current blunderbuss approach and use measures that specifically target the financial assets of dictators and those of the people who keep them in power.

The efficacy of sanctions is being questioned now because of mounting proof that they do not work. In the past 10 years, the United Nations has approved measures against a variety of regimes ranging from comprehensive sanctions against Iraq and Haiti to arms embargoes in Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

There are two main criticisms against the comprehensive sanctions: The people hardest hit tend to be ordinary civilians who suffer when the economy is crippled or food is in short supply; and there is no effective monitoring and enforcement taking place to ensure the sanctions are upheld.

What can and does happen is that the elite in a country are still able to purchase the goods they need, often from sanctions busters, while ordinary people are left to their own devices.

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In his paper, Mr. Porteous said the devastating humanitarian impact of sanctions often gives rise to sympathy for the country involved that leads to further sanctions busting.

The UN Security Council imposed sanctions against Iraq in August, 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. The sanctions prohibited the export of all commodities and products from Iraq and the sale and supply of all products and commodities, including weapons and military equipment, as well as the transfer of funds, to Iraq. These were amended several times over the last decade, the most important amendment being the oil-for-food formula which allowed Iraq to export oil to pay for food and medicine. It would be difficult to find anyone today who believes these sanctions have worked.

What Mr. Porteous and others are recommending is a direct assault on the assets of a country's leadership, rather than the population at large. "Targeted financial sanctions operate on the unfortunate but realistic principle that the leadership of authoritarian regimes and their associates tend to respond more quickly to direct threats to their personal financial health than to any continuing assault on the general well-being of the people they govern," he says in his paper.

This has been done successfully by the United States against the ruling junta in Haiti and against a range of individuals and organizations involved in the drug trade or terrorism. The U.S. approach could be used on a multilateral basis, Mr. Porteous says. In fact, a multilateral approach would have better success in ensuring there are fewer safe havens available for targeted rulers.

His is just the latest voice in a chorus calling for change in how the United Nations uses sanctions. Canada has been at the forefront of that movement within the UN, working mainly on the issue of so-called "conflict diamonds" that are used by rebel movements in Africa to finance their civil wars.

But whatever progress has been made in persuading members of the UN to take another look at current sanctions will be for naught if the new U.S. secretary of state continues to believe they can work. mdrohan@globeandmail.ca

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