Economic Sanctions: When Appropriate, When Not


A study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1995 found that about 576,000 Iraqi children may have died since the end of the Gulf War as a result of the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The SC sanctions, imposed for the invasion of Kuwait (1990), so deeply affected Iraqi civilians that a United Nations mission in 1991 reported that “the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met.” This dilemma quickly led to the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme, when Iraq was permitted to sell limited quantities of oil to meet the needs of its people. Along with the high personal cost of sanctions on civilian populations, literature on the topic also suggests that only in about one-third of cases were economic sanctions successful in achieving their stated policy objectives. Despite the sanctions’ ineffectiveness and unintended consequences, they continue to be a popular policy tool. Therefore, it is important to establish when the use of economic sanctions is appropriate, so that their benefits outweigh their costs.

Sanctions are non-forcible measures taken by international organizations, more specifically the United Nations Security Council. They differ grossly from “coercive measures taken individually by States or groups of States outside a determination and a decision by a legally competent social organ’, including countermeasures,” as international judge Abi-Saab put it. They are instead “coercive measures taken in execution of a decision of a competent social organ, i.e. an organ legally empowered to act in the name of the society or community that is governed by the legal system,” and as defined by the British Royal Institute of International Affairs “against an infringement, actual or threatened, of the law.” Article 24(1) of the United Nations Charter gives the Security Council “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” The United Nations Security Council has the power to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall…decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security,” according to Article 39 of the Charter, With Article 41 providing the UNSC the power to “decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions”.

There are different types of sanctions that can be imposed on a state or a non-state entity. Economic sanctions involve imposing boycotts, trade and commodity embargoes, and financial sanctions. These sanctions work by reversing international trade theories, which function under the assumption that world economic welfare is maximised under conditions of free-trade. The argument follows that different goods require different factor proportions, and different countries have different relative factor endowments which means they have different opportunity costs of productions and thus, a comparative advantage in the production of a good. Countries will specialize in the goods that use abundant factor goods and trade them for goods that use scare factors intensively. Therefore, any limitation on trade will create a net welfare loss – a trade and commodity embargo creates a supply shock and a boycott isolates the target country from the world market.

Two key factors have to be present for economic sanctions to be effective, namely, a high pre-sanction trade volume and access to sources of revenue. When there is a high level of pre-sanction trade and boycotts, trade and commodity embargoes, and financial sanctions of highly valued products cannot be replaced, re-sourced, sold or resold, this situation adds obstacles to the targeted regime. They will find it  difficult to continue without conceding to the demands of the sanctions regime as they directly impact the economy of the targeted country. In addition, cutting off access to the targeted country’s sources of revenue such as oil, diamonds and timber is effective since it greatly constrains the target.

The use and popularity of sanctions has surged in recent years despite the controversy surrounding their effectiveness and negative consequences as a policy instrument. The popularity in sanctions mainly stems from their appeal as a non-forcible measure providing an alternative to the use of force to achieve similar ends or take a stance on a particular issue. The nature and use of sanctions has evolved over the years to counter some of the criticism and to also adapt to changing circumstances. One recent development is the imposition of sanctions on non-state actors such as terrorist organizations in an effort to counter international terrorism. This recent development gave rise to another development, which is a new norm, that economic sanctions imposed by the UNSC take the form of ‘smart sanctions’, which directly impact individuals responsible for a breach or a threat to international peace and security, rather than attacking a state and its citizens as a whole. Still, even with the wide use of sanctions and the development of smart or targeted sanctions, they are not appropriate in every case. Sanctions are generally used by the UNSC to a) end a rebellion, invasion or external interference, b) to restore a legitimate and/or democratically-elected government to power, c) to facilitate the exercise or protection of human rights, d) to bring about disarmament or arms control, e) to facilitate the establishment and consolidation of peace, f) to address international terrorism, and g) to promote good governance.

Economic sanctions may be an appropriate policy tool for the UNSC to impose when they are predicted to be imposed for the short-run and achieve the sanction regime objective in the time imposed. Economic sanctions tend to be most successful in the initial years of implementation because the targeted countries tend to make adjustments to their economies under sanctions overtime. For instance, if economic sanctions on a state break the pre-sanction pattern of specialization and the division of labour, the targeted country will need to re-allocate labour and capital towards other sectors, which needs time. Therefore, the longer the sanctions are imposed, the more their effectiveness diminishes because the targeted country has time to adjust to the changes in specialization. Thus, although nuclear proliferation represents an actual threat to international peace and security, it is not appropriate to impose economic sanctions to bring disarmament or arms control – it requires long-term imposition of the economic sanctions which the targeted country can work around and overcome, while innocent civilians suffer the negative or unintended consequences in the process.

Another case in which it may be appropriate for the UNSC to impose economic sanctions is when the sanctions regime has narrowly defined objectives. Objectives such as to facilitate the exercise or protection of human rights and to promote good governance  are too vague and too broad, and can give rise to many debates on the universality of features of good governance or human rights. In these cases without a clear goal, the use of economic sanctions is ineffective and therefore inappropriate.

Countermeasures and sanctions are a highly underdeveloped area of international law. If we are to continually use them, research on their appropriateness and measures to counter their negative or unintended consequences needs to take place. Economic sanctions should not be studied as purely an economic phenomenon, since economic assumptions made to conduct a cost-benefit analysis fail to adequately take into account certain factors when weighing up the costs and benefits of imposing sanctions. For now, economic sanctions should only be used in appropriate cases with narrow, clearly defined objectives, and combined with programs such as peacekeeping missions for optimal results for the purpose of the maintenance of international peace and security.