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Economic Sanctions

Encyclopedia of Human Rights

George A. Lopez

Economic Sanctions 

For decades, the use of economic sanctions to halt human rights abuses and political killings by governments or to foster the development of democratic governance in order to enhance rights protection has been a practice advocated by transnational human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), by agencies of the United Nations, and by the policy-making elites of Western nations. The type of sanctions imposed on rights abusers and the effectiveness of these sanctions have varied over time. The most significant factors predicting effectiveness are the complexity of the threats to rights; the degree of cooperation among nations; domestic politics; and the diversity of the economic entanglements a nation has with a target state.

Since the end of the Cold War, multilateral economic sanctions—as passed by the United Nations, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Nations, or ad hoc coalitions of states—have occupied an increasingly prominent place in the coercive tool kit of policy makers. Beginning in August 1990 with Resolution 661 of the UN Security Council, a resolution championed by the United States that demanded Iraq withdraw after its invasion of Kuwait, the United States has—increasingly in conjunction with UN actions—imposed sanctions for a wide array of goals: to end international and civil wars, to extradite international fugitives, to control the spread of international terrorism, to deter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to restore democratically elected governments and protect human rights.

An analysis of all sanctions cases in which the United States has participated since 1945 shows that, depending on how strictly one defines the primacy of the rights issue, “rights” and “democracy protection” concerns accounted for one-third to one-half of all sanctions cases. At specific times, such as against governments like those of Guatemala or Nigeria, the United States employed direct and strong sanctions; whereas in trying to influence the prospects for peaceful transitions to greater democracy, in Colombia, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone, the United States aimed targeted sanctions at nonstate actors. Beginning with strong congressional actions taken during the administration of President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981), a substantial majority of U.S. sanctions have involved denying or withdrawing existing military, trade, or financial assistance packages.

Although practitioners and politicians frequently resort to sanctions to punish wrongdoers, the assessment of sanctions by analysts continues to produce mixed conclusions, possibly giving pause to anyone hoping to employ these nonmilitary measures to advance human rights. Some observers caution that the limited success rate of sanctions, which most researchers assess at about 33 percent but some claim is much lower, makes sanctions a poor bet. Others worry that congressional trade and aid restrictions across a broad array of issues from technology export controls to commodity embargoes combine with U.S. obligations to participate in UN and regional sanctions to create a counterproductive “epidemic” of sanctions in U.S. foreign economic policy. Yet other analysts applaud the results of applying coercive, targeted sanctions to attain key international policy goals, especially those as difficult to attain as denuclearizing Libya and North Korea.

This debate about the effectiveness of economic sanctions for punishing rights violators or enhancing human rights in fragile political environments has always been intense and diverse. On the one hand, the historical evidence shows that neither unilateral sanctions nor multilateral sanctions have ever toppled a targeted, rights-violating government. Nor have sanctions, by themselves, ever forced rights violators to desist in their actions. When dictators change their behavior, sanctions may be part of the mix of a set of foreign policy measures and domestic pressures that lead to an improved human rights situation. However, sanctions have more dramatic success in safeguarding fragile democracies; they help to protect the rights-respecting political climate of former nondemocratic states.

Sanctions proponents, on the other hand, argue that these poor results arise from half-hearted intentions, design, and/or implementation of sanctions, especially by powerful nations like the United States. They note multiple cases from the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America or South Africa where economic sanctions—especially in the form of aid withdrawal by the U.S. Congress—effectively denied repressive regimes the tools to continue the harshness of their rights abuse. They further argue that a close scrutiny of the Kosovo, Sudan/Darfur, and Myanmar cases reveals that the reluctance of powerful states to enforce a full slate of coercive measures has sabotaged what otherwise might have been effective sanctions for improving human rights.

A more skeptical, if not condemnatory, view of sanctions emerges from a variety of analysts who range from ethicists to international development practitioners. Rather than view sanctions as a means to obtaining or maintaining rights, these specialists consider economic sanctions to be a rights-damaging technique so fundamentally flawed that the only meaningful policy question is how to assess accurately the substantial negative impacts on humanitarian conditions or human rights that sanctions produce.

The Sanctions Decade

The active “sanctions decade” began when the Security Council imposed comprehensive trade sanctions on Iraq on 6 August 1990 (Resolution 661) because of its military invasion of Kuwait. By the end of 1999, the actions of the Security Council included nearly sixty separate sanctions resolutions levied against more than a dozen distinct targets, including such nongovernmental entities as rebel groups and terrorists. During the same time frame, the European Union passed dozens of sanctions resolutions involving many of the same targets.

As it imposed economic sanctions as a means of inducing compliance from states judged as violating international law—whether the law of use of force or human rights law—the Security Council was turning to a coercive tool that had been employed only twice in the previous forty-five years of UN experience: in the cases of Southern Rhodesia (1966) and South Africa (1977), each a racial human rights case.

