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The Invisibility of Human Harm: How Smart Sanctions Consumed All the Oxygen in the Room

social research
Vol. 82 : No. 4 : Winter 2015
Joy Gordon
The Invisibility of Human
Harm: How Smart
Sanctions Consumed All
the Oxygen in the Room
it would seem that, according to conventional wisdom, smart
sanctions have for the most part been a great success. Their defenders
would admit that they are not perfect; but of course no policy is ever
perfect, and practitioners and institutional bodies are constantly devel-
oping new tools to improve them. What more can we reasonably ask?
For the most part, the conversation stops there. We don’t really
notice that there are sanctions regimes that do not even purport to be
smart, generally those imposed by nations against other nations. The
US sanctions against Cuba, for example, are deliberately overbroad in
every aspect: they have compromised all shipping to and from Cuba;
undermined all its major exports; interfered in foreign investment,
family remittances, family travel, telecommunications, and all of Cu-
ba’s international financial transactions; and blocked Cuba’s access to
everything from scientific conferences to international aid to Micro-
soft Word and Adobe Acrobat. These sanctions are as thoroughgoing
and indiscriminate as it is possible to be, and that has not changed
significantly with the reopening of diplomatic relations. So the view
that “smart sanctions have worked” tells us nothing about sanctions
regimes such as these.
But there is another issue as well: for sanctions that claim to be
targeted, particularly those imposed by the UN Security Council, the
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fundamental question, in the context of humanitarian damage—are
smart sanctions really any smarter?—gets short shrift. It seems to be
a dusty artifact from the past, rendered moot by sophisticated new
developments. But it is not moot at all.
the question of whether economic sanctions are devastating or
peaceful has had a long and varied history. The idea that sanctions
would be devastating to an entire population was apparent in the
early writings on the League of Nations. The League envisioned that
sanctions, the “boycott,” would be powerful enough to stop an aggres-
sor in its tracks. In making the case for joining the League, Woodrow
Wilson envisioned that the “absolute isolation” of the boycott would
bring a nation to a standstill:
No goods can be shipped in or out, no telegraphic mes-
sages can be exchanged . . . there shall be no communica-
tion of any kind between the peoples of the other nations
and the people of that nation. . . . It is the most complete
boycott ever conceived in a public document, and I want
to say with confident prediction that there will be no more
fighting after that. There is not a nation that can stand that
for six months (Foley 1923, 69).
The boycott was intended to provide an alternative to the violence of
warfare. Yet at the same time, with the devastation from the British
blockade of Germany in the background, Dulles, then an attorney in
New York specializing in international finance, argued that sanctions
would be so destructive that they would never be used (Dulles 1932,
20). In his view, the boycott presented a kind of nuclear option: it was
so extreme that no one would be able to bring themselves to actually
use it. But the League dissolved before comprehensive sanctions were
imposed, and the issue would not emerge again until many years later.
The United Nations Charter gave the UN Security Council the
option of using economic measures in responding to aggression,
The Invisibility of Human Harm 865
breaches of the peace, and threats to peace (Ch. VII, Art. 42). But for
the duration of the Cold War, there was little occasion to test the lim-
its of economic sanctions in global governance. The veto power of the
permanent members meant that the Council was generally paralyzed
for the first four decades of its operation: Western countries could not
impose punitive measures on the Soviet Union, China, or their allies
without being vetoed, and vice versa. There were, of course, sanctions
imposed by nations against each other. The United States was the pre-
dominant “sender” in this period:
Of 104 sanctions episodes from World War II through the
UN embargo of Iraq, the United States was a key player
in two-thirds. In 80 percent of US-imposed sanctions, the
policy was pursued with no more than minor coopera-
tion from its allies or international organizations (Elliott
1995, 51).
Yet, during the Cold War, sanctions were never devastating. If the
United States sanctioned a country, such as Cuba, that country could
simply trade with the Eastern bloc. Perhaps it could not get particu-
lar goods manufactured only in the United States, but there was still
considerable trade involving a broad range of imported goods.
