Sanctions: And Why They Don’t Work (Very Well)

2014•09•05 Peter Nadin

Since the end of the cold war, the United Nations Security Council has articulated its responses to many crises of international peace and security through the use of sanctions.

The Council currently manages 13 sanctions regimes; each specifically coded to apply pressure to decision-makers, in order to obtain compliance with some demand of the Council. Yet, in spite of their simple logic, sanctions simply do not guarantee total, immediate or even partial compliance.

But is compliance the overarching objective of a sanctions regime? It could be argued that sanctions are a key element of the ‘do something’ strategy of international crisis management. The imposition of a sanction signals to countries that something is being done. It can also be argued that sanctions attach a stigma to the sanctioned actor and, in so doing, subtly changing a country’s internal dynamics or altering the balance of on-going negotiations. These justifications aside, the simple truth remains: sanctions regimes do not really work, or at least, not very well.

There are generally two reasons why this is the case. Firstly, often sanctions are not a viable option, due to the characteristics of the situation or the attitudes of the sanctioned actors. Secondly, the sanctions themselves are not properly enforced.

Viability – Is this going to work?

As mentioned above, sanctions are quite often used as a substitute for substantive action. In simple terms, they fulfill an alibi function. The Council’s invocation of sanctions reflects a lack of imagination and a lack of wisdom. Past practice indicates that the Security Council (and sanctions committees) gives little thought to the viability of sanctions before they are implemented. The Council should be asking a few simple questions prior to imposition.

In order to determine the susceptibility of a proposed sanctions target to sanctions pressure the Council needs to understand each of the target’s motivations, strength, modus operandi, leadership and alliances/relationships.


If the Council decides to impose sanctions, it must be prepared to meet the ‘enforcement threshold’ — that being the minimum requirement by which the effectiveness of the sanctions regime is denoted. If a sanctions regime has too many leaks, then it is not worth the time or the effort.

When Member States invest will and capacity in enforcing a regime, the outcomes in terms of effectiveness are obviously going to be higher. The Multinational Interception Force (MIF) for Iraq and the NATO Operation Unified Protector for Libya (2011) were examples of naval interdiction taskforces whose objectives were the enforcement and monitoring of sanctions imposed on those countries. Whether or not these taskforces were effective is a matter for debate. In the case of Libya, NATO overlooked the flow of small arms and light weapons into other countries across the Sahel. It is now almost certain that easily transferable weapons from Libya made their way down into Mali and were used by rebels in the Azawad (an area of northern Mali) to challenge the government.

Yet enforcement — in the form of interdiction taskforces, whether naval or customs — requires the allocation of significant resources, which results only from the requisite outlay of political will. In most sanctions cases, particularly in Africa, enforcement is weak/fails due to the lack of precisely such will/resources.

Sanctions regimes are rarely furnished with an independent ‘on-the-ground’ enforcement mechanism. In these cases, individual Member States are burdened by the responsibility for enforcement. More alarmingly, peacekeepers have also been burdened with this responsibility — a task for which they are neither trained nor in a position to adequately undertake.

The problems of porous borders and the inadequate customs regimes in many countries continue to act as capacity constraints for sanctions regimes. This problem coupled with inadequate international regulation and national legislation for sanctions violations also presents as a challenge to effective sanctions enforcement. The lack of control over airspace, the lack of standardized end user certificates (used in international transfers of weapons and ammunition to certify that the buyer is the final recipient of the materials) and the need for the criminalization of sanctions violations are representative of only a few of the regulatory puzzles.

The case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

The case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) highlights the many weakness of sanctions, as described above.

Following the first nuclear test by North Korea in 2006, the Council adopted resolution 1718 establishing a commercial and economic sanctions regime coupled with a de facto arms and ‘technologies of proliferation’ embargo. The resolution spelt out the Council’s displeasure — decrying the nuclear test and demanding that no further tests (nuclear or ballistic missile) be conducted. Prior to the test the Council issued a presidential statement (S/PRST/2006/41) urging North Korea to reconsider the nuclear test — a call that the North Koreans evidently ignored. The North Korea Permanent Representative, Pak Gil Yon, walked out of the UN after stating that the resolution was “unjustifiable”.

In foreign trade terms, the sanctions have had negligible impact. Marcus Noland has stated that “the imposition of these sanctions (resolution 1718) has had no perceptible effect on North Korea’s trade with the country’s two largest trading partners, China and South Korea”. Overall, the 1718 sanctions regime has failed in the accomplishment of its substantive goal — the de-nuclearisation of North Korea — and it is debatable whether any remarkable change in the negotiating dynamics has been achieved by the imposition and continuance of the sanctions regime. Yet, in spite of the measures imposed under both resolutions 1718 and 1874, North Korea has been able to attain highly sophisticated nuclear technology including for the enrichment of uranium. A recent report by a UN expert panel suggested that North Korea continues to employ a range of elaborate sanctions circumvention techniques. In the face such clever methods for circumvention, the 1718 sanction regime is tenuous at best.

Making a difference

It is clear from the history of UN sanctions regimes that few have actually made a difference to international peace and security. Still, Robert Fowler is one UN Permanent Representative who might be able to claim at least a small victory on this front. Fowler as chairman of the Angolan Sanctions Committee attacked the problem of sanctions violations with thoughtfulness. He improved the sanctions regime by identifying the arms-diamonds schemes (the target of the sanctions) of UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, a former liberation movement, now a political party). Fowler published a report to this effect in 2000 and named and shamed those involved in supporting UNITA, including arms dealers Joe and Ronnie De Decker and the serving presidents of Togo and Burkina Faso Gnassingbé Eyadéma and Blaise Compaoré.

Fowler’s kind of thoughtfulness, however, is seldom available in the hyperactive chamber of the Security Council. In the world of international diplomacy few have the time to think prior to acting. In moments of crisis, the option of sanctions is an easy choice to make — they send the ‘right message’ and they are cheap. Unfortunately, they are all too often ill conceived and poorly implemented.

In light of the current argument, the Security Council should consider its options a little more carefully and, when considering the question of sanctions, diplomats must ask the question: are sanctions, in this case, actually going to make a difference?

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Sanctions: And Why They Don’t Work (Very Well) by Peter Nadin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Peter Nadin is an independent researcher based in Sydney, Australia. He has worked previously as a research assistant at the United Nations University, and interned with the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. His research interests include the politics of the UN Security Council and UN Peacekeeping Operations. Peter holds a Bachelor of Social Science/Arts (Hons) and a PhD from the University of Western Sydney.