But the record of these Security Council sanctions—especially as extended through 2006—is one fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions. In the early 1990s, Security Council sanctions against Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Haiti had shown signs of considerable economic impact, but, ironically, produced little political compliance. More dismaying, the Iraq sanctions produced severe humanitarian suffering among innocent and vulnerable populations. This in turn permitted Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, to tighten his dictatorship over the Iraqi people.

With increased awareness of the negative health and social impact of these general trade sanctions, Security Council members sensed a collision of the two central mandates of the United Nations. At the same time that sanctions were taking hold to apply pressure for peace and security, they were undermining the prospects for human safety, survival, and human rights.

The desire to avoid unintended humanitarian suffering from the imposition of economic sanctions became a dominant feature of Security Council policy making. Efforts to assess and mitigate the humanitarian impacts of sanctions became a priority as a human rights concern. In 1995 the newly created UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs commissioned a set of reports on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian assistance efforts that provided source material to develop a methodology and series of specific indicators for assessing humanitarian impacts. Many of the recommendations in these studies became the basis for an ongoing humanitarian assessment methodology developed by the successor agency of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Efforts to assess the humanitarian impact of particular sanctions cases became a regular feature of UN sanctions policy. Assessment reports and missions to examine the impact of sanctions were conducted in a number of cases and provided the Security Council an opportunity to anticipate and prevent potential humanitarian problems and respond to adverse impacts in a timely manner.

One of the more troubling realities of UN sanctions activity is that in some cases the activity failed to halt human rights abuses in the very situations in which human rights were under the most duress—during genocide and in protracted bloody armed conflict. In the five cases where the Security Council imposed limited arms embargoes—Sudan, Liberia (until 2001), Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Ethiopia/Eritrea—the UN sanctions had little or no impact on the killing. The limited measures imposed in Afghanistan prior to 2001 also had no discernible impact on the policies of the Taliban regime regarding treatment of cultural artifacts or women's rights.

Despite condemnation of the Sudanese regime for its actions against the citizens of the Darfur region in 2003 through 2008, a watered-down set of financial asset freezes and travel restrictions was imposed against a small number of Sudanese officials by the United Nations in varied Security Council resolutions from 2004 through 2007. The United States, as in other selected cases of sanctions against rights abusers, imposed stronger “smart,” or precisely targeted, sanctions on a wider range of government elites and across more diverse categories of economic activity, thus increasing the necessary coercive leverage that sanctions are designed to provide.

Without question, the Darfur case serves as the glaring example of sanctions that are imposed in a manner that amounts to too little, too late, and without the broad targeting on a substantial number of elites that would maximize their effectiveness. Despite pleas of “never again,” the same weak response of the international community that was manifest in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1992 was repeated relative to Darfur a decade later.

Smart Sanctions

Perhaps the most important UN response to the controversies surrounding the negative humanitarian impact of sanctions was to alter the design of sanctions. After the imposition of comprehensive sanctions on Haiti in 1994, every subsequent sanctions episode involved some form of targeted, or “smart,” sanctions, rather than a general trade embargo.

Sanctions are “smart” in two ways. First, they take aim at specific subnational economic actors—such as companies, asset holding entities, or individuals—deemed most responsible for the policies or actions considered by the imposer as illegal or abhorrent. Second, they narrow the focus of economic coercion to a specific, microeconomic activity. Thus, a smart sanction might embargo luxury goods desired by elites or single high-value commodities, such as timber or diamonds, or specific armaments and related arms and security technologies. A smart sanction might freeze financial assets of varied types and might restrict or deny aviation and travel. Recent history demonstrates that such precise mechanisms both constrain and inflict pain on their target, most often a key subsector of the ruling elite.

Since the mid-1990s all UN and multilateral sanctions in which the United States has participated have been smart sanctions. And almost all rights-focused sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States are of this more targeted variety. Of the nineteen major UN sanctions cases over the past two decades, nine have involved financial restrictions, always in combination with other measures; six were commodity boycotts, most involving petroleum products, three involving diamonds, and one involving lumber products; ten were travel sanctions, also in combination with other measures; and fifteen included arms embargoes. As with the larger universe of sanctions, these smart sanctions may have human rights protection or improvement as a very direct goal, as in Kosovo, or aim to improve the rights climate indirectly, as in the use of arms embargoes to end violent wars in sub-Saharan Africa.

The practice of imposing financial sanctions and visa bans simultaneously on lists of designated individuals or entities was used to deplete the war-making capability of armed factions in the internal wars of Angola, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire. These wars had to end before rights-protective governments could emerge. In the case of Angola, the combination of selective UN sanctions merged with European and U.S. embargoes and lockdowns imposed over the years (arms and oil in 1993, travel and diplomatic in 1997, and diamonds in 1998) to become a nearly comprehensive embargo on territory controlled by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). There is little question that this led to democratic elections and then legitimate government in Angola, an outcome later solidified by the killing of the UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.