Thus, for many years, sanctions raised few humanitarian con-
cerns, even if there was not much confidence in their effectiveness
at securing political change. Then, in the 1980s, sanctions and the
divestment movement came to be seen as a tool for effective, nonvio-
lent political change in South Africa. Even the superpowers were in
agreement when the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against
South Africa—one of the very few occasions there was agreement on
security measures in the first four decades of the Council’s operation.
Outside the Council, there was broad support from the international
community. That sanctions and divestment affected black South Afri-
cans did not, for the most part, emerge as a significant moral objec-
tion, given that there seemed to be explicit or implicit consent by
866 social research
those who were most harmed. Black leaders in South Africa, speaking
for trade unions, political organizations, and churches, called on the
international community to support the anti-apartheid movement by
divesting. With the end of apartheid and the peaceful transition to de-
mocracy, economic sanctions were hailed as a promising and humane
way to respond to aggression and human rights violations.
when iraq invaded kuwait in august 1990, there was wide support
for sanctions on all sides. The Security Council sanctions, however,
were unprecedented in their scope and severity. They prohibited
the sale of any goods to Iraq, except medicine; even food shipments
were allowed only with the approval of the Security Council, and
that approval was denied for the first several months. The sanc-
tions prohibited the purchase or sale of any goods to or from Iraq.
But Iraq’s economy relied heavily on income from oil sales, and the
infrastructure and population as a whole were highly dependent on
imports for everything from basic grains to spare parts for water treat-
ment plants. And, most significantly, under the UN Charter, when
the Security Council imposes measures under its mandate to address
security concerns, those measures are binding on every member state
of the UN. This was, in effect, a state of siege, brought about not by
an army encircling a city but by the machinery of global governance.
The initial impact was not severe. Iraq immediately implement-
ed food rations and increased agricultural production. There were suf-
ficient stores of water treatment chemicals to last a few months, and
Iraq’s infrastructure was in good condition. But the Persian Gulf War
of early 1991 decimated that infrastructure. Every major road, bridge,
and dam was destroyed. Every single water and sewage treatment
plant was bombed, as were all major electrical generating plants and
telecommunications towers. A UN envoy reported that Iraq had been
reduced overnight to a pre-industrial country. He described the situ-
ation as “near-apocalyptic” (Report to the Secretary-General 1991, 5).
If sanctions alone had been imposed, Iraq would likely have
been able to manage, increasing its domestic production to at least
The Invisibility of Human Harm 867
partly make up for the loss of imports. On the other hand, if only
the bombing had occurred, then Iraq had sufficient wealth that it
could have rebuilt. But once both industrial and agricultural capacity
had been largely destroyed, the sanctions then prevented Iraq from
rebuilding or even meeting basic needs. Without water treatment,
epidemics of cholera and typhoid followed in short order. Without
electricity, hospitals and pharmaceutical plants could not operate.
Without irrigation or refrigeration, food security was compromised,
and there was widespread malnutrition among children that contin-
ued for over a decade.
The crisis created considerable pressure on the UN Security
Council: in the name of peace and security, it seemed that the Coun-
cil had created a humanitarian disaster. However, at least on the part
of the Security Council, there was far more attention paid to damage
control in the face of public pressure than to actually meeting the ur-
gent needs of the Iraqi population. For example, the Council agreed to
“humanitarian exemptions”: in principle, if a company wanted to sell
Iraq humanitarian goods, its representative to the UN need only pres-
ent documentation to the committee of the Security Council charged
with oversight of the sanctions, and a humanitarian exemption could
be granted. In practice, however, this was nearly useless. Any member
of the Council could veto any exemption, for any reason or for no rea-
son. Further, as a matter of policy, the committee refused to inform
the applicant of the reason for the denial. It might be that the fax was
blurred, and resending it would resolve the problem; or it might be
that someone on the Council considered the goods to have military
uses and would never approve them. In any case, the outcome was
that most requests were denied, and that fewer and fewer companies
were willing to invest the time and effort in an arbitrary and opaque
process, with such an uncertain outcome. But the Security Council,
in particular the United States and Britain, were vocal in maintaining
that the crisis was not due to their policies, since they allowed for
humanitarian exemptions.
