Situating Unilateral Coercive Measures Within a Broader Understanding of Systemic Violence

Michael Fakhri

That unilateral coercive measures are an ineffective international policy tool has been known for decades. Unilateral measures, usually in the form of blockades or economic sanctions, are deployed with the intent to economically weaken an opposing national regime and generate domestic pressure to induce the regime to concede to foreign demands. In reality, they often create or worsen a protracted crisis by collectively punishing people in target countries. Countries sometimes aim to only impose sanctions against designated individuals or groups. These types of sanctions, however, still usually produce side effects that disrupt local, regional, and international food systems and economies, especially if the targeted people play a powerful role in the food system. Humanitarian exemptions in unilateral sanctions are usually ineffective due to the absence of regular monitoring and the broad, often haphazard effect of sanctions on the economy. Moreover, financial institutions tend to over-comply with unilateral sanctions to reduce the legal and business risks associated with inadvertent violations. This inhibits aid and magnifies harm. To be sure, unilateral coercive measures are not the same as people calling from within their own countries for international boycotts, divestment, or sanctions against the government that rules them and people from abroad joining the campaign in solidarity with the struggle.

As demonstrated in countries like Cuba and Iran, the local ruling class in the targeted country can usually respond to the unilateral coercive measures in ways that preserve their power. They often deepen their relationships with other countries and financial institutions, which allows them to circumvent the coercive measures, albeit incompletely. The local ruling classes also use state power (or extra-legal measures) to protect themselves from the blockade or sanction while leaving everyone else to suffer.

Despite the ineffectiveness of, and human rights violations arising from, unilateral coercive measures, rich countries continue to impose them. In response, the local ruling class in targeted countries point to such measures as the primary cause of their countries’ social and economic problems, effectively deflecting attention from domestic policies causing harm and thereby avoiding national accountability.

Unilateral Coercive Measures are a Particular Form of Violence Within Food Systems

Drawing on my experience as the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, I have witnessed how food is turned into a weapon, whether through economic sanctions or armed conflict. The challenge that I face is how to denounce unilateral coercive measures without being misunderstood as politically aligning with the targeted country, or taking a side in an inter-imperial rivalry.

My way of dealing with this challenge has been to consider unilateral coercive measures as one form of violence within a broader understanding of systemic violence and structural inequality. If states claim to have a monopoly on legitimate violence, it does not matter to the people which state is the source of that violence—people in countries targeted by sanctions are forced to confront violence because of the actions of both other states and their own. To me, the challenge becomes whether human rights, as a socio-political force, can engage with the state, as a set of political and economic institutions, in a way that directs state power to defend against violence (leaving open the tactical question of whether that engagement is a matter of resistance, cooptation, or cooperation).

From a right-to-food perspective, one of the main causes of hunger and famine is violence and armed conflict. In turn, food insecurity often leads to more violence and conflict. To understand how to get out of this vicious cycle, I have argued in my most recent United Nations report that the analytical starting point should be understanding how food systems produce violence.

One should begin with understanding the different forms violence in food systems and discern how they are interconnected. I start with conceptualizing four forms of violence to show how different instances of violence are more similar than they may first appear. The four forms of violence are:

  1. Discrimination
  2. Bodily harm or assault against a person’s physical and mental integrity
  3. Ecological violence
  4. Erasure

This is not the only way to conceptualize violence nor is it an exhaustive list, but it is important to recognize these forms of violence as interconnected and overlapping.  The point is to provide a narrative on how different interests and identities are experiencing shared forms of violence so as to enable an intersectional analysis. When addressing unilateral coercive measures, I think it is helpful to understand it as a form of violence causing bodily harm.

Unilateral Coercive Measures are a Form of Bodily Harm

Bodily harm is the most tangible result of violence in food systems. Unilateral coercive measures always lead to bodily harm because it reduces people’s access to food, whether through limiting their purchasing power or limiting international supply chains and consequently exposing entire countries to a higher risk of hunger, malnutrition, and famine. Other contexts in which food systems systemically produce bodily harm are sexual and gender-based violence (usually in the workplace, such as on farms and in kitchens) and armed conflict. Focusing on bodily harm best shows how violence operates at different scales in food systems.

Another effect of grouping sexual and gender-based violence, unilateral coercive measures, and armed conflict together is to highlight the fact that violence is prevalent in food systems during both times of peace and war. The legal distinction in international humanitarian law between armed conflict and peace is irrelevant, if not misleading, when looking at food systems. In some countries, like my own in Lebanon, people actually had better access to food in times of war than in times of peace.

Sexual and gender-based violence, unilateral coercive measures, and armed conflict are all forms of violence that are primarily driven by a desire for domination, to weaken others by forcing them to submit. This suggests that patriarchy may be behind each of these forms of violence, though further theorization is necessary as to this point. Moreover, treating unilateral coercive measures as one form of violence arising out of systemic violence and structural inequality allows us to understand that whether someone is attacking others in an armed conflict, imposing sanctions, organizing blockades, weaponizing humanitarian relief, or enabling gender-based violence in the workplace, the result is the same: bodily harm that often disproportionately harms the physical and mental integrity of women, children, migrants, racialized people, Indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities.