Commodity-specific sanctions have increased in frequency and impact since the mid-1990s. Highly to moderately successful oil embargoes were imposed as part of the sanctions against Iraq, Yugoslavia, Haiti, UNITA in Angola, and the military junta in Sierra Leone. As aid agencies and human rights NGOs documented the role of diamond smuggling in financing the civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone and in the recruitment and retention of child soldiers in other conflicts, the Security Council pushed the United States and European states to take action to interdict the trade in so-called blood diamonds. Diamond embargoes were imposed in 1998 against UNITA, in 2000 against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) areas of Sierra Leone, and in 2001 against Charles Taylor's Liberian government. A log export ban also was imposed against the government of Liberia for its support of the RUF. There is increasing evidence that these commodity embargoes stifle the work of the criminal organizations in war-torn areas that are most responsible for the rights abuses and murder of civilians.

Sanctions for Counterterrorism

The imposition of arms embargoes and other sanctions measures against governments and nonstate actors engaged in protracted violence became standard practice in the Security Council in the 1990s. In Resolution 748 (1992) the Security Council condemned Libyan terrorist actions against airlines, and in Resolution 1054 (1996), the Security Council condemned Sudan's harboring of and assistance to terrorists. As the decade drew to a close, the Security Council extended the application of sanctions explicitly to terrorist groups and to the state actors and agencies identified as their surrogate supporters. Thus, in Resolution 1267 (October 1999), the Security Council required all member states to freeze the assets of, prevent the entry into or transit through their territories by, and prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, and transfer of arms and military equipment to any individual or entity associated with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and/or the Taliban.

After the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, by passing Resolution 1373, the Security Council passed the most far-reaching resolution in its history. The resolution mandated that all 191 member states participate in a global campaign to deny assets, safe haven, travel, or any other forms of support to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations as specified by the new UN Counter-terrorism Committee (CTC) created by the resolution.

One of the central features of this new counterterrorism sanctions regime was the development of a procedure to list the names of individuals and entities suspected of associating with the above-mentioned groups. UN member states place individuals and entities on the list. By 2008 the names on the “1267 Committee” totaled nearly five hundred, and those names submitted to either the CTC (and later in 1994 via its successor committee, the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, or CTED) also in the hundreds. Until late 2006 any decision concerning delisting was left solely to the discretion of the 1267 Committee and required the consent of all committee members.

From its inception, this listing (and delisting) procedure was criticized by international human rights groups and by leading legal scholars and practitioners. In particular, the listing procedure not only lacks transparency, but it violates a number of fundamental human rights guaranteed, among other things, by the leading international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Among these are the right to judicial review, the right to procedural fairness, the right to a hearing, and the right to an effective remedy.

In 2006, his last year in office, the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan made it a priority to have the Security Council swing the balance of its counterterrorism measures back to a central point where the Security Council's concern with security was balanced by commitments to uphold human rights. Annan asserted that implementation of counterterrorism measures requires states to comply with universal human rights standards, and he included the defense of human rights as one of the five pillars of global counterterrorism strategy. Annan pushed the Security Council to adopt Resolution 1456 (2003), which stated: “States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, and should adopt such measures in accordance with international law, in particular international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law.” After a great deal of pressure and debate, the CTED now includes an expert on human rights on its staff, ensuring that best practices for counterterrorism implementation are compatible with respect for human rights.

By 2004 the issue of sanctions-related listing, delisting, and due process had become the subject of intense debate in policy and legal venues, with court challenges presented in a number of states. The movement of two cases, Kadi and Al Barakaat, through the European court system prompted the Security Council to adopt Resolution 1822 in June 2008. This resolution required the 1267 Committee to review in detail all of its listing cases within two years. However, the European Court of Justice ruled in early September 2008 that the manner in which the Security Council imposes and maintains the sanctions list violated the rights of the plaintiffs to due process and to a hearing to allow them to respond to the claims that placed them on the list. It then left it to the European Council to decide compensation for individuals and the future of targeted sanctions originating in the Security Council within the European system.

Some analysts suggest that this series of events in 2008 placed the entire mechanism of smart sanctions in jeopardy, including the mechanism of smart sanctions aimed at human rights abusers. Others believe that in the early twenty-first century European regional concerns are likely to move in the direction of rights sensitivity regarding counterterrorism, but that most of the rest of the use of sanctions instruments will remain unscathed by this legal challenge.

