Global Policy Forum

Learning from the Sanctions Decade


David Cortright and George A. Lopez

Centre for World Dialogue

Summer 2000

David Cortright is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum in Goshen, Indiana, and fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. George A. Lopez is faculty fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute and professor of government and international studies at the University of Notre Dame. Their analysis in this paper is drawn from their book The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s (Lynne Rienner, 2000). Readers wishing to review their sources and examine the actual case data upon which their conclusions are drawn are directed to that volume.

In August 1990, in response to the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council imposed an oil embargo and comprehensive trade sanctions on Iraq. This began an extraordinary decade of sanctions activism in the Security Council that contrasted sharply with the relative quietism of the previous forty-five years. The end of the Cold War allowed the once contentious superpowers to work together in activating the peace and security mechanisms of the UN Charter. The result was not only an increase in peacekeeping missions but also a sharp rise in the number of sanctions episodes.

Two aspects of this trend were particularly striking. The first was the proliferation of sanctions cases. Whereas the Security Council had imposed sanctions only twice previously (against Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977), in the past decade it has imposed comprehensive or partial sanctions against Iraq (1990), the former Yugoslavia (1991, 1992 and 1998), Libya (1992), Liberia (1992), Somalia (1992), parts of Cambodia (1992), Haiti (1993), parts of Angola (1993, 1997 and 1998), Rwanda (1994), Sudan (1996), Sierra Leone (1997 and 2000), Afghanistan (1999) and Ethiopia and Eritrea (2000). In addition, bilateral or regional economic sanctions were imposed more than three dozen times during the past decade.

The second noteworthy dimension was the diverse range of purposes for which sanctions were employed: to reverse territorial aggression, restore democratically elected leaders, promote human rights, deter and punish terrorism and promote disarmament. A parallel trend emerged in the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops, which were used for a broad range of purposes beyond the traditional interposing role of the period from 1945 to 1990. The new sanctions era of the 1990s appeared to offer the promise of effective Security Council action to resolve conflict and enforce international legal norms without the use of military force. But the use of sanctions was not without controversy. In Iraq, Yugoslavia and Haiti, sanctions gave way to the use of military force. In the African cases, especially Angola, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, UN sanctions appeared to have little influence on the use of force by various national and regional parties. Only in Libya did sanctions appear to accomplish their objectives without military confrontation. The evidence for sanctions as a viable means of peacemaking thus seemed ambiguous.

Moreover, the terrible humanitarian crisis in Iraq during the 1990s was related to, if not directly caused by, the economic stranglehold of sanctions. As the decade progressed, the increased visibility of suffering and death among Iraqi children, and the deterioration of the social situation and health-care systems in Haiti, created a palpable sense of sanctions fatigue among Security Council members, generating caution about the imposition of new sanctions and outright condemnation of sanctions by some diplomats, scholars and activists.1

Despite the debate and controversy, key actors within the UN community continued to portray sanctions as a necessary and important policy instrument. In 1996, a sub-group of the UN General Assembly's Informal Open-Ended Working Group on "An Agenda for Peace" asserted that "an effectively implemented regime of collective Security Council sanctions can operate as a useful international policy tool in a graduated response to threats to international peace and security".2 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted in his Africa report of 1998 that "sanctions, as preventive or punitive measures, have the potential to encourage political dialogue, while the application of rigorous economic and political sanctions can diminish the capacity of the protagonists to sustain a prolonged fight".3 The Security Council confirmed the centrality of sanctions later in the decade when it voted in 1998 to approve new, comprehensive sanctions against the Angolan rebel movement Unita and an arms embargo on the Milosevic regime in Serbia; in 1999 when it imposed travel and financial sanctions on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; and in 2000 when it established an arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea and added a diamond boycott to the sanctions in Sierra Leone.

It is not surprising that these unprecedented activities generated substantial discussion in policy and academic circles. Sanctions imposed by the Security Council at once charted new territory and left analysts wondering whether they represented a trend. The assessment and derivation of "lessons" from each sanctions episode was an ongoing enterprise that shaped how subsequent cases unfolded. As each new episode progressed, the Security Council benefited from previous cases and made its own contributions to the emerging set of generalisations about the character of UN sanctions. These assumptions in turn set the parameters for understanding and evaluating UN sanctions policy.

In this paper we highlight six generalisations that have dominated the sanctions discourse during the past decade and that serve as a road map for viewing sanctions. Like other road maps, they delineate major locales, in this instance specifying the current state of consciousness regarding UN-mandated economic sanctions. They also provide a basis for scrutinising the case studies that we examine in the second half of this paper. In this assessment of cases we attempt to draw lessons about the present working of UN sanctions and to identify policy recommendations for ways to improve the use of this instrument in the future.

