Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dangerous Air Maneuvers: Aviation Sanctions Have Ended for Syria, the Embargo Should Also End for Iran

Commentary - Executive Magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Beirut

Sanctions are one of those political issues that can make amiable dinner conversation turn unpleasant, as the battle lines are drawn down the table between those for and against. Sanctions have certainly had mixed success, starting with the first recorded case of a trade embargo some 2,400 years ago between Athens and neighboring Megara. The embargo failed and sparked a war.

Sanctions have never worked since then, argue some. That is too reductionist may come the reply, while others prefer to pick-and-mix examples from embargoes through the ages to argue their case. The more pragmatic approach would be not whether sanctions “work,” but when and under what circumstances.

Sanctions that are meant to oust a dictator but result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians – Iraq for instance – can be considered counter-productive. Sanctions preventing a particularly nasty regime from getting hold of say chemical weapons on the other hand would appear desirable and effective.

Indeed, in a report on the effectiveness of sanctions by the Washington DC-based Institute for International Economics, out of 211 cases from World War I to 2000, there was success in only 38 percent of sanctions. Some work, others clearly don't.

Sanctions on the aviation sector can fall under the questionable effectiveness category. Meant to impede a country's access to military aviation parts is understandable. For commercial aircraft it ranks as dangerous. In the Middle East, this applies to Iran and until July, Syria, when the United States ended sanctions on the export of goods to the Syrian aviation industry. Sanctions were first imposed against Syria in 1984 and tightened in 2004 by the Bush administration.

Aviation sanctions have long been considered a risk to air safety, with airlines that own American and European manufactured aircraft (Boeing and Airbus) unable to access spare parts, navigation equipment and upgrade technology in line with international safety standards. A report prepared for the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization has made this clear.

The dangers for aircraft and passengers was underscored in July when two Iranian commercial planes crashed within 10 days of each other, killing 184 people. Iran claims the sanctions were to blame, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi came out to say the aviation sanctions that have been in place since 1979 by the West, “signifies a violation of human rights.”

While no Western lives were lost in the two crashes, it may only be a matter of time before citizens of the primary sanction imposer, the US, are also 'collateral damage,' whether on board a doomed aircraft, or having a picnic when a badly serviced plane drops out of the sky.

As Flight Commander General Hazim Al Khadra, Director General of the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority told me in Damascus a few years ago: “Sanctions are a big problem because US aviation interferes with the aviation industry, the spare parts for commercial airlines in particular, which maintain the safety of passengers. And these passengers aren’t only Syrians, but also Europeans, Americans and Asians.”

Perhaps there would have to be the rather ironic situation of a plane that lacked the spare parts or proper guidance system accidentally crashing into a US embassy or military facility, for Washington to truly wake up to the hazards of unsafe aircraft.

After all, it is curious that the Air France jet that crashed off Rio de Janeiro, and the US Airways plane that ditched into the Hudson River in New York earlier this year, garnered extensive media reports about aircraft safety, yet the aviation sanctions against Syria and Iran have not. Unsafe aircraft flying around the world are not safe for anyone, whether on the ground or in the air. Indeed, I had heard of people wanting to avoid flying altogether because of the Air France crash.
The US decision to end the sanctions against the Syrian aviation sector – which has rapidly opened up in recent years to include a handful of private airlines – is a step in the right direction. But the sanctions against Iran, and its aviation sector, still continue. In fact, it looks like the sanctions are going to be tightened even further, with America proposing a ban on Iranian airplanes from landing in Western airports, along with banning insurance on trade deals with Iran, and the imposing of sanctions on any company that trades with the Islamic Republic.

While the heightened sanctions are meant to put further pressure on the Islamic Republic to change it ways, the policy should be scrutinized as to what is effective and what is not. The sanctions related to the curbing of Iran's nuclear aspirations and funding to groups like Hamas and Hizbullah is a political minefield, with strong arguments from both sides of the political spectrum as to whether such a policy is working or not. Civil aviation however should be in a special category. It is a human right for people – civilians - to be able to fly and travel freely, and moreover, safely wherever they want.

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