Economic Sanctions: Balancing Principles, National Interests and the Advancement of World Law


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

The ongoing UN Security Council discussions concerning sanctions against Syria and greater US and European Union sanctions against Iran have brought to the fore the justice, aims and effectiveness of economic sanctions and the prohibition of arms sales to countries in conflict.  These are issues of import       ance, and my aim is to call attention to the issues and some of the policy-making implications.  I have no specific answers beyond the belief that sanctions could lead to good-faith negotiations while military intervention will not. The theory of economic sanctions is far from being sufficiently sophisticated at present to explain the complex behaviour of the States that impose sanctions and those that are the target.

As David Cortright and George Lopez point out in the book they edited on sanctions

Our knowledge of the imposition, maintenance, effectiveness, and context of sanctions use lags far behind the needs of policymakers. It comes as no surprise then that academic and policy discussions are dominated by stock phrases — ‘sanctions are blunt instruments’, ‘sanctions are a response to domestic pressure to do something’, ‘sanctions are halfway measures’, and more recently ‘sanctions harm the wrong people ‘ — that do little to clarify the utility of sanctions use in particular circumstances.” (1)

The issue of international sanctions and the prohibition of arms sales are not new issues. They were hotly debated within the League of Nations at the time of the 1931 Manchurian crisis when the League took no action and in 1936 when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Debates at the national level, especially in France and England concerning the arms boycott to Republican Spain were particularly strong as the Spanish civil war divided opinions (2)

In a now largely forgotten book Sanctions Begone! A Plea and a Plan for the Reform of the League (1936), General H. Rowan-Robinson recommended the amendment of the League Covenant by the elimination of Article XIV which provided for the use of sanctions. He made no other recommendations for substantial change in the functioning of the League other than to advise States to follow US neutrality legislation which gave legal justification for doing nothing.

The percentage of hypocrisy, national interest, and the wider concern for peace in these League-period cases remains open. There were people of good will and intelligence who were divided on the better option to follow. However among policymakers, there is often ‘historical amnesia’, and past experiences are not analysed in detail.

Thus, the first issue to consider is the goal. The second is the methods, and the third is the consequences of sanctions.

The setting of goals is both the most difficult and often the least publicly defended issue. Sanctions have been largely ineffective in bringing about a change in government leadership. Fidel Castro stayed on until only old age and health conditions made him pass on the leadership to his brother. Years of sanctions on Iraq did not lead to ‘regime change’, only a military invasion did. The possibility of sanctions to change specific policies and practices is uneven, as many changes might have come from internal dynamics rather than external sanctions — South Africa being a text case of the respective weight of economic sanctions and internal evolution.

Thus most discussion concerns means. Generally, the theory of sanctions postulates that within the target State, there” is a linkage between economic deprivation and political change.  The assumption is that there is a link between economic deprivation, behaviour modification and political disintegration. Threatening people’s incomes is as effective as threatening their lives.  However, one also needs to consider the social, cultural, and psychological characteristics of the target population. Moreover, the whole population is rarely in a political decision-making position.  Therefore, there is increasing discussion of the effectiveness of ‘smart sanctions’ — sanctions narrowly directed toward responsible elites in the target country, such as freezing foreign assets, limiting travel and prohibiting foreign financial transactions.

A discussion on ‘smart sanctions’ has led to a concern with the consequences of sanctions.  In 1995, the then UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali  proposed the creation within the UN secretariat of a sanctions monitoring group to assess the potential impact of sanctions before they are imposed, to monitor the implementation and to measure their effects so they can be fine tuned to maximize political impact and minimize collateral damage.(3). Although a separate sanctions monitoring section was not created, these concerns became widely shared by secretariat members. (3).

While at present UN-mandated sanctions against Syria are unlikely due to Russian and Chinese opposition, the use, abuse and limits of sanctions and arms boycotts merit close attention.


(1)   David Cortright and George Lopez (Eds) Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World? (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995, 231pp.)

(2)   For a good overview of the sanctions debates especially during the League of Nations period see M.S. Daoudi and M.S. Dajani Economic Sanctions: Ideals and Experiences (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983, 263pp.)

(3)   Supplement to an Agenda for peace. Position Paper of the Secretary General on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations, 1995.


René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Feb 2012.

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