When should I boycott a country?

WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE in college, I went on Semester at Sea. It was a 4-month study abroad program that sailed around the world. Shortly after I was accepted into the program, I was sent an email with two pretty big surprises in it: first, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu would be sailing with us for the entire voyage. Second, as a precondition of Tutu joining us, we would now be skipping our planned stop in Burma and would be going to Malaysia instead.

Tutu had insisted on this change because his friend, Burmese leader (and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott to Burma. Tutu had cut his teeth in the South African anti-apartheid movement, which conducted a similar international boycott over the course of several decades. The international solidarity, Tutu claimed, was essential for bringing apartheid to an end.

This led to a huge debate on the ship: a lot of people really wanted to go to Burma, and argued that the cultural exchange was valuable and worthwhile. They also argued that we could visit Burma in a way that wouldn’t be supportive of the oppressive military regime that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were fighting against. We could, they argued, make sure our money would go to the right places.

In the end, we didn’t go to Burma. Several years later, Suu Kyi and her NLD lifted their call for a tourism boycott as the country started to transition towards democracy. But since then, I’ve heard a lot of calls for tourism boycotts to certain countries. It’s a question worth examining: when is it right to boycott a country? When is it wrong? When is it just pointless?

When are boycotts pointless?

During the Bush years, I heard conservative friends and family members say more than once, “I’ll never visit France after how they bailed on us in Iraq.” It was usually uttered by people who were using patriotic fervor as an excuse to skip a country they were never planning on going to in the first place, but sometimes, conservatives who might otherwise have enjoyed a trip to Paris decided that they needed to make a moral stand. No France for them. That’d teach France to bail on America, “and after we did so much for them in World War II.”

The correct response to this type of crap is “ugh,” but lefties and liberals shouldn’t get too smug: I’ve heard plenty of my activist friends suggest they were boycotting a country as well, whether it was of Japan (because of their treatment of dolphins and whales), of Thailand (because of their Tiger Temple), or of Russia (because of the Russian government’s oppression of journalists).

Boycotts can be well-meaning and still be useless. The one case in which they are always useless is in the case of the personal boycott. If you are boycotting a country for moral reasons, that’s just fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re making any sort of difference. Boycotts are an expression of political (and sometimes economic) power. By saying, “I refuse to engage with you,” you are basically saying you don’t think that country is legitimate, and that it does not deserve your support.

The truth is that, unless you are a very high-profile person, a single person boycott of a country is meaningless. It’s just not a large enough expression of power to make a noticeable difference and to affect any change. Had Rosa Parks been the only person to boycott the Montgomery, Alabama bus system, the gesture would have been noble but totally futile. It was when hundreds of people (including high-profile leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.) joined that the boycott really did what it was meant to do. A boycott, to be done effectively, must be done collectively.

When is a travel boycott effective?

I’ve developed three tentative rules to when you should consider a travel boycott.

1. You must have power over whomever you’re boycotting.

You can’t boycott something you don’t have any power over. This is why, for instance, it would be impossible for Americans to arrange a travel boycott of North Korea: we simply don’t go there enough for the withdrawal of our tourist dollars to make any difference (and Americans shouldn't travel to North Korea anyway: they frequently charge American visitors with barely-supported crimes and then hold them as bargaining chips.). It’s only countries that we have a healthy relationship that we can effectively boycott.

A boycott is effectively saying is, “You’re not playing by rules that we accept, so we refuse to play with you.” You can’t threaten to walk off when you weren’t playing in the first place.

2. Money isn’t enough: You must have the ear of the media.

The economic results of boycotts are tough to gauge. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel has been going for over 10 years, but hasn’t necessarily resulted any tangible economic loss for Israel (BDS, incidentally, has not targeted travel in their boycott. They’ve focused more broadly on academic boycotts, culture boycotts, divestment, and the boycotting of certain Israeli businesses. I mention them here because it’s the highest-profile active boycott movement). The boycott of South Africa, on the other hand, is widely considered to have been a success in economic terms.

