Defining Economic Sanctions

question-markDefining Economic Sanctions

Although world leaders and countries have applied economic sanctions since Ancient Greece there is no authoritative definition to what they are.

However, at their core, economic sanctions aim to compel a change of conduct or policies through non-military coercive measures to restore the relations between the Sender (country(-ries) imposing sanctions) and the Target of sanctions.

Because the aim of economic sanctions is to achieve a political goal, e.g. to stop or prevent politically or legally noxious activities, this distinguishes economic sanctions from other types of economic coercive measures, which for instance are imposed to achieve an economic or trade related aim. This lastly can be confusing because Senders can apply similar measures for both economic sanctions (politically oriented coercive measures) and trade related economic sanctions. 

The Peace Palace, The Hague at NightAs there is no fixed definition under international law for economic sanctions, governments apply different terms to describe their economic sanctions, i.e. imposed coercive economic measures. For instance, restrictive measures (EU), country-based or list-based programs (U.S.) or autonomous sanctions (how EU describes its unilateral sanctions).

In the absence of common political or legal definitions, academics have also attempted to define economic sanctions, especially within the context of debating the effectiveness of sanctions regimes. Academic definitions are based on comprehensive reviews on how governments (and the United Nations) adopt and implement economic sanctions.

Factors which can determine how economic sanctions are defined: 

The Policy aims of Senders (for example EU and U.S.)

The scope and depth of imposed restrictive measures (comprehensive or limited – so-called Smart or Target sanctions regimes in vogue since the 1990’s to limit the collateral damage to civilian populations)

The targets of restrictive measures (e.g. specific blacklisted countries, entities or individuals UN Sanctions Committees, EU and U.S.)

The number of Senders imposing economic sanctions (unilateral, multilateral or universal)

International legal obligations pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolutions

Sanctions imposed as retorsions or peacetime reprisals defined as counter measures

In practice, imposed sanctions can contain elements of all the above-listed factors, which can change (e.g. increase in ferocity or decrease according to the levels of compliance by a Target). 

Examples of Economic Sanctions Regimes

Fotosearch_k14669741The key elements of Economic Sanctions 

Despite all the colorful terms and concepts applied by Senders, the common elements of imposed sanctions regimes are:

  • are a reaction to conduct or policies which are deemed to be repugnant by the Sender or contrary to established international norms or international law, e.g. United Nations sanctions: against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, sanctions against Apartheid South Africa (racial discrimination polices), sanctions against North Korea and Iran regarding nuclear proliferation
  • are temporary (they are uplifted when the Target complies with the demands of the Sender) 
  • Economic statecraft in practice_comprehensive versus limited sanctions regimesaim to achieve specific foreign policy goals, whereby a change in the conduct or policies of the Target is demanded, e.g. restore international peace and security, anti-proliferation, counter terrorism or the promotion of fundamental human rights or to reassure allies that actions will be taken against the conduct of a Target (NATO support of allies bordering with the Russian Federation as a result of the current Ukraine crisis) 
  • can serve domestic political goals of Senders. In this context, governments are put under pressure to do something – one must be seen to take action against a Target. Sanctions can be the best alternative for governments when diplomacy is too little, and war is too much. The imposition of sanctions can also be a means to mobilize support for military action, as was the case for the U.S. prior to entering the Second World War or the 1990 military operations against Iraq.
  • can employ positive or negative coercive measures to either influence or compel the achievement of political goals
    • maritime sailingPositive sanctions can be forms of inducement or rewards, e.g.
      • U.S. Marshall Plan of 1948-1953, whereby the U.S. gave massive economic aid to Western European countries ravaged by war to draw them into the U.S. camp against the Soviet Union. A regional variant of positive sanctions is the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) whereby developing third-countries have to adhere to unilateral conditions imposed by the EU.
      • 1994 the U.S. offered North Korea economic concessions to forgo its nuclear ambitions
    • enforcement jurisdiction - sniffer dog at workNegative sanctions can be expressed through diplomatic disapproval or punishment – as a stand alone instrument (suspending trade, freezing of assets, travel restrictions, e.g. EU, UN, U.S. sanctions against Iran) or in combination with military force (e.g. UN sanctions against Iraq 1990-2003)

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