A Sanctions Road Map

The following are essential assumptions that underlie academic and policy assessments of economic sanctions:

1. Economic success does not guarantee political success. Whereas many of the embargoes of previous decades were extremely porous, several of the high-profile cases of the past decade have been very effective in economically isolating the targeted regime. Military interdiction and advanced monitoring and tracking technologies combined to create new possibilities for sealing national borders. This effectiveness was especially evident in the cases of Iraq and Yugoslavia. It was no small irony, then, that the ability actually to isolate an economy did not produce the anticipated political outcomes. The United Nations demonstrated a remarkable ability in a world of economic interdependence to bring some of the targeted economies to a standstill. But to the dismay of decision makers, economic strangulation did not automatically or consistently lead to political compliance, i.e., the decision by a targeted leadership to acquiesce to the dictates of the Security Council regarding issues that generated economic sanctions.

This is not to suggest that sanctions regularly failed to achieve their political objectives. In the UN cases of the past decade sanctions were often successful in exerting bargaining pressure and in several instances contributed significantly to achieving the political purposes defined by the Security Council. But it is important to note that as the sanctions episodes unfolded, this disconnection between substantial economic effect and limited political impact led to frustration and the assumption that sanctions do not work. Some nations began to understand sanctions as instruments of punishment and retribution rather than tools of diplomatic persuasion, which generated cynicism and further criticism of sanctions as a policy instrument.

2. Sanctions can have serious unintended consequences. Compounding the dilemma that economic success did not always produce the desired political compliance, it became clear very early in the decade that the sharpened economic bite of sanctions was wreaking havoc on the wellbeing of vulnerable populations within the targeted countries, especially in Iraq. Traditionally, concerns about the unintended effects of sanctions had focused on the disruption of trade. Article 50 of the UN Charter offered trading partners or neighbouring states of a targeted nation the opportunity to seek compensation to offset the economic losses suffered because of their participation in Security Council sanctions. The discussion of adverse, unintended consequences focused almost exclusively on economic impacts, not on the situation of average citizens living within a targeted state.

It did not occur to policy makers or analysts early in the decade that the unintended impacts of sanctions would harm those very social sectors within a targeted country that might be most supportive of the norms being protected by the UN Security Council. Consideration of these matters was somewhat skewed by the experience of South Africa, where the African National Congress supported economic sanctions even while acknowledging their deleterious effect on the majority population. By the decade's end, it was clear that sanctions carried with them the potential for bitter irony: often imposed to prevent human rights abuse and lawlessness, sanctions sometimes strengthened the centralised control of repressive regimes. At times they also disempowered those who were opposing from within policies that were being subjected to isolation from without.

By the end of the decade, decision makers and scholars alike embarked on a search for ways to increase the political effectiveness of sanctions while reducing unintended negative consequences. The resulting quest for targeted, or "smart", sanctions dominated the discussion of sanctions policy and led to intensive efforts by member states and the UN Secretariat to develop more precise and selective forms of economic coercion.

3. The UN system lacks the ability to administer sanctions. Throughout the 1990s the Security Council had to improvise mechanisms to impose, administer and monitor sanctions effectively. The sanctions committees established in each case to oversee implementation varied in effectiveness according to the degree of politicisation of the particular episode, its relative importance for the major powers and the leadership provided by the committee chairs. But in all cases the United Nations' ability to enforce sanctions was woefully inadequate. In an era of financial constraint at the United Nations, the Security Council and its sanctions committees lacked sufficient resources to evaluate and implement sanctions.

A substantial amount of learning and adaptation occurred during the past decade as the UN system began to find other innovative approaches to improving implementation. Sanctions became more tightly focused, had clearer objectives and even began to feature pre-assessments of likely impacts. Strategies for mitigating adverse humanitarian impacts on vulnerable populations were incorporated into sanctions policies and considered essential for their success. At the policy level, a variety of creative proposals circulated by the end of the decade for better targeting of sanctions. The most important of these was the two-year initiative of the Swiss government, the Interlaken process, which produced serious and far-reaching proposals for refining targeted financial sanctions. In April 2000 the Security Council established a sanctions reform working group to recommend specific changes in UN policies and procedures. One of the issues the council sought to address in these efforts was how to end sanctions in cases of partial or ambiguous compliance. Thus, the concept of "suspension" emerged as a halfway point between continuing and ending sanctions. This may be a precursor to the development of other concepts and strategies that permit greater bargaining within a sanctions environment.

