International Sanctions

International Sanctions

Lara Kajs | 22 May 2022 |

International sanctions are actions taken against a country, political leader, or individuals, whose conduct is in violation of international laws. Sanctions are meant to be a deterrent and to change behavior. In many cases, they are effective in persuading the target to refrain from unlawful actions. However, there are times when even the harshest sanctions do not convince a country, or its leadership to reverse course.

Compliance with International Law

Sanctions may be issued to force cooperation with international law, to contain a threat to peace within a geographical boundary, or to condemn the actions or policies of a member or non-member nation. After it invaded Kuwait in August 1990, UN Resolution 661 placed an embargo on Iraq, followed by Resolutions 665 and 670 which issued naval and air blockades on Iraq. The resolutions were used to force Iraq to comply with international law and avoid conflict. Similarly, in 2010, UN Security Council Resolution 1929 placed restrictions on missile and weaponry materials to prevent Iranian aggression within the region. In 2011, Resolution 2014 called for the violence in Yemen to end and for a peaceful transfer of power to President Hadi.

International sanctions have become the mechanism for many policymakers to respond to major geopolitical challenges such as terrorism, conflict, and foreign policy challenges. Travel bans, asset freezes, and arms embargoes are the most common types of UN sanctions. Sanctions are typically managed by a special committee and a monitoring group. Some sanction committees are assisted by the global police agency Interpol, particularly those concerning the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Notably, Security Council voting members do not always share the same political rationale for imposing sanctions. Too often, nations are driven by their own self-interests when voting on whether or not to implement sanctions. For example, since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, member nations Russia and China have vetoed several Security Council resolutions, some of which could have led to sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Maintain International Peace and Security

In a situation where a target country is committing human rights violations, waging war, or threatening international peace and security – as in the case of the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the international community may impose sanctions, which may include the temporary suspension of economic, diplomatic, sport, cultural, or trade privileges, as a means to resolve the situation and bring peace.

Although there are cases where sanctions are enduring, as in the case of the 1962 US trade embargo against Cuba, which is still in effect sixty years later, it is possible for them to be removed or dissolved. Lifting sanctions is generally done if the target country or individual has demonstrated a willingness to adopt conditions set by the Security Council. Sanctions may also be lifted when term limits are set and met in the initial resolution. In this case, the sanction is lifted regardless of whether or not the desired behavior has been achieved.

Sanctions can be successful and are a useful tool for foreign policymakers, however, the effectiveness depends on the circumstances. While sanctions may achieve their economic intent, if the desired behavior or reaction is not achieved, then the sanctions did not prove successful. An example is the UN sanctions levied on Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 meant to force the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden. Economically, Afghanistan suffered, but the Taliban never submitted to the demand.

In December 2021, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2611 which extended a mandate of team monitoring sanctions against Taliban-linked entities in Afghanistan. The Security Council also adopted Resolution 2615 enabling humanitarian aid to support basic human needs in Afghanistan as it is on the verge of economic collapse as a result of the Taliban’s hostile takeover of the country. The sanctions allow help to the people but not the Taliban.

Support and Compliance

Sanctions are binding for all member states, and countries, groups, and individuals who violate the sanctions are liable for criminal prosecution. However, the UN has no independent means of execution and relies on member states to enforce compliance. But even when there is cooperation from stakeholders, sanctions are often contentious, especially considering the competing interests of world powers.

To be effective, sanctions need mutual support: the more nations that sign on in agreement and enforcement, the more likely a positive outcome is. Linking punitive measures, such as sanctions and the threat of military action, with positive incentives, such as financial aid, maybe a more effective approach to actions. Without a penalty, the incentive for compliance is weak. The target of sanctions has to believe that the significance and endurance of the sanctions will be based on its behavior. Case in point, the Obama administration responded to political reforms in Myanmar in 2012 by easing economic sanctions against the country, ultimately ending all sanction programs in 2016. However, Myanmar’s leadership accelerated its return to human rights abuses, against the Rohingya minority once the sanctions were lifted. To force Myanmar back to compliance, in 2019, the US reimposed the sanctions.

The implementation of international sanctions is not without criticism, especially the impact they have on the citizens of a target nation. There is the belief that it is likely that the people are already oppressed by the government and if sanctions can result in the leader changing direction, it could be a benefit to its citizens. Arguably, sanctions are the best alternative, as opposed to conflict or inaction. In the absence of sanctions, oppressive regimes have no incentive to reform or change their behavior. Sanctions also represent an expression of contempt for egregious behavior. The world is watching.

Photo Credit: The Security Council – Chaired by United States President Barack Obama, the Security Council Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament unanimously adopted Resolution 1887 (2009), expressing the Council’s resolve to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. Shown here is a wide view of the vote. UN Photo/Mark Garten. 24 September 2009. Photo #411847.