WCDU debates consider morality of economic sanction laws

The Williams College Debate Union (WCDU) kicked off its debate season last Tuesday evening in Chapin with a discussion of whether or not the United States should use economic sanctions to influence the human rights policies of foreign countries.

Human rights activist Harry Wu, along with Assistant Professor of Economics Michael Samson and Josh Kelner ’01, defended the use of economic sanctions, while journalist Ross H. Munro and his teammates Associate Professor of Political Science George Crane and Chris Kemmitt ’01 argued against them. The audience chose the opposition team (the team of Munro, Crane and Kemmit) as the winners by a margin of 15 votes.

Rob Wiygul ’00, co-chair of the WCDU, opened the debate by explaining its format, the Oxford parliamentary debate style, and introducing the debaters.

Wiygul stressed Wu’s courageous history in defending against human rights abuses.

“Having spent 19 years incarcerated by the Chinese government in the ‘Bamboo Gulag’ as a political prisoner, [Wu] repeatedly risked his life returning to China to document slavery and human rights abuses,” Wiygul said.

Wiygul introduced Ross H. Munro as a distinguished journalist and scholar, noting that he is co-author of The Coming Conflict With China, which describes how China is emerging as the chief global rival of the United States and why China views the U.S. as its enemy.

Kelner formally started the debate with a five-minute defense of economic sanctions. He argued for sanctions on both moral and diplomatic grounds. Kelner contended that the U.S. is morally culpable when it trades with nations that violate human rights.

“When we trade with countries that violate human rights, we not only give tacit approval to those violations, we also strengthen those regimes which are committing them.” Kelner said. “We will not prostitute ourselves on the altar of economic wealth.”

Kelner suggested that sanctions offer a diplomatic alternative to war.

“Economic sanctions allow us to put action behind our rhetoric, without having to resort to war,” he said.

Kemmitt then voiced his disagreement, attempting to explain why economic sanctions generally do not work. He argued that sanctions strengthen oppressive governments rather then harm them. He further suggested that sanctions injure the wrong people.

“Sanctions hurt the very people you are trying to help, like the kids with eyes like saucers,” he said.

Samson followed with a 10 minute speech in which he argued that economic sanctions, when used properly, are a necessary component of any U.S. foreign policy that seeks to meet America’s human rights objectives.

“Economists think twice about restricting free trade, but economic sanctions are necessary, imperative and effective in securing justice,” Samson said.

He added: “Economic sanctions should be reserved for gross violations of human rights, and they should be specifically focused, given time to take effect, and internationally supported.”

Samson cited the end of apartheid in South Africa and China’s release of dissidents in 1991-1992 as examples of the effectiveness of sanctions.

Crane provided the rebuttal against Samson. He prefaced his speech by expressing his deep respect and admiration for Wu’s heroic life and work, drawing forth an enthusiastic response from the audience. After that qualification, Crane uttered what was to become his rallying cry for the evening: “Sanctions don’t work!”

He particularly attacked the use of assumptions in the arguments of the members of the proposition, prompting Samson to retort: “I don’t think the Haitian government assumed its way out of power.”

But Crane continued in his contention that economic sanctions are “immoral.”

“Far from being moral, economic sanctions are immoral,” Crane said. “They hurt the children of Iraq, not Saddam Hussein.”

He further argued that history does not bear out the claim that sanctions are effective.

“Sanctions don’t work because the world economy is interdependent, so it is nearly impossible to level comprehensive multi-lateral sanctions against a country,” Crane said. “The list of failed economic sanctions is long and lamentable.”

Following Crane, Wu took center stage, speaking in broken English and opening with the disclaimer that he knew nothing of the Oxford parliamentary debate style.

Wu said the Chinese government operates prison labor camps that produce a wide assortment of goods that end up on American shelves. He opined that by trading with China, the U.S. supports this prison labor camp system.

“It is true that trade with China benefits many Chinese people, but it also supports the communist regime,” Wu said. “U.S. trade policy with China is a free lunch for China. We need sanctions to force them to change.”

To those who would argue that prosperity opens the door for democracy and freedom, Wu responded: “Democracy and freedom open the door for prosperity.”

Munro followed Wu, also expressing his deep respect and admiration for Wu.

“We agree on almost everything about China, except the use of economic sanctions,” Munro said. “Using economic sanctions is just a dumb idea, even when supported by a good and courageous man.”

Munro then proceeded to unfurl 15 feet of paper that contained a list of U.S. economic sanctions laws between 1993 and 1996. He then told the audience that since 1914 economic sanctions have been effective only five times out of the 115 times they have been used.

Echoing Crane, Munro concluded that “sanctions don’t work,” and that the U.S. should abandon the use of them. He criticized empty and symbolic sanctions that he said have more to do with winning political brownie points than anything else.

Munro suggested that supporting democracy where it already exists is a better diplomatic tool then economic sanctions.

“China is surrounded by democracies, we should be supporting those countries,” he said.

Before Kelner and Kemmitt presented the closing arguments for their teams, the floor was opened for audience members to give one-minute floor speeches in favor of either the proposition or the opposition. The speeches split fairly evenly in support, and included an impromptu poem by Seth Brown ’01.

After the debate ended, audience members voted for the side that they thought had presented the best arguments by walking through particular exits.

Many of the audience members said they enjoyed the mixture of serious discussion and light-hearted banter in the debate.

“The debate was both substantive and entertaining, parliamentary debate at its best,” said Jon Kravis ’99, president of the Williams College Debate Team.“What was really interesting to me was seeing the professors and invited speakers become progressively more comfortable and experimental with the format as the debate progressed.”

However, others thought that the casual tone of the debate may have trivialized Wu’s message.

“Wu is a great man who should have been given a different forum to tell us about his ideas and beliefs,” said John Valliere ’01.“If the WCDU wants to put together fun, entertaining evenings, that’s fine. But they should be more careful in inviting speakers.”

Tuesday evening’s debate was the only the third WCDU sponsored debate that has occured since the WCDU was formed, and the first of this academic year. On January 12 the WCDU will sponsor a debate on the issue of free speech and the Internet. The featured speakers will be Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and Edwin
Meese, former attorney general.

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