4. There are tensions between the goals of the Security Council and those of member states. Early in the decade Lisa Martin published a detailed theoretical study demonstrating that the co-operation sustaining sanctions tends to change among states as the sanctions episode progresses.4 Larger and more powerful states, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, have tended historically to steer or capture the sanctions enterprise to meet their particular foreign policy objectives, which may or may not match the goals of the broader UN community. The history of the Iraqi and Libyan cases in particular reflects tensions between UN objectives and those of major states such as the United States and Great Britain.

5. Sanctions are sometimes used as an alternative or prelude to war. For many member states and UN officials, the attraction of sanctions lies in their potential utility as an alternative way of responding to threats to peace. They comprise a middle ground between doing nothing and authorising the use of military force. Others view sanctions as a peaceful means of coercion or as a powerful means of persuasion but, in any case, as an alternative to the use of force. Under this rubric, sanctions were not to be followed by the use of force. In the cases of Iraq, Haiti and Yugoslavia, however, sanctions gave way to military force, with the conclusion easily derived from the first two cases that military force accomplished what sanctions could not. Some analysts suggested that sanctions seemed to be used as a way of softening public opinion for the subsequent use of force, as a first step toward war that crippled the targeted economy and psychologically intimidated its population.

Apart from this debate on intentionality in the use of sanctions, it is important to recognise that sanctions are extreme measures that can have effects in some cases equal to or more severe than those of war. The perception of sanctions as a peaceful or "soft" tool of persuasion does not reflect the harsh reality of the economic and social devastation that can result, especially from general trade sanctions. Sanctions are often a biting means of economic coercion and need to be understood as instruments of forceful diplomacy. As one sanctions committee chairperson noted to us, the best understanding of sanctions may be that they are three-quarters of the way toward the use of force, and that they may have their greatest impact when it is clear to the targeted state that the imposers will resort to military force if sanctions fail to achieve their stated goal.

6. We currently learn about sanctions effectiveness by using case studies and statistical method. During the past decade, analysts have been preoccupied with the question of sanctions effectiveness. The prior methodological challenge, however, is in some ways more important: how do we know what we think we know about sanctions effectiveness? Those who operate within a tradition of comparative case analysis cite specific examples to validate their claims. For optimists, South Africa demonstrates that sanctions can achieve their stated objectives if the imposers are consistent, patient and stay the course. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the UN sanctions against the Unita faction in Angola, applied over an eight-year period, twice strengthened by the Security Council, yet utterly ineffective in constraining the military capability of the targeted entity or preventing continued warfare. Also on the extreme end of the analytic spectrum is the case of Iraq, where sanctions are seen as purely an instrument of punishment against a civilian population, with no hope of changing the leadership or its policies.

The alternative to case analysis, of course, exists in the statistical method employed by the Institute for International Economics (IIE) in its classic study Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, which examined 116 cases of sanctions from 1914 to 1990. The IIE analysis argues that sanctions have been effective, albeit at a lower rate of success than might be desired. The IIE method relies on case analysis as well, however, and it must make sometimes uncertain judgements about the degree of compliance by a targeted regime and the role of sanctions in such compliance. As a result, this study has been subjected to varying interpretations about the actual rate of effectiveness. Each approach, the empirical and the case-study method, has created its own controversies, and each poses opportunities and challenges for understanding sanctions impacts.

Sanctions Cases

In our book, The Sanctions Decade, we explore the effectiveness of the twelve cases of UN Security Council sanctions imposed during the 1990s-Iraq, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Libya, Sudan, Cambodia, Angola (Unita), Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and Afghanistan. Our study attempts to determine the political impact and humanitarian consequences of sanctions in each case. As part of our analysis we offer a "bargaining model" framework that focuses on the process of negotiation that may result from the imposition of sanctions as an important but often overlooked criterion of political effectiveness.

The dominant case is Iraq, which is in a class by itself as the longest, most comprehensive and most severe multilateral sanctions regime ever imposed. In our book and elsewhere we explore the controversy over the humanitarian consequences of these sanctions and assess the complicated but crucial question of whether these measures have been successful in exerting pressure on the Iraqi regime.5 We argue, contrary to conventional wisdom, that the sanctions against Iraq have been partially effective, notwithstanding the misuse of the instrument by the major powers and the manipulation of their impacts by the authorities in Baghdad.

