Academic journal article Global Governance

Are Sanctions Meant to Work? the Politics of Creating and Implementing Sanctions through the United Nations

Academic journal article Global Governance

Are Sanctions Meant to Work? the Politics of Creating and Implementing Sanctions through the United Nations

Article excerpt

Sanctions, it has often been said, stand between statements and soldiers. In situations where something more than a diplomatic dressing down is required, but where a military response is either inappropriate or impossible, sanctions are frequently turned to as a third option. As a result, sanctions are sometimes used as a default policy option, reflecting the seriousness of the problem rather than the seriousness of engagement with it. (1) As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated, "getting sanctions fight has [often] been a less compelling goal than getting sanctions adopted." (2)

Do sanctions work? The jury remains out on this question, but two preliminary issues bear further examination. What are sanctions intended to achieve? And do states actually "want" sanctions to work? These essentially political questions depend on two discrete dynamics that are the subject of this article, which focuses largely on sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. The first is the political context of the Council and how the intentions of key actors are channeled into sanctions regimes. The second is the political economy in which those sanctions operate. The two areas will be examined in turn, followed by an examination of how debate within and without the United Nations might be advanced on these questions.

Politics in the Security Council

Before 1990, the UN Security Council had imposed mandatory sanctions only twice: the economic blockade of Southern Rhodesia (1966-1979) (3) and the arms embargo on South Africa (1977-1994). (4) During the 1990s--a period David Cortright and George A. Lopez rightly call "The Sanctions Decade" (5)--mandatory sanctions were imposed against over a dozen states: Iraq and occupied Kuwait, successor states of the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Libya, Liberia, Haiti, Angola (UNITA), Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (in relation to actions in Kosovo), Afghanistan (Taliban regime), and Eritrea and Ethiopia. (6)

Sanctions were also employed for a diverse range of purposes ranging from reversing territorial aggression to restoring democratically elected leaders, as well as promoting human rights, deterring and punishing terrorism, promoting disarmament, and bringing belligerents to peace negotiations. As Cortright and Lopez conclude, few instances of sanctions support the view that sanctions alone achieved their goal. In Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Haiti, military force followed the perceived failure of sanctions (or sanctions alone) to change behavior. In Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, UN sanctions appear to have had little influence on the use of force by local actors. Only in Libya did sanctions appear to accomplish their objectives without the added ingredient of a military confrontation. (7)

The sharp increase in the recourse to sanctions appears to have had less to do with a consensus on their utility than with the more general political consensus that emerged within the Council after the Cold War. Even so, sanctions have frequently been controversial. The humanitarian crisis in Iraq in the 1990s was the most obvious example--though it was hotly debated whether the crisis could be attributed to the sanctions themselves or domestic governmental choices, the effect was to increase awareness of the humanitarian impact of sanctions and the dangers of imposing general economic sanctions without criteria or a time frame for their removal (see Table 1).

This section will examine how the political context of the Council has had concrete effects in the design, implementation, and termination of sanctions regimes.


Sanctions have been imposed for a wide variety of purposes with varying degrees of success. It is possible, however, to divide sanctions into three broad classes that help to clarify the political context within which they operate.

First, sanctions may be intended to compel compliance with international law. …

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