868 social research
Once the Oil for Food Program was established, allowing Iraq to
sell oil and use the proceeds for humanitarian goods, it was expected
that this would alleviate the ongoing crisis in Iraq. But the program
was not nearly as effective as many had hoped. This was in significant
part because, behind the scenes, the Security Council members—spe-
cifically, the United States and Britain—blocked everything needed to
rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure. The United States would, for example,
agree to allow Iraq to build a badly needed water treatment plant
but then block the electrical generator needed to run it. The United
States (and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom) also blocked the
equipment necessary to repair and maintain Iraq’s oil production,
and then imposed pricing restrictions on oil sales that were so draco-
nian that the Oil for Food Program was nearly bankrupted. Through-
out this time, the United States and Britain repeatedly maintained
that if there continued to be a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, it was only
because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to import the goods needed.
in response to the situation in iraq (and to some degree in haiti
and elsewhere), the UN, as well as scholars and practitioners, began
discussing the need for humanitarian monitoring, as well as targeted
In 1995, UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali proposed to es-
tablish a mechanism to assess the potential impact of sanctions
prior to imposing them and to then monitor the sanctions in order
to minimize the collateral damage (Boutros-Ghali 1995, para. 75). In
1996, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held
a review of the various sanctions that had been imposed by the Se-
curity Council on the former Yugoslavia, which “gave considerable
attention to the need to reduce the negative humanitarian effect of
sanctions on the civilian population” and proposed that the Council
incorporate measures that would allow humanitarian goods to reach
the civilian population (“Letter Dated” 1996, 16, para. 95). UN consul-
tants based at the Watson Institute at Brown University and at the
Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame undertook a study of
The Invisibility of Human Harm 869
how to better minimize the humanitarian impact of sanctions. Their
report, published in 1998, recommended a process that would moni-
tor public health indicators, such as malnutrition and child mortality;
economic indicators, such as the availability of essential goods; popu-
lation impacts, such as refugees; and the impact on governance and
civil society, such as increased crime or political repression (Minear
et al. 1998, vi).
Meanwhile, the “smart sanctions” movement was gaining con-
siderable momentum. In 1998, a conference on Banking, Crime, and
Economic Sanctions brought together key academics, government
and banking officials, and UN practitioners for an initial discussion of
the feasibility of targeted financial sanctions; and a second was held
the following month (Minear et al. 1998, vi). In December 1998, there
was a Symposium on Targeted Sanctions, sponsored by eight nongov-
ernmental organizations, held in New York, as well as a conference
in London sponsored by Overseas Development Institute (Department
of Political Affairs 2001, 46). In 1998 and 1999, the Swiss government
facilitated a series of discussions on targeted financial sanctions,
known as the “Interlaken Process.” The meetings produced a manual
for practitioners and a white paper by the Watson Institute’s Targeted
Financial Sanctions Project (Watson Institute 2001). In 1999 and 2000,
there was a series of expert seminars and working groups, sponsored
by the German foreign office, the UN Secretariat, and the Bonn Inter-
national Center for Conversion, known as the Bonn-Berlin Process,
which focused on arms embargoes and sanctions related to travel.
The International Peace Academy held a policy forum in Oc-
tober 2001 on “Targeted Sanctions: New Initiatives,” in conjunction
with a special session of the Security Council regarding sanctions (see
The Targeted Financial Sanctions Project at the Watson Institute). This
in turn was followed by the Stockholm Process, an initiative of the
Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Uppsala University (http://, whose findings were presented
to the Security Council in February 2003. The Stockholm Process was
followed by the creation of the Special Program on the Implementa-
870 social research
tion of Targeted Sanctions, which continues to operate, sponsored by
Uppsala University. In 2007, the Greek mission to the United Nations
sponsored a symposium concerning targeted sanctions, focusing pri-
marily on Security Council measures (“Enhancing the Implementa-
tion,” 2007).