The most important conclusion from the case data is that sanctions appear to be more effective in gaining target compliance than is widely acknowledged. Although in no instance did sanctions achieve full and immediate compliance, in three cases-Iraq, Yugoslavia and Libya-sanctions achieved moderate to high success. And in Cambodia, sanctions contributed in a limited fashion to the successful isolation of the Khmer Rouge. Three or four of the twelve cases thus could be judged as at least partially successful. In four other episodes-Haiti, Angola, Sierra Leone and Somalia-sanctions had a limited, temporary effect in sparking negotiations, but they had no longer-term impact in containing armed violence or changing the policies of the targeted regime. In three cases-Sudan, Liberia and Rwanda-UN sanctions were a complete failure and had no policy impact whatsoever. Our assessment of success in three out of eleven6 cases translates into a 27 per cent effectiveness rate. If we add the Cambodia case, the effectiveness rate is 36 per cent.

This scoring of the UN sanctions cases in the 1990s conforms generally with the 34 per cent overall rate of effectiveness found by the IIE in its analysis of a much broader set of more diverse cases over a longer period of time.7 By our scoring system, UN sanctions during the 1990s were reasonably successful, more so than is generally acknowledged.

Our assessments are consistent with the case evidence, even if they appear contrary to conventional wisdom. We judge sanctions a success if they had a positive, enduring impact on bargaining dynamics or if they helped isolate or weaken the power of an abusive regime. Our standard for success is not complete capitulation by the target but some indication that sanctions produced at least partial compliance. These are modest, but we believe, realistic benchmarks for evaluating the overall effectiveness of UN sanctions. By these standards, UN sanctions during the decade achieved a reasonable degree of success.

Comprehensive or Selective?

One of the most striking findings of the cases is that two of the four examples of partial success-Iraq and Yugoslavia-involved comprehensive trade sanctions. The cases in which economic damage was most severe were also the ones in which political impacts were greatest. On the other side of the ledger, several of the worst failures-Sudan, Liberia and Rwanda-involved cases where the Security Council imposed the most minimal measures and took no enforcement action. The obvious lesson is that comprehensive, rigorously enforced sanctions are more likely to be successful than limited, unenforced measures. Again, this confirms the findings of the IIE study.

Comprehensiveness is no guarantee of success, however. UN sanctions became increasingly comprehensive against Angola during the 1990s without apparent impact. In Haiti, sanctions became comprehensive during the latter stages of the episode but gave way to the use of military force without affecting the final outcome. In some cases selective sanctions were effective. In Libya, an aviation ban and other partial measures helped in applying bargaining pressure that eventually produced a settlement. In Cambodia, limited sanctions contributed to the successful political isolation of the Khmer Rouge. It is difficult to draw conclusions from these differing results. Comprehensive sanctions worked in some cases, whereas selective measures had an impact in others. The one constant theme was that limited, poorly enforced sanctions had no chance of success.

Many sanctions policy makers and analysts, ourselves included, have expressed enthusiasm for the potential of targeted sanctions to achieve political impacts without causing unintended humanitarian hardship. As noted, there is growing interest in smart sanctions strategies as an alternative to comprehensive trade restrictions. The evidence from the UN cases of the past decade offers only limited support for the viability of this strategy, however, while raising a number of questions and concerns. Selective or targeted measures were partially effective in Libya and Cambodia but not in Angola and Sierra Leone. Arms embargoes were generally unsuccessful. By contrast, comprehensive sanctions were partially effective in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Our judgement is not that targeted or selective sanctions are ineffective, but that the policy steps necessary to enhance the impact of these more limited measures have not been taken.

The most important constant in the success of sanctions is not the type of measure applied but the degree to which sanctions are enforced. Compliance ultimately determines effectiveness. When member states and regional organisations co-operated in the enforcement of Security Council resolutions, the political impact was greatest. The most extensive enforcement efforts were mounted in Iraq and Yugoslavia. In both cases sanctions had substantial impacts. In the Libya case, international compliance with the aviation ban was nearly universal. In the case of Cambodia, enforcement was less effective, especially along the border with Thailand, but the diplomatic and political isolation of the Khmer Rouge was virtually total.

By contrast, the comprehensive trade sanctions imposed against Haiti were porous until the very end of the episode and were inconsistently applied, lifted and then reapplied. In the case of Angola, increasingly forceful measures were applied in 1997 and 1998, but the inability to enforce the diamond and financial sanctions and the overall lack of compliance with these measures undermined their potential effectiveness. In the cases in which no UN enforcement efforts were mounted-Somalia, Liberia and Rwanda-sanctions had no impact. The experience of the 1990s confirms that sanctions have no chance of succeeding without a credible enforcement effort and concerted international co-operation. Whether the sanctions are comprehensive or selective, general or targeted, their political impact depends on effective implementation.

