The Case for Targeted Financial Sanctions

By Strydom, Hennie | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Case for Targeted Financial Sanctions

Strydom, Hennie, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


Growing scepticism over the effectiveness of United Nations Security Council sanctions has led to an in-depth discussion over and investigation into methods and strategies that will make sanctions work and that will hopefully also restrict the unintended effects of sanctions on the civilian population. Current efforts in this field are about restoring trust in sanctions as an enforcement instrument in international law aimed at bringing about change in the behaviour of states. Of special interest is the increase in the use of economic sanctions since the 1990s and the opportunity it offers to make such sanctions "smarter" by targeting leaders and elite groups rather than vulnerable groups.


Currently the United Nations (UN) is reviewing all aspects of its sanctions instruments with a view to avoid undesirable collateral damage in third states as well as to limit the humanitarian impact of sanctions. This process, precipitated by the Gulf Crisis, comes in the wake of an increase in the number of Security Council resolutions imposing non-military sanctions on states in terms of Chapter VII of the UN Charter since the 1990s. Before this time there were only the mandatory sanctions against Rhodesia (1) from 1966-1979 and the mandatory arms embargo against South Africa (2) from 1977. Among the many issues raised is the objective of enhancing the effectiveness of sanctions and reducing their unintended side-effects by targeting sanctions on elites, government officials and selected entities.

The current debate has many commendable aspects. One is that it sends a valedictory message to the conventional, unsophisticated belief that political change is directly proportional to economic hardship. Opinions of late are much more reasoned, as apparent inter alia from the following observation by a former UN Secretary-General on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the organisation:

Sanctions, as is generally recognised, are a blunt instrument. They raise the ethical question of whether suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders whose behaviour is unlikely to be affected by the plight of their subjects. Sanctions also always have unintended or unwanted effects. They can complicate the work of humanitarian agencies ... They can conflict with the development objectives of the Organisation ... They can have a severe effect on other countries that are neighbours or major economic partners of the target country. They can also defeat their own purposes by provoking a patriotic response against the international community ... and by rallying the populations behind the leaders whose behaviour the sanctions are intended to modify. (3)

Reisman also argues that there is no empirical evidence to support the sanctions theory of a "trickle up" effect which contends that the increased pain experienced by the lower social strata will percolate upwards, "by some remarkable osmosis", to change the hearts and minds of those in power. (4)

There are many sides to the current debate. (5) In this article the focus is on the latest developments concerning the more effective enforcement of targeted financial sanctions. The imposition of this type of sanction not only presents major technical challenges but also demands a new level of international co-operation.


Before the issues involved in the imposition of targeted financial sanctions are considered in more detail, the general framework set by the UN for an effective implementation of collective Security Council sanctions as an international policy tool in response to threats against international peace and security, needs attention.

In the first instance it is required that sanctions must be commensurate with the objective to modifying the "behaviour of a party that is threatening international peace and security and not to punish or otherwise exact retribution".

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The Case for Targeted Financial Sanctions


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