Thus, enormous effort has gone into the development of tar-
geted sanctions; and that has very much influenced at least the sanc-
tions imposed by the UN Security Council. Every sanctions regime
imposed by the Council in the past two decades has been, at least on
its face, an instance of targeted sanctions.
There has also been some ongoing discussion of the need for
humanitarian assessment and monitoring, but that discussion has
been much less visible, and there has been much less effort put into
implementation. The Stockholm process in 2003 recommended pe-
riodic humanitarian assessments to determine the impact of the
sanctions and distinguish the harm caused by the sanctions from
that caused by other factors (Bessler, Garfield, and McHugh 2004). A
United Nations handbook published in 2004 (and updated in 2006)
provided an outline and methodology for conducting humanitarian
assessments with rigor and methodological integrity. In 2005, the
Security Council set up a working group on sanctions issues, which
made recommendations on the effectiveness of sanctions, including
the design of sanctions regimes, the use of expert panels, and moni-
toring mechanisms (Informal Working Group 2006). The 2006 report
of a Security Council working group on sanctions addressed some of
the issues that were most problematic in the case of the Iraq sanc-
tions, such as the arbitrariness and lack of transparency regarding
humanitarian exemptions (Informal Working Group 2006, 4, 9). Hu-
manitarian impact is mentioned briefly in the discussion of the initial
design of the sanctions regime: “If it is feasible and appropriate to
prepare pre-assessment or early assessment report, they should be
clear regarding . . . the possible humanitarian, political, and econom-
ic impacts” (Informal Working Group 2006, II.A.3.(a), p. 4).
The Invisibility of Human Harm 871
Some of the recommendations for monitoring and prelimi-
nary assessments were implemented. For example, the Department
of Humanitarian Affairs conducted a preliminary review in February
1997 of the possible humanitarian effects of imposing a flight ban on
Sudan (Minear et al. 1998, v). But the discussion of monitoring and
assessment of humanitarian impact subsided considerably as “smart
sanctions” gained broad recognition and momentum.
George Lopez argues that in the case of sanctions imposed by
the UN Security Council, while there may not be pre-sanctions assess-
ments of the possible humanitarian impact, there are nevertheless
extensive monitoring mechanisms: “UN missions, the special repre-
sentatives of the secretary-general, and the panels of experts for each
UN sanctions case all focus on monitoring in ways that did not ex-
ist a decade ago” (Lopez 2012, 142). With such extensive systems of
monitoring, the expectation is that if the sanctions were triggering
humanitarian problems, this would be quickly apparent. However,
the resolutions establishing the sanctions committees and monitor-
ing groups typically focus on sanctions violations, and thus do not in-
clude humanitarian monitoring in the mandates. If they do mandate
humanitarian monitoring, it concerns other issues, such as whether
militia groups are interfering with humanitarian assistance. In many
cases, there is no one on the panels of experts with expertise in hu-
manitarian issues. Where there is a clear humanitarian crisis taking
place, neither the Security Council resolutions nor the oversight com-
mittees have mandated an analysis of whether the sanctions them-
selves are a contributing factor. Where there are other factors that
contribute to the target state’s economic problems, such as the target
state’s economic policies, or additional sanctions imposed unilater-
ally by various nations, the monitoring groups and sanctions com-
mittees have no mandate, and show no interest, in seeking to disen-
tangle the damage done by the various actors.
certainly it is the case that, for those imposing sanctions, “smart
sanctions” are much more attractive than humanitarian monitoring.
872 social research
The imposition of sanctions is often highly politicized, and sanctions
are often intended to show strength or moral leadership to a domestic
or international audience. If it becomes apparent that the sanctions
are inhumane, or themselves constitute human rights violations, the
credibility of the “sender” is compromised. Humanitarian monitor-
ing, in the context of sanctions, has generally been conducted by
humanitarian agencies, academics, or experts in areas such as public
health, and their work is often highly respected for its independence
and credibility. It would clearly be far more difficult for the “sender”
to shape the narrative that its sanctions are protecting a population’s
human rights in the face of systematic, credible evidence that the
sanctions themselves cause harm to women, children, and the elderly.