Smart Sanctions

The track record of targeted, or "smart", UN sanctions during the past decade was uneven. Financial sanctions, arms embargoes and travel bans were applied frequently during the decade, but they produced mixed results:

Financial Sanctions

The role and place of financial sanctions were particularly uncertain. Financial sanctions were a critical part of the package imposed on Iraq in 1990. They were so extensive that they even included, at the request of the Kuwaiti government, a freeze on Kuwaiti financial assets so that these would not fall into the hands of Saddam Hussein. The United States and Great Britain acted swiftly to freeze Kuwaiti assets even before the Security Council voted to impose sanctions. These efforts succeeded in protecting a substantial portion of Kuwaiti financial assets from Iraqi control. But neither national action nor efforts by the United Nations succeeded in locating or freezing many of the assets held by Saddam and his immediate family. The financial sanctions on Iraq involved governmental assets alone and did not impose the kind of targeted pressure on decision-making elites that financial sanctions are capable of exerting.

UN financial sanctions were also applied in varying degrees against Yugoslavia, Haiti and the Unita faction in Angola. As was the case with Iraq, these financial sanctions were targeted against the assets of governments and government-controlled entities. Only in the case of Yugoslavia, in which nearly $3 billion of Yugoslav government assets were frozen, did these measures have much of an impact. No attempt was made by the Security Council to impose mandatory asset freezes on the financial accounts of designated individuals. The UN system lacks the legal authority and institutional capacity to target individual leaders and their personal assets. By contrast, the United States and the European Union have developed considerable experience and institutional capacity for freezing assets of both governments and designated individuals. In response to the Kosovo crisis, for example, US and EU sanctions froze not only Yugoslav government assets but those of Milosevic and several hundred of his closest military and political supporters and business associates. The denial of access to financial accounts and a ban on visas proved to be very effective forms of pressure on these decision-making elites. Until the UN system develops a similar capacity for freezing the assets of individuals as well as governments, the impact of UN financial sanctions will be limited.

Arms Embargoes

These were the most frequently imposed but also the most visibly impotent of UN sanctions during the past decade. Five of the seven cases in which Security Council sanctions had little or no effectiveness-Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia and Rwanda-involved arms embargoes as the sole or primary action. The more recent arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea was also without apparent impact. A number of factors seem to account for these failures. The most important is that member states were in most cases unwilling or unable to enforce these measures. The problem was partly political, with neighbouring states and regional organisations often taking sides and providing military support for particular factions in conflicts the Security Council was attempting to resolve. The challenge of enforcing arms embargoes was also economic, with the lure of profit from the sale of weapons often proving irresistible.

The states in which arms embargoes have been ineffective share some common characteristics other than the general political and economic considerations noted above. These states have very poor transportation structures, especially regarding air transport, which is dominated by private entrepreneurs. Under these conditions, not only is there a lack of regulation and registration of aircraft and routes that might be used to transport illicit arms, but the very same planes might carry humanitarian supplies and medicine alongside a few crates of banned AK-47s. This means that arms embargoes fail partly due to the absence of a modern cargo-management and air-traffic control system. More generally, many of these countries lack even rudimentary control over their borders and have few resources to maintain and ensure the reliability of customs agencies.

In theory, arms embargoes are one of the best tools available to the Security Council for limiting violent conflict and applying pressure on warring parties without causing hardship to vulnerable populations. Arms embargoes have the potential to raise the price of weapons, reduce their availability, limit humanitarian suffering and coax warring actors into negotiations. The problems that have occurred with the actual practice of arms embargoes result not from the instrument itself but from the flawed implementation of these measures. These problems include:

· lack of attention to the purposes of an arms embargo, beyond the symbolic act of "doing something"; and,

· insufficient resources devoted to monitoring and enforcement, both among member states and within the UN system.

Travel Restrictions

Bans on travel have been perceived as the weak link in the cluster of sanctions options available to the Security Council, but they have featured more prominently in the past decade than many acknowledge. They played a particularly important role in the Libya case. Travel sanctions were also part of the comprehensive sanctions packages imposed against Iraq, Yugoslavia and Haiti and were imposed as part of the selective measures against Angola and Sierra Leone. They were threatened but not imposed against Sudan. In light of the relative success of sanctions in Libya, Iraq and Yugoslavia, there may be reason to believe that these travel bans are relatively effective means of isolating and pressuring targeted regimes.