How Best to Use the Sanctions Tool to Improve Human Rights

At the turn of the twenty-first century, lessons from two decades of cases of effective sanctions policy and a number of sanctions research findings indicate how sanctions can prompt human rights improvements. First, in an age of globalization, unilateral sanctions cannot succeed; multilateral participation and cooperation are essential to the success of sanctions. In fact, when the international authority of the United Nations, regional authorities such as the European Union or the Commonwealth of Nations, and national authorities coordinate their actions to monitor and enforce sanctions effectively, target compliance increases.

For the United States this generalization makes its sanctions on Cuba seem like an antiquated action and casts a pall over other U.S. sanctions actions. It also explains why more recent efforts to bolster rights through sanctions that had less than full international support—in Darfur and in Zimbabwe—have fallen short of their goals.

Second, sanctions as means of punishment and isolation rarely succeed. In fact, sanctions form only half the mix of mechanisms needed to alter the behavior of stubborn targets such as regimes or nonstate groups engaged in human rights violations. Positive inducements—the proverbial carrots of international economic and political relations—are a necessary complement to the sticks of a sanctions strategy.

How essential is the stick and carrot pairing? No application of sanctions for dealing with difficult policy change has succeeded in recent years without some type of incentive mix, even if the carrot has entailed simply removing the original sanctions. This maxim has consistently held in using sanctions for weapons proliferation control, as the cases of Libya, North Korea (in the positive), and Iran (in the negative) illustrate.

Third, despite their precision, smart sanctions seldom produce immediate and full compliance from targets. Rather, in a number of cases they produce partial compliance and generate pressure on targets and imposers to engage in more direct bargaining to achieve the sanctions objectives. Thus, the economic squeeze felt by the target represents only the first tier of success of smart sanctions. Over time, the political success of a change in the target's behavior results less from the target's economic pain and more from the gains it hopes to make at the bargaining table, a milieu for negotiation created by the sanctions.

In Yugoslavia (1991–1995), sanctions exerted leverage on the Belgrade regime, leading diplomats to bring Milošević to the table at the conference that created the Dayton Peace Accords. In Libya, from the mid-1990s until a decade later, sanctions were a central factor in the ongoing negotiations that brought suspected terrorists to trial and convinced the regime to reduce its support of international terrorism. In Angola, sanctions that were initially ineffective became stronger over the years and combined with military and diplomatic pressures to weaken the UNITA rebel movement. In Liberia, sanctions first denied resources, and then, after increased engagement by the imposers with the fighting factions, the sanctions helped deny legitimacy to the Charles Taylor regime.

Fourth, sanctions succeed when decision makers remember that sanctions are only tools—and thus only one of several important means—of a larger foreign policy for which multiple tools should be serving a clearly specified policy goal. When sanctions become the policy, or are maintained for so long that they, for practical purposes, become the policy, they are no longer effective. This was the trap the United States and the United Nations fell into by the mid-1990s with sanctions on Iraq. It has been the dilemma for decades of the U.S. experience with sanctions on Cuba.

A corollary is that sanctions that fail to accomplish their goals, especially after two years, should be suspended. There might be good reason to continue arms embargoes against a repressive regime in order that the imposer withhold whatever tools of abuse it can, but if economic coercion produces no change in the political behavior or compliance of the target, a new set of tools is in order. Policy elites who resist this concept become committed to the commitment to sanctions and fail to reevaluate the means to their goal.

Fifth, an important maxim for foreign policy officials to accept and act on is that sanctions succeed when the target believes that the actions of the imposer will progress in harshness and include military force should sanctions fail. This is especially true when dealing with rights violators who know that sanctions have not, by themselves, ever toppled a rights-abusive regime.

Understandably, this principle is not popular among those who consider sanctions useful because they are an effective alternative to war, an alternative firmly grounded in international law and one that can muster wide support involving the United States, the United Nations, and multilateral agencies. But this maxim requires a long view in the U.S. tendency to impose sanctions as a means of “doing something” when rights violations or other illegal action is taken by another nation. Unless the imposer has considered the role and sequence of stronger enforcement measures in the progression from sanctions to changed behavior of the target, sanctions become a gamble backed only by threatening language rather than by substance, a situation of bluffing the sanctions imposer hopes the sanctions target does not discover. The Haiti example, of course, stands out as the exemplar of this maxim.

Sixth, the structure and use of sanctions to achieve the goal desired from the target must be clear. The more effective sanctions detail a clear and limited number of demands and are clear and credible overall. Both the United States and the target must be in full agreement about what constitutes compliance. Moreover, the target must be confident that if it changes its behavior in accord with the actions specified in the sanctions, the imposer will lift coercive pressure and extend promised benefits in a timely manner.

These issues might appear to be issues of micromanagement best left to the bureaucrats who implement sanctions. But it is critical for the success of human rights sanctions that the target knows the specific behaviors the imposer requires and knows the powerful imposer will move beyond sanctions to stronger measures if sanctions fail.


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By George A. Lopez