By contrast, the language of “smart sanctions,” like “smart
bombs,” is a powerful rhetorical tool that suggests care and precision.
If measures are “smart,” and only harm dictators and terrorists, then
it would seem that there is no need for oversight. It is clearly in the
interest of “senders” to have their actions described in these terms,
and to sidestep the embarrassment that comes when international
agencies document that the sender’s actions are actually causing
more human damage than are rogue nations or terrorists. In the case
of the Iraq sanctions, the United States was rarely willing to allow the
flow of humanitarian goods to increase. One of the infrequent occa-
sions on which it did so was when the press reported that the United
States had prevented Iraq from importing child vaccines. The story
was widely reported, causing the United States considerable embar-
rassment, and Washington responded immediately (if only briefly) by
allowing more humanitarian goods to be sent to Iraq.
For senders, the rhetoric of “smart sanctions” serves a criti-
cal function: if we believe that smart sanctions, by definition, cause
no harm to the innocent, then there is no need for monitoring. And
without monitoring or systematic documentation by credible sourc-
es, then even if the sanctions are not so smart after all, there will be
no accountability, and the human harm will be made invisible to all.
Except, of course, those who are harmed.
The Invisibility of Human Harm 873
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Security Council on General Issues of Sanctions. S/2006/997.
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Lopez, George. 2012. “In Defense of Smart Sanctions: A Response to Joy
Gordon.” Ethics and International Affairs 26 (1): 142.
Minear, Larry, et al. 1998. “Toward More Humane and Effective Sanctions
Management: Enhancing the Capacity of the United Nations
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... Более того, например, в условиях пандемии COVID-19 Комиссия запустила Контактный пункт по гуманитарной помощи странам, в отношении которых действуют санкции Евросоюза. Этот инструмент используется для поддержки и облегчения деятельности гуманитарных операторов, информирования их и предоставления рекомендаций в отношении гуманитарных отступлений в рамках режимов санкций ЕС 24 . ...
... (accessed: 11.07.2023). 24 European Commission. Humanitarian assistance in environments subject to EU sanctions. ...
In the context of a sharp aggravation of interstate rivalry, an increase in natural disasters and the emergence of new epidemiological challenges, the problem of timely provision of humanitarian assistance to the population of the most affected countries and regions becomes especially acute. Its solution, already fraught with a whole complex of objective economic, political and other difficulties, is further complicated by the existing practice of imposing unilateral and multilateral or international sanctions, which have become one of the key instruments of the leading subjects of world politics. And although formally sanctions regimes are provided with humanitarian exceptions designed to minimize their negative consequences for the population of target countries, their imposition inevitably results in new obstacles to the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need. The paper identifies the key challenges associated with provision of humanitarian aid under the existing sanctions restrictions, and assesses the prospects for addressing them in the contemporary context. The first section examines political and academic debates on the negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions and possible ways to overcome them. In particular, the author identifies the logic behind the transition from comprehensive to ‘smart’ sanctions, as well as the specifics of applying humanitarian exceptions. The second section outlines key aspects of the complex disruptive impact of restrictions on humanitarian assistance, including the technical and political barriers faced in the implementation of humanitarian exceptions. Finally, the third section identifies current trends in the use of humanitarian exceptions by the main initiators of restrictive measures. In this context, particular attention is paid to the UN Security Council Resolution 2664, adopted in December 2022, which mandates the inclusion of standardized exemptions in UN sanctions regimes in order to minimize the impact of restrictive measures on the provision of assistance and to alleviate the suffering of those in need. The author concludes that although there still remain possibilities to address the negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions, this requires strong political will on the part of the international community.
