Global Policy Forum

Targeted Sanctions

Picture Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

The growing controversy over sanctions on Iraq, which the Security Council enforced following Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, led to several important innovations in UN sanctions regimes. Reform-minded governments sponsored inquiries into alternative options, notably "targeted sanctions." Some Council members pressed for more effective sanctions oversight, management and enforcement. Most observers concluded that general economic sanctions caused disproportionate harm and should never again be used. As a result, the Security Council developed "targeted sanctions" aimed directly at elite interests and specific individuals in "recalcitrant" countries. These "targeted sanctions" were designed to be tightly-focused so as to limit their humanitarian impact. Indeed, all UN sanctions today are "targeted," and are in general grouped into three categories: sanctions targeted at individuals, those targeted at specific commodities, and those targeted at particular regions in a country.

A major controversy has arisen over sanctions that directly name individuals. Seemingly ideal and tightly-focused, these sanctions raise several serious issues. Names of individuals may be unfairly or hastily placed on Council lists, named persons have little or no recourse if named unfairly, and common names may be result in harm being done to completely innocent persons. These problems are often referred to as "Listing and De-Listing."

 This page contains information on the development of targeted sanctions. More information on Listing and De-Listing, sanctions against alleged Taliban and Al Qaeda associates and the work of the Ombudsperson can be found in their own section on the 1267 Committee.

Background and Analysis

'Smart Sanctions' on Iran are Dumb (September 9, 2010)

Smart sanctions are supposedly "targeted" to avoid widespread harm to the innocent. However, US sanctions on Iran target the oil and gas industries. Iran's economy is dependent on its energy sector and the government's subsidies for food and housing depend on this income. UN sanctions are similarly broad. Iranian Bank Mellat is sanctioned because it facilitated financial transactions for military entities. These sanctions are in marked contrast to actual targeted sanctions. (Foriegn Policy in Focus)

The Emergence, Evolution, Effects, and Challenges of Targeted Sanctions (June 14, 2004)

This article, by Thomas J. Biersteker of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, is a concise introduction to the events that led to the development of targeted sanctions and the challenges that subsequently arose as these sanctions were more frequently employed. Biersteker locates the origin of targeted sanctions in humanitarian concern and tracks their increasingly specific aims. He notes that although insitutional learning has taken place since targeted sanctions were first introduced, challenges - such as achieving parallel implementation, mitigating unintended consequences, and using information to better target the individuals in question - persist and must be addressed before targeted sanctions can be effective.

Are Smart Sanctions Feasible? (April 2002)

Writing in World Politics journal, Arne Tostensen and Beate Bull compare and contrast conventional general sanctions and "smart" sanctions. Specifically discussing the humanitarian exemptions, elite-targeting, arms embargoes, financial sanctions and travel restrictions, Tostensen and Bull argue that although smart sanctions are being developed after the UN has learned from past sanctions failures, they require a particular level of expertise and oversight that will be difficult to attain. They aim to moderate the relatively high expectations that have accompanied the development of these alternatives to general sanctions.

Addressing the Challenges of Targeted Sanctions (October 2009)

This article, by Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert of the Watson Institute, is an in-depth analysis of the controversies surrounding targeted sanctions. After a comprehensive introduction, this extensive report proceeds to make policy recommendations directed at the sanctions committee level, the national level, and the UN level. Biersteker and Eckert note that improving targeted sanctions and the related monitoring mechanisms in order to align them with human rights standards is a crucial factor for the legitimacy of the Security Council. The appendices provide useful statistics and specific information on targeted sanctions.

Making Targeted Sanctions Effective: Guidelines for the Implementation of UN Policy Options (February 14, 2003)

This final report of the Stockholm Process, headed by the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, offers recommendations to the United Nations in order to make targeted sanctions effective without adversely affecting the humanitarian population. Such recommendations include creating a database on past and existing sanctions, developing training programs for member states on how to enforce sanctions, and mandating renewed updates on the effects of targeted sanctions in specific situations.


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