Humanitarian Impacts

The generalisation that the impacts of sanctions are difficult to predict and lead to unintended consequences is partly confirmed by the cases. But the experience of the decade also offers grounds for qualifying this assumption. The cases provide an answer to those who charge that sanctions lack moral legitimacy because they target vulnerable populations and indiscriminately punish those least able to change policy.8 This is a valid critique for the case of Iraq, but it does not apply in most of the other episodes. In only two cases, Iraq and Haiti, did sanctions generate serious humanitarian consequences. In Iraq a severe crisis developed, and in Haiti human suffering was also widespread, although in this case humanitarian hardship was caused as well by the effects of violence and political repression. In both cases major humanitarian relief efforts were mounted. In Iraq the "oil-for-food" programme began to ameliorate some aspects of the crisis, although only after a long delay caused in large part by Baghdad's initial rejection of the programme. In Haiti, large-scale relief efforts were immediate and had a significant impact in preventing a more severe humanitarian crisis.

In most of the cases of the past decade, comprehensive trade sanctions were not the norm. In only one other case, Yugoslavia, were general trade sanctions imposed, and in this instance the impact of these broader measures on public health and nutrition was limited. The more common pattern during the decade was the imposition of selective or targeted measures, including embargoes on oil, arms and other commodities. These more limited measures had few humanitarian consequences. Thus the devastating humanitarian crisis that developed in Iraq was the exception to the rule. The more general pattern across the twelve cases is clear: far-reaching, negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions occurred only in cases where comprehensive trade sanctions were imposed. More selective, targeted sanctions resulted in fewer humanitarian difficulties.

In our examination of the cases we recognised that any attempt to assess the effectiveness and humanitarian consequences of sanctions runs into an insoluble methodological dilemma: how to separate the effects of sanctions from other causes of political and social disruption. By their very nature sanctions are imposed in situations of conflict and political turmoil, where political systems function poorly and civilian populations face multiple stresses and hardships. In most of the cases examined, Libya being perhaps the only exception, the targeted country experienced multiple disasters, including war, armed rebellion, ethnic atrocities, the overthrow of governments and massive involuntary population displacement. Any of these conditions would be sufficient to induce political and social changes within the target society. In combination with one another and with the added pressure of externally imposed sanctions, these conditions created highly chaotic and unpredictable settings in which specific causal factors were difficult to isolate. This does not mean that tracing the influence of sanctions is impossible, but it does suggest the need for humility and caution in drawing conclusions about sanctions effects.

Nonetheless, social impacts are easier to predict and assess than political effects. Countries already on the verge of humanitarian crisis clearly are more likely to be pushed over the edge by effectively imposed economic sanctions. A country such as Iraq that is heavily dependent on the export of a single commodity will be devastated economically and socially by an effective embargo against that commodity. The political impacts of these measures will be more uncertain and diffuse. Policy makers must decide how to exert economic pressure on a vulnerable regime to bring about compliance with international norms without simultaneously causing harmful social effects that may undermine or impede the achievement of those norms.

Unintended Political Effects

A different, more nuanced perspective on unintended consequences focuses on the diverse and far-reaching impacts sanctions can have on political groups and constituencies within the targeted regime. One of the most consistent patterns across the twelve sanctions cases was that disaffected political groups, usually opponents of the regime being targeted, found themselves caught in a double bind. On the one hand, such sanctions as travel and participation bans severely limited their ability to maintain contact with non-governmental organisations and other transnational actors who provided support for their domestic political efforts. When trade sanctions reduced the availability of newsprint, as was the case in Yugoslavia, democratic opposition groups interested in maintaining a free flow of information and countering xenophobia were unable to publish. On the other hand, sanctions provided authoritarian governments with leverage to create a "rally round the flag effect" as a means of suppressing domestic opposition.

The cases of the past decade reveal that sanctions can be self-defeating in the domestic political arena, which is especially troublesome when sanctions are imposed to restore democracy and improve human rights. To some extent negative unintended consequences may be unavoidable. But the Security Council should make every possible effort to ensure that any sanctions it imposes do not unduly victimise or harm the interests of reform groups or opposition constituencies within a targeted regime that support the very norms the United Nations is seeking to uphold.

Despite its limited capacity to administer sanctions effectively, the United Nations was given the task of managing the twelve sanctions cases of the 1990s. In the process the UN system gained valuable experience about the institutional structures and policies that contribute to effectiveness. Although each case unfolded under very diverse circumstances, with differing structural arrangements, some generalisations flow from these experiences:

· Swift, forceful sanctions tend to be more effective than slow, incremental measures.

· With greater co-operation from front-line states and the major trading partners of the target, sanctions will be more successful.

· When a sanctions committee is more engaged, as evidenced by frequency of meetings and the active role of its chair, implementation will be enhanced.

· A greater effort devoted to sanctions monitoring, both regarding violations and political and humanitarian impacts, will produce more effective sanctions.