... One strand questions the feasibility of targeting sanctions, contending that they cannot totally avoid harming the population (Tostensen and Bull, 2002), a claim confirmed by recent experiences with Iran and Syria (Moret, 2015;Walker, 2016) as well as with some UN sanctions targets (UNGA, 2015). The charge about the instrument's inability to spare the civilian population despite the effort at targeting (Gordon, 2015) resonates with those criticisms floated in the heyday of comprehensive embargoes. An examination of UN practice suggests that the level of human rights protection in the target country is more likely to worsen under an episode of targeted sanctions when compared with a situation where sanctions are not imposed, similar to previous findings of studies on comprehensive sanctions (Carneiro and Apolinario, 2016). ...
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Sanctions are one of the tools utilised to address human rights violations. They are also an increasingly prominent tool in the European Union's foreign policy. International sanctions policy is part of a global trend towards individualisation: rather than affecting the state as a whole, bans nowadays are targeted at individuals identified as responsible for the abuses. The present study analyses the evolution of targeted sanctions regimes imposed by the EU, as well as by the UN, against individuals on grounds of gross human rights violations. It focuses on the most recent developments in international sanctions practice. It provides recommendations on how this tool could be further developed at EU level, making reference to the option of adopting a Global Magnitsky-type legislation allowing for the designation of human rights abusers worldwide.
... There has also been a long history of criticism directed at the negative humanitarian repercussions of sanctions. This criticism extends back to League of Nations' discussions about the potentially devastating consequences of boycotts, but it escalated in the 1990s following reports on the disastrous effects of the UN Security Council's sanctions on Iraq (Boutros-Ghali 1995;Garfield et al. 1995;Lopez and Cortright 1997;Ali and Shah 2000;Colonomos 2004;Wood 2008;Gordon 2011Gordon , 2015. The negative consequences for civilians of UN sanctions have included higher unemployment, higher costs for basic necessities, and deteriorations in sanitation and public health, and declines in educational resources and opportunities (Hoskins 1997;Devin and Dashti-Gibson 1997;Zaidi 1997;Peksen 2011;Allen and Lektzian 2013). ...
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Economic sanctions are a primary tool the US government and international organizations use to promote human rights abroad, yet they have proven to be largely ineffective and harmful to civilians. There is accumulating evidence that this paradox may be explained by the expressive purposes of sanctions and domestic politics. This article further explores these explanations by examining human rights sanction policy debates. Specifically, I analyzed 27 US Congressional hearings on human rights policy toward China (1990–1999). I argue that moral pressure enabled support for human rights sanctions, high costs fueled opposition to them, and discussions of effectiveness were marginal to the debate. The findings contribute to past studies by (1) identifying the psychological and sociological mechanisms by which legislators circumvent arguments of sanction ineffectiveness and harmfulness and (2) delineating the role of business, human rights, and ethnic interest groups in enabling and constraining support for human rights sanctions.
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The debate on unintended consequences of sanctions, such as their adverse effects on human rights, public health, or the economy beyond intended sectors in the target state, has become increasingly popular over the last couple of decades. Interestingly, however, this debate has mostly overlooked the transnational aspects of these unintended consequences. This study examines one such aspect, namely the economic spillover of sanctions to neighboring countries. Our global vector autoregression oil and inventory model (GOVAR) simulations on Indonesia, a medium-level oil producer, indicate sanctions may spill over to its neighbors’ domestic economy. The risk and nature of spillover varies with respect to the type of sanctions employed, timing of sanctions, and the macroeconomic indicator in the neighboring state in question. Equity markets appear especially susceptible to a contagion effect. Understanding how a sanction spills over to neighboring states can help sender states design sanctions that minimize regional disruptions.