Violence causing bodily harm not only includes direct harms, but the denial of access to food through the destruction of infrastructure or the crippling of an economic system. In other words, bodily harm expands beyond hurting or killing an individual; rather, bodily harm includes creating a climate of fear that denigrates individuals, communities, and peoples or makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

The Consequence of Systemic Violence in Food Systems

All forms of violence create profound inequality. During today’s food crisis, transnational corporations in the agrifood sector are profiteering while people struggle. This inequality is exemplified by a notable statistic: the wealth of food-sector billionaires increases by a billion dollars every two days. In 2021, Cargill, one of the world’s largest food traders, made almost $5 billion in net income, the biggest profit in its 156-year history, with even higher gains expected this year.

Systemic violence in food systems often targets food providers, namely caregivers, peasants, workers, pastoralists, and fishers. And amongst food providers, it is often women, racialized people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous peoples who are hit the hardest. When food providers are vulnerable to violence, communities are subjected to hunger, malnutrition, and famine. Violence also decreases food providers’ bargaining power and weakens communities’ relationship to their territory, rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation. This enables a small number of individuals, transnational corporations, and countries to gain greater access and control over the necessities of life: land, seeds, water, and dignified work.

An Economy of Dependency and Extraction Enables Systemic Violence

It is also important to understand how the violence of unilateral coercive measures arises from a global economy of dependency and extraction. What makes unilateral coercive measures possible in the first place is the fact that the global economy is characterized by non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationships among human beings, non-human beings, and the environment.

Relationships of dependency mean that one party heavily relies on another, while the other party can more easily walk away from the relationship at any point. Food systems rely on a series of dependency relationships. On an international level, importing countries depend on global markets for food, while food-exporting countries depend on global markets for capital, and developing countries depend on international financial institutions and wealthier countries for capital. On an interpersonal level, farmers increasingly depend on transnational corporations for their inputs, people depend on a shrinking number of food commodities sold by a small number of transnational corporations, and workers depend on employers for their livelihood.

Extractivist economies imagine nature as a source of resources that can be extracted and exported to generate wealth. Extractivist industries include mineral and fossil fuel extraction, as well as mono-cultural, large-scale agricultural, forestry, and fishery operations. Many development models rely on extractivism to generate economic growth. The theory is that the ecosystem is a collection of commodities, and ecological destruction is justified by economic growth. The assumption is that exploiting nature is worth it because the ensuing revenue will be shared and benefit the public at large. The reality, however, is that extractivism leads to human impoverishment, especially at the expense of Indigenous peoples, racialized communities, people with disabilities, rural communities, small-scale food producers and peasants, food and agriculture workers, and women.

Extraction from nature and exploitation of people are inherently linked since one cannot separate how you treat nature from how you treat people. From a right-to-food perspective, extractivism generates two problems. First, extractivist projects undermine and destroy traditional and small-scale hunting, fishing, herding, and agriculture along with foraging and gardening practices that enhance biodiversity. Second, more food systems are becoming increasingly lethal because they limit biodiversity—by taking from the land and leaving nothing in return, leaving the soil barren. Soil depletion makes farmers more dependent on chemical inputs and high-energy processes, generating approximately one-third of the world’s greenhouse gases.

Trade law and investment law have together enabled extractivist global food systems. Such food systems favor transnational and industrial food production practices and thereby permit the enrichment of corporate actors at the expense of the impoverishment of rural communities around the world. Global food systems also extract monetary value from the natural environment for global capital markets, leaving the environment degraded, depleted, and destroyed for centuries to come. Finally, global food production and supply chains are extractive because they take more than they give to workers and small-scale food producers by underpaying them and exposing them to precarious and hazardous working conditions.

Framing the Issue

In sum, unilateral coercive measures are a brutal form of violence that rich countries deploy at the expense of human rights in targeted countries. One issue that sometimes arises is a call to clearly show how unilateral coercive measures cause harm. The fact, however, is that we know the predictable effect of unilateral coercive measures is the collective punishment of people by increasing poverty and hunger rates. It is therefore important to unequivocally condemn unilateral coercive measures. The main issue that remains for countries that impose unilateral coercive measures is to meet a very high evidentiary burden to prove that these measures do not violate people’s human rights directly or indirectly.

It is also important to understand the conditions that make those measures possible in the first place. Unilateral coercive measures are only possible because some countries have amassed significant economic power through a series of relationships of dependency and extraction that span the entire world. The open question is whether people, within and outwith state power, can organize to build an economy based on relationships of reciprocity, thereby changing the political choices that are available and acceptable.


Michael Fakhri is a Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law and serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. This essay is written in his personal capacity.

This piece is part of a Symposium on Third World Approaches to International Law & Economic Sanctions.

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3 Responses

  1. alfred de zayas says:

    STRONGLY AGREE. As UN IE on International Order I produced in 2018 twenty-five principles on international order, principle 19 of which specifically denounces UCMs as contrary to international law and the UN Human Rights Covenants. High Commissioner Navi Pillay condemned UCMs in her 2012 thematic report A/19/33. The Principles are reproduced in my 2021 book “Building a Just World Order”, Clarity Press, Atlanta.

  1. June 28, 2023

    […] the importance of understanding not only the violent effects of sanctions, but how such violence “arises from a global economy of dependency and extraction.” But market dependency and extraction are not only contingent processes: they are part of the […]

  2. June 29, 2023

    […] norms, abstract from the devastating impact on civilian populations; these coercive tools produce the violence of hunger discussed in Michael Fakhri’s post, preventable epidemics, and the related excess deaths by the hundreds of thousands. The […]

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