Real Embargoes and Imaginary Sanctions
Yesterday the United Nations apologized for a mistaken statement that Belarus supplied helicopters to Ivory Coast violating the UN embargo regime. Even if these allegations were true, there would be not much what the UN could have done about it.
The damage would be only to the Belarus reputation, which is already bad enough. Currently, there are over twenty UN embargoes most of which relate to African countries. In addition, United States, the European Union and other countries impose unilateral embargo regimes. International embargoes have been violated for as long as they exits. Although the word embargo sounds serious it is very difficult to punish those who violate arms embargoes. When it comes to violations of UN-imposed embargoes, the UN can only take concrete action upon approval of its Security Council. It is usually the security Council which adopts sanctions, no-fly zones or authorizes peacekeepers' missions.
As permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China can veto any resolution with which they disagree. China itself has been a subject to arms embargo for many years following the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the absence of Russia's and China's approval - any UN sanctions are difficult to imagine. It is even more difficult to catch violators because governments often use private intermediaries. One of the most prominent merchants of death is Viktor Bout who began his military career in Vitsebsk, Belarus and is currently in custody in the United States for illegal arms trade. It is a very lucrative business, with revenues comparable to those of selling illegal drugs.
Just last year Belarus sold 33 fighter jets to a private company - the sale worth around US $1.5 billion. Consumers of arms are willing to pay even more as a premium when the sales take place in violation of international embargoes. In the absence of effective UN mechanisms, it is more realistic to expect concrete measures from individual states. Individual countries and regional organizations such as the EU may impose their own sanctions.
For instance, the United States has a State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Inclusion into this list means serious economic and political sanctions both against these countries and its nationals. The list includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria - all countries with which Belarus has particularly strong ties. The incident with the sale of helicopters and subsequent statement of the UN Secretary General shows how bad international reputation of Belarus is. If Ban Ki-Moon had any doubt, it was interpreted against Belarus authorities, rather than in their favour. The recent revelations about torture of a presidential candidate and harsh sentences to opposition activists will make Belarus reputation even worse.