· The involvement of regional organisations can greatly enhance sanctions implementation.

Each of these findings warrants amplification, as detailed briefly below:

The Scope and Intensity of Sanctions

The cases of the past decade illustrate that the effectiveness of sanctions depends greatly on swift and forceful implementation. This finding confirms the conclusion reached in the original IIE study of 1990 that swift and comprehensive measures are most effective, but does not deny the value of ratcheting up pressure in cases in which previous sanctions have not been sufficient to induce policy change.9 In the Yugoslavia case, the progressive strengthening of measures in Resolution 787 (1992) and 820 (1993) contributed to the effectiveness of sanctions as bargaining leverage on the Milosevic regime. Nor does this emphasis on swift and forceful imposition deny the importance of inducement strategies as part of the sanctions-generated bargaining dynamic. Offering rewards for compliance can produce positive reciprocity and enhance the effectiveness of the bargaining process. The combination of forceful sanctions and concrete incentives for compliance can be highly effective.

The Yugoslavia case illustrates the effectiveness of ratcheting down pressure as an inducement for greater compliance. The lack of such inducements in the Iraq case, by contrast, impeded the prospects for greater compliance. Although the United Nations is limited in the incentives it can offer (lacking financial resources and the ability to provide security assurances), the Security Council can offer a very significant inducement-the lifting or suspending of sanctions. The cases of the past decade show that the desire for a lifting of sanctions is a priority for most targeted regimes. The effective use of this potential reward is crucial to successful bargaining dynamics.

One of the creative inducement concepts that developed in UN circles with regard to the Iraq and Libyan episodes was the notion of sanctions suspension. Rather than raising the issue of an end to sanctions, which would have forced an acrimonious debate within the Security Council, some member states proposed instead a suspension of sanctions. Although some questioned the difference between termination and suspension, arguing that it was only a matter of semantics, for UN diplomats the distinction was important. The latter term implied the maintenance of some sanctions controls and an ability to bargain with a targeted state regarding its continued compliance.

Member State Co-operation

The co-operation of a targeted regime's neighbouring states and principal trading partners is essential. In many of the cases in Africa, where neighbouring states were either unwilling or unable to co-operate with UN sanctions, sanctions were completely ineffective. In Haiti the lack of compliance by the Dominican Republic weakened the impact of sanctions. The problem of non-co-operation is largely a political question, arising from the disagreement of neighbouring states with the UN agenda, but it is also a structural issue. The lack of legal, administrative and institutional capacity for sanctions implementation among many member states is a major impediment to political effectiveness.

The two cases with the greatest degree of co-operation from neighbouring states, Iraq and Yugoslavia, were also the most successful cases. Compliance in the Iraq case was greatly aided by the co-operation of Turkey, a part of the US-led coalition, and Iran, Iraq's military adversary. The special arrangement allowing Iraq to export oil to Jordan also played an important role. In the case of Yugoslavia, the extensive monitoring and enforcement effort mounted by European regional institutions was decisive in applying economic pressure to Belgrade.

However, where regional organisations lack sufficient resources, their ability to enhance sanctions implementation is limited. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) established regional monitoring and enforcement efforts aided by its military arm, Ecomog. But these efforts were hampered by an emphasis on military operations and a lack of infrastructure and institutional capacity for customs control and border monitoring. In the Sierra Leone case, the UN sanctions committee in New York maintained liaison with Ecowas, and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs provided support for the monitoring of humanitarian relief. Although this assistance was minimal and came too late in the short-lived sanctions effort to have much impact, it could serve as a model for recognising and supporting the implementation efforts of regional organisations in less developed areas of the world.

Administrative Structures

The role of sanctions committees and the associated administrative structure in the UN Secretariat can affect the implementation of sanctions and the administration of humanitarian relief. The most effective sanctions, those imposed on Iraq and Yugoslavia, had the most active and engaged sanctions committees. The Iraq committee, in particular, was constantly involved in a wide range of activities, especially the processing of humanitarian exemption applications. The oil-for-food programme implemented in 1996 became a huge operation with a substantial bureaucratic apparatus. By the end of the 1990s the budget for the UN Iraq programme grew to more than $10 billion per year, exceeding that of the United Nations itself.

The oil-for-food programme itself was unique owing to the combination of the humanitarian crisis related to the sanctions and the ability of Iraq to generate huge oil revenues to pay for the needed supplies. The presence of cash-generating oil exports gave the Security Council inventive possibilities for dealing with the humanitarian crisis. Very few instances are likely to arise in which the sanctioned nation will be able or willing to pay for offsetting its own economic strangulation.