In 2014, the United States, the European Union (EU) countries and some other states have imposed economic sanctions against Russia. The overcoming of sanctions requires an understanding of their effectiveness. Thus, we aimed to identify factors of the effectiveness of economic sanctions by reviewing the literature that considers sanctions as a tool for transforming the current national policies. The applied methodology of the systematic literature review (SLR) includes the following stages: 1) determining a basic sample of publications based on a keyword search in Web of Science, Scopus, Russian Science Citation Index, SSRN, EBSCO, Ideas/RePec, Google Scholar, Cambridge University Press, Routledge, De Gruyter JSTOR, Springer, Taylor & Francis; 2) identifying a representative sample based on the authors’ criteria (type of publication, language, character, content and context); 3) synthesising the representative sample; 4) reporting the research results. A method of comparative and graphical analysis was used to present the findings. The analysis of relevant literature allowed us to conclude that economic sanctions are more effective if 1) sanction costs for a target country are higher than for a sender, including those occurring as a result of regional inequality; 2) sanctions are designed as a short-term measure; 3) sanctions are multilateral and imposed by international institutes, including through regional trade agreements; 4) sanctions are targeted at democratic regimes. Moreover, the most preferred type of sanction — targeted (smart) sanctions — are less effective in achieving their goals than traditional comprehensive ones. Further review studies may focus on targeted economic sanctions (first and foremost in Russia) and include publications, analysing case studies of individual countries and industries.
If the legal foundation and political consensus underpinning United Nations resolutions suggests that North Korea's denuclearization can be understood as a just cause, were the means used by the United Nations also just? This essay draws on jus in bello analogies to analyze UN sanctions via standard ethical criteria of effectiveness, necessity and proportionality. It shows that UN sanctions did not fulfill the effectiveness criterion as they were never likely to result in the denuclearization of North Korea. The necessity condition was strained as the alternative instrument of diplomacy was not utilized in a sustained manner. Expanded sanctions from 2016 did not distinguish between the military and civilian economies. Stringent energy sanctions introduced in 2017 contributed significantly to a precipitous fall in agricultural production in 2018 such that the country could no longer feed about a third of the 25 million population. Post-2016 UN sanctions did not meet the proportionality criterion as they jeopardized the food security of millions of innocents. The DPRK government has primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens but this assumption does not abrogate the responsibilities of others. Broad UN sanctions on the DPRK are neither effective nor proportionate and are, therefore, unethical.
The emergence of targeted sanctions in the mid-1990s was due to the humanitarian impact of embargoes, which were deemed unacceptable and compelled senders to shift to measures designed to affect only wrongdoers. Twenty years on, the present paper considers the extent to which autonomous sanctions are designed to affect those individuals and elites responsible for the behaviour the EU aims to condemn. How faithful has the EU remained to this concept in its sanctions policy? The enquiry scrutinizes diverse practices in three established sanctions strands of the EU, development aid suspensions, Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) sanctions and Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) withdrawals. It shows that it has been more faithfully implemented in some strands of EU sanctions than in others. Specifically in the flagship CFSP sanctions practice, the due process motivated court challenges of its blacklists have led the EU to modify selection criteria in a way that renders them potentially less targeted.
In her recent article in this journal, Joy Gordon provides an astute history and critique of the evolution and application of smart sanctions within the United Nations system since the mid-1990s. Her analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the discrete types of smart sanctions is part of a growing discussion among both academics and practitioners about the future and the utility of these measures. As always, her continued skepticism about the effectiveness and ethical dimensions of economic sanctions deserves serious consideration and evaluation. In particular, Gordon raises three central concerns: (1) smart sanctions are no more successful than traditional trade sanctions; (2) each type of targeted mechanism has serious flaws; and (3) targeted sanctions did not end the humanitarian damage or the related ethical dilemmas that are embedded into sanctions design and implementation.
Sanctions Assessment Handbook: Assessing the Humanitarian Implications of Sanctions
  • Manuel Bessler
  • Richard Garfield
  • Gerard Mchugh
Bessler, Manuel, Richard Garfield, and Gerard McHugh. 2004. "Sanctions Assessment Handbook: Assessing the Humanitarian Implications of Sanctions." United Nations: Inter-Agency Standing Committee.
Report Of The Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization, Supplement to an Agenda for Peace: Position Paper of the Secretary-General on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations
  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali
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