Reflections on the Sanctions Decade and Beyond

By Doxey, Margaret | International Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Reflections on the Sanctions Decade and Beyond


Doxey, Margaret, International Journal


Faced with unwelcome external situations that threaten national or international interests, governments must decide whether to respond and, if so, what form their response should take. This decision-making process is more complex and likely to be more protracted when multilateral action is contemplated. Although no two situations are ever identical and it is important not to draw false analogies, there are often common, or comparable, features from which useful lessons may be learned, and a review of relevant past experience should be a component of intelligent statecraft.

When diplomatic, political, and/or economic sanctions are under consideration as an alternative or prequel to the use of force, there is now a wealth of experience to draw on. In the second half of the 20th century, continuing into the 2 ist, unilateral, regional and, in the post-Cold War period, United Nations sanctions have been extensively used. Indeed, the 19905 have been described as "the sanctions decade."1 There were earlier cases of unilateral and group sanctions, for instance United States' sanctions on Cuba, imposed in i960 and still in place, and in 1979 the western response to the Iran hostage crisis and to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But in the years 1945-1990, sanctions were mainly a hot topic in relation to white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid in South Africa. The Rhodesian government's unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 resulted in comprehensive sanctions ordered by the security council. In contrast, mandatory UN sanctions against South Africa were limited to an arms embargo, but significant boycotts were imposed by nongovernmental organizations as well as intergovernmental bodies and individual governments, contributing to South Africa's isolation and financial difficulties. There were lessons to be learned from the Rhodesian case. Sanctions were by no means a quick fix as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had forecast: the Rhodesian economy showed surprising resilience and the support of South Africa as friend and neighbour assisted the Smith regime to survive for more than a decade.

With the end of the Cold War, however, a new consensus developed among the five permanent members of the UN security council (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States), and a spate of mandatory sanctions began with the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The Iraq sanctions remained in place until the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and there were also high-profile sanctioning episodes involving Libya, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Other cases were prompted by conflict within and between African states and by the conduct of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.2

As is well known, article 39 of the UN charter provides that nonviolent measures may be ordered by the security council to deal with a threat to or breach of the peace or an act of aggression. AU members are then required to implement them. However, many potential cases of sanctions fall by the wayside because one or more of the veto-wielding permanent members protects its own or its client's interests. It is also important to note that among the 10 non-permanent members of the council there may be divided opinions: the need to be "onside" with allies may be a factor in supporting a sanctions resolution, but if there is no veto only nine affirmative votes are needed. Some members therefore may have opposed resolutions that have been adopted. Nor can support for sanctions be taken for granted in the UN membership at large. "Secondary" penalties for noncompliance are unlikely to find favour; inducements are problematic. Three basic facts about security council sanctions are that they may or may not be achievable, that the terms of any resolution will inevitably reflect compromise, and that there will be varying degrees of enthusiasm for implementation. Political will among all those involved is a crucial factor. …

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