One of the more remarkable features of the Iraqi sanctions was the manner in which so many member states, including those who became vocal in their opposition to the continuation of sanctions in the latter half of the decade, nonetheless maintained the embargo. This was due in part to the relative ease of enforcing the oil embargo, especially when key neighbouring countries remained committed to keeping the pipelines shut.

In many of the cases in which sanctions were ineffective, the sanctions committees played little or no role. In the Somalia case, the oversight effort was so minimal that the Security Council had to adopt a special resolution (Resolution 954 in 1994) requesting that the sanctions committee fulfil its duties. In the Liberia and Rwanda cases as well, the sanctions committees played little or no role in attempting to implement the arms embargoes. The limitations of these sanctions regimes were reflected in the inactivity of the associated sanctions committees.

In the Angola case, as the Security Council strengthened sanctions measures in 1997 and 1998, the sanctions committee became more active and attempted to play a more assertive role in encouraging compliance with the sanctions, especially among neighbouring states in Africa. Committee chair Robert Fowler, permanent representative of Canada to the Security Council, made an innovative effort in 1999 and 2000 to mobilise support for the sanctions. The convening of expert panels by the Angola committee, following the example of the Iraq committee, marked another creative attempt by the sanctions committee to enhance monitoring and effectiveness. However, whether these efforts by the Angola committee will result in greater co-operation with sanctions among member states and ultimately bring about some compliance by the targeted Unita regime remains to be seen.

Monitoring Is Essential

One of the most significant developments in sanctions enforcement over the past decade was the introduction of sanctions assistance missions (SAMs) to monitor and enforce the sanctions against Yugoslavia. SAMs were the most elaborate and highly developed monitoring programme ever established. Western European governments sent customs officers to the countries surrounding Yugoslavia, and the Western European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation established patrol missions on the Danube and in the Adriatic. The SAMs contributed significantly to the success of the sanctions against Belgrade, making them the most rigorously enforced in history.

In other cases, the lack of anything resembling SAMs among regional organisations meant that implementation efforts were either limited or non-existent. When the Organisation of American States imposed sanctions against Haiti in 1991, it had no means of assuring the implementation of these measures. When Ecowas imposed sanctions against Liberia and Sierra Leone, it created sanctions committees to monitor and enforce these measures, but the committees lacked the necessary financial resources and technical capacity to ensure effective implementation. Regional organisations can and must play a central role in the monitoring and enforcement of sanctions, but the realisation of this potential will depend on the greater availability of financial and technical resources and a stronger political commitment to the objectives of UN sanctions.

Seeing beyond Iraq

In part because no comparative and summary assessment of UN-imposed multilateral sanctions has been undertaken until now, the conclusions and findings offered here are tentative in nature. Nonetheless, certain patterns of experience and policy trends have become clear during the past decade. One of the challenges has been to see beyond the Iraq case. The debate over Iraq has so dominated the discourse on sanctions that it has skewed public understanding of the real data of sanctions and the successful adaptations that have occurred in recent years. The UN community has learned a great deal more about the conditions under which sanctions are successful than the general debate on these questions might suggest. The understanding of humanitarian and social consequences resulting from sanctions has also expanded. By drawing on the experience of the past decade and gleaning appropriate lessons from both the successes and failures, scholars and policy makers now know a great deal more than they did previously about the ways to mitigate adverse humanitarian consequences and about the factors that can contribute to policy effectiveness.


1. One of the best summaries of the ethical critique of sanctions can be found in Joy Gordon, "A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy: The Ethics of Economic Sanctions", Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999), pp. 123-42.

2. United Nations, General Assembly, Sub-group on the Question of United Nations-Imposed Sanctions of the Informal Open-Ended Working Group of the General Assembly on "An Agenda for Peace", Provisionally Agreed Texts, 10 July 1996.

3. Kofi Annan, The Causes of Conflict and the Promotion of Durable Peace and Sustainable Development in Africa: The Secretary-General's Report to the United Nations Security Council (New York: United Nations, 16 April 1998), p. 25.

4. Lisa L. Martin, Coercive Cooperation: Explaining Multilateral Economic Sanctions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992).

5. David Cortright and George A. Lopez, "Are Sanctions Just? The Problematic Case of Iraq", Journal of International Affairs 52, no. 2 (spring 1999).

6. Afghanistan is not included because sanctions went into effect in November 1999 and as of this writing have not had a chance to have an impact.

7. Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott and Kimberly Ann Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics, 1990).

8. The most serious of these critiques is that of Gordon, "A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy".

9. Hufbauer, Schott and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, pp. 100-2.



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