But ultimately, whether the BDS movement or the cultural boycott of South Africa had any real economic effect isn’t the point. The point is in getting enough media coverage to draw attention to the injustice and, presumably, to shame the perpetrators. As I write, this is happening in North Carolina, where a recent anti-LGBTQ law has resulted in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo boycotting travel to the state on official business, in Paypal pulling jobs from the state economy, and in rocker Bruce Springsteen canceling a NC concert (which, for me personally, is literally the worst punishment I could imagine).

Yes, these moves may cost North Carolina money here and there, but more importantly, they build a political and social momentum behind the movements they support. It was not, in the end, economics that ended apartheid. It was external pressure worldwide (pressure which had to come from the grassroots, as leaders like Ronald Reagan supported apartheid), and volatile internal politics which brought about the end of that regime. Boycotts can be a powerful symbol that raise awareness of an issue and turn public opinion. If they succeed in this regard, whether or not they’re effective economically is beside the point.

3. Boycotts have to have an internal element.

Boycotts have more moral clout when they’re done in solidarity with people from within the place you’re boycotting. In other words, if local people say, “don’t boycott us,” then don’t (and it's worth pointing out that the voices of "the people" in any given country are never unanimous -- you must decide who to side with internally). So when the ANC and leaders like Desmond Tutu called for the rest of the world to boycott South Africa, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Aung San Suu Kyi called for tourists to not visit Burma, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Palestinians or liberal Israelis support the BDS movement, it gives the movement legitimacy.

Boycotts that are done entirely externally — as in you and your friends unilaterally deciding to boycott France because reasons — aren’t effective, and can be perceived as bullying, because you’re attempting to impose your morality on another country. If you don’t agree with someone’s morals, it’s usually better to talk to them and try and find common ground than it is to simply shut them out. But if you and your allies within that country are within agreement, and your allies think a boycott’s a good idea, then it may be worth giving a try.

So should I participate in travel boycotts?

The answer to this, I’m sorry to say, is annoyingly ambivalent: Sure. If you want. In some rare cases. Boycotts just too rarely achieve that rare combination of effectiveness and legitimacy to be worthwhile. Some excellent ethical travel sites like Responsible Travel don’t advocate travel boycotts except in rare exceptions like Burma. Philosopher Peter Singer told Traveller.com.au of travel boycotts:

“A boycott may be one way of getting some leverage on [political issues] when nothing else seems to work. But I don’t think that there is a general obligation to boycott all countries that are doing something unethical.”

The reason, he said, is because boycotts are only really effective when they’re accompanied by a public campaign. And it’s worth noting that there’s no such thing as a totally ethical country. You should definitely notboycott a country that there’s not already an organized boycott against unless you want to undertake the gigantic effort of organizing the boycott yourself. And in all honesty, there may well be much better ways of pushing your agenda politically than through a boycott: frequently, you may be able to push your government to act instead.

Boycotts really only make sense when they’re an attempt to undermine your government’s action: in South Africa and Israel, the US Government has acted in response to perceived geopolitical interests rather than in response to human rights standards, so those places make sense to organize boycotts around. In North Carolina, Indiana, and other states that have enacted anti-LGBT laws, the boycotts are in response to actions by the government itself. In these cases, participating in boycotts may be the just and right thing to do.

That said, there are totally legitimate arguments for not participating in boycotts, from supporting locals who may be unfairly harmed by a boycott, to simply pursuing other forms of protest and resistance that you believe would be more effective. Paul Simon’s breach of the UN-approved cultural boycott of South Africa during the making of his album Gracelandwas extremely controversial, but in the end, he used the breach to give an international platform to black South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. While it may not personally have been my choice — and indeed was not the choice of many activist musicians, from Springsteen to Bono to Queen — it is conceivably justifiable.

It’s worth noting, though, that Paul Simon’s breach was at least thought-out and intentional. He didn’t simply ignore the cultural boycott for personal profit: he attempted to make things better for South African musicians. So if there’s a movement that you find yourself aligned with, and they are calling for a travel boycott to a country you want to visit, you certainly may decide to go anyway, but going will only really be justified if you engage in some other political act.

In the end, the only real sin, if you believe something wrong is being done, is silence. If you feel your voice is best heard through a boycott, go for it. If you feel you can speak out in a better way, feel free to do that instead. Just don’t do nothing.

Featured Photo: Pierre (Rennes)