Sanctions on Russia came quickly – revealing an American double standard

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Recently, journalists and scholars have pointed out the double standards and racism embedded in US foreign policy. They point to the United States’ swift denunciation of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, described as shocking because they occurred in “civilized” Europe. Meanwhile, similar atrocities in countries in the Global South are often overlooked.

In the same vein, the United States and Western Europe were quick to deploy tough sanctions against Russia. Yet, historically, they have rejected or delayed adopting economic sanctions against regimes whose atrocities have been committed against black populations.

For example, even as a chorus of voices – including the international community, major movements in the United States and local activists – have called for sanctions against the minority-ruled states of South Africa and Rhodesia women, who exploited and killed Africans, the United States either refused to act or responded only slowly. This gave white regimes time to reorient their economies before sanctions were imposed. The reasons for this disparity are rooted in white supremacy, geopolitics and greed.

During the Cold War, the United States viewed the white-ruled colonies in southern Africa as reliable anti-communist allies and good trading opportunities. While most African colonies gained independence in the 1960s, the white-ruled territories of South Africa, Rhodesia and South African-occupied Namibia clung tenaciously to power.

The United States has worked with white-led governments to ensure their security and to protect U.S. investment, trade, and access to strategic minerals. In 1981, the United States accounted for 20% of South Africa’s total foreign investment. American companies controlled the most strategic sectors of the South African economy: 33% of the motor vehicle market, 44% of the petroleum products market and 70% of the computer market. Even more important was the transfer of American technology and expertise, which helped develop South Africa’s nuclear and military programs. American bank loans allowed South Africa to build its army, store oil and finance major infrastructure projects, further strengthening white power.

Turning the tide against US support for South Africa has taken enormous effort. The African National Congress – South Africa’s largest liberation movement – first called for global economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in 1959. Except for a voluntary arms embargo imposed in 1963 and a mandatory arms embargo imposed in 1977, the United States vetoed all UN measures. The Security Council has sanctioned the resolutions for more than three decades.

In cases where sanctions were applied, significant shortcomings remained. Under the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the United States continued to supply South Africa with armaments “for defense against external threats” – including anti-apartheid insurgents with external support – as well as spare parts for military machinery and highly enriched uranium for the Pretoria nuclear reactor built in the United States. The Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations eased compliance with the voluntary arms embargo, encouraged trade and investment, and intensified nuclear collaboration. The Jimmy Carter administration made exceptions for certain equipment that had civilian and military applications, while the Ronald Reagan administration revoked most of Carter’s stricter application standards and stepped up previously prohibited exports.

The Reagan administration also rescinded a policy of no contact with South African military and police officials and negotiated the delivery of nuclear fuel through European proxies. Most important, perhaps, was Reagan’s successful lobbying campaign in 1982 for a $1.1 billion IMF loan to Pretoria – an amount that came close to the costs of Africa’s wars. South in Namibia and Angola between 1980 and 1982.

Weakened by internal resistance and a declining economy, the white minority regime was in dire straits by the mid-1980s. It was only then, when the labor-intensive economy South Africa’s cheap market was no longer profitable, as the United States acted.

In 1985, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on member states to impose their own sanctions, including ceasing new investment, banning the sale of Krugerrands, suspending loan guarantees to export, a ban on new nuclear contracts and an end to the sale of computer equipment that can be used by South African security forces. The United States and United Kingdom abstained, allowing the resolution to pass. However, both vetoed a later resolution making the sanctions mandatory.

The following year, the US Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The 1986 legislation prohibits new investment in South Africa, bank loans and sales of computers to the government, transfer of petroleum, nuclear and military products and cooperation with the South African military and police. He also banned the import of iron, steel, coal, uranium, textiles, gold coins and South African agricultural products. Finally, he ended direct flights to and from South Africa and banned South African planes from landing in the United States.

A long-time supporter of the apartheid regime, President Reagan vetoed the anti-apartheid law. However, with significant public support, the Republican-dominated Senate and the Democratic-majority House overruled the veto in October 1986. Despite this, the United States continued to oppose strong and mandatory UN sanctions .

As in South Africa, US actions against the white minority-ruled state of Rhodesia were also incremental and long delayed. Adopted between 1965 and 1979, they went from partial to comprehensive and from voluntary to mandatory. The more than two-year lag between the initiation of sanctions and the imposition of comprehensive mandatory sanctions by the UN Security Council has given Rhodesia time to restructure its economy, develop new markets and design sophisticated means of smuggling its products.

What conditions motivated the call for sanctions? Previously a colony of British settlers, Rhodesia declared its independence in 1965, while refusing any move towards majority rule that would have empowered the country’s black population. The UK refused to recognize the renegade state. However, he quickly showed his hand.

Describing the Rhodesian outlaws as British “friends and relatives”, Whitehall said he would not use force to return Rhodesia to legality and opposed all-out economic warfare. Instead, the UK offered a limited set of economic sanctions, the aim of which was not to bring the rogue prime minister to his knees, but to make him “reasonable”. He urged the international community to do the same. The UN Security Council followed suit, enacting selective voluntary sanctions banning the sale of military equipment and petroleum products to the Rhodesian regime. A year later, it added selective mandatory penalties.

It was not until May 1968 that the Security Council imposed comprehensive mandatory economic sanctions, prohibiting any economic or diplomatic relations with the rebel regime. Meanwhile, Rhodesian political and economic leaders had engaged in a concerted effort to circumvent the international embargo. They have found willing partners on several continents.

In clear violation of international law, a number of UN member states have openly flouted the sanctions against Rhodesia. South Africa and the Portuguese colonial regime in Mozambique served as conduits for Rhodesian imports and exports, providing the country with oil, military equipment and foreign exchange.

France, Britain and the United States turned a blind eye as their oil companies exported oil to Rhodesia. Between 1971 and 1977, the United States, through the Byrd Amendment to the Military Procurement Authorization Act, blatantly violated international law by allowing the import of “strategic and critical” materials from Rhodesia – including chrome, ferrochrome, nickel, copper and asbestos – so long as there was no similar ban on the import of such materials from communist countries.

A Rhodesian lobby, backed by pro-segregation Southerners in the US Congress, and US companies Allegheny Ludlum Steel, Foote Mineral and Union Carbide – which operated Rhodesia’s largest chrome mines – had pushed for the amendment. The American loophole was a major boon to the Rhodesian economy, providing it with the foreign currency needed to purchase arms and oil. This added years to the life of the white minority regime.

Flawed as they are, economic sanctions ultimately brought white regimes to the negotiating table. In South Africa and Rhodesia, declining economies and internal unrest or war, along with sanctions, forced white governments to negotiate agreements that resulted in majority rule.

While the United States rightly condemns Russian atrocities in Ukraine, its past failure to act quickly and effectively in southern Africa betrays its deep concern to protect its own geopolitical and economic interests. In the war in Ukraine, the United States sees the opportunity to politically weaken Russia and reduce its capabilities in the region. President Biden has even suggested his support for regime change in Russia. The message that many Africans are hearing is that black states are simply not valued.