A Double-Edged Sword: Targeted Sanctions as a Crisis Prevention Tool

19 October 2016   ·   Marcos Tourinho

Targeted sanctions can be an effective instrument in crisis prevention particularly when combined with mediation efforts but they need to be used with great caution. Germany should push for significant reforms of the UN and EU sanctions regimes in order to increase their effectiveness, avoid adverse humanitarian impact and human rights violations, and to ensure coherence between multiple sanctions regimes.

Targeted sanctions are an important policy instrument among the various tools the United Nations (UN) Security Council has to promote international peace and security. Never used in isolation, it is most commonly employed together with diplomacy, mediation or some degree of military force (including peacekeeping). In the past decades, the UN has developed a large number of types of sanctions that can affect targets in very different ways, coercing them to change their behaviour, making it more difficult for them to engage in proscribed activities or simply sending a signal about international norms. While they are not always effective, sanctions have been a central instrument in addressing several peace and security threats – from weakening Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups to slowing down nuclear programs and helping to resolve armed conflicts in places like Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

As a member of the like-minded group, Germany has a long history of support and engagement in efforts to improve the instrument of targeted sanctions, seeking to make them more effective while not causing major humanitarian impact and violating basic human rights. Recently, it has co-sponsored a High Level Review of UN Sanctions focused on implementation, and continued its important efforts (with others) to expand the Office of the Ombudsperson beyond the 1267 regime to others, ending a serious inconsistency in due process rights between sanctions regimes. The inherently tense relationship between sanctions and the international rule of law is not going away, and the (often legitimate) challenges to the instrument of sanctions (especially when used unilaterally/autonomously) need to be engaged with seriously. Sanctions will inevitably play a central role in Germany’s candidacy to the UN Security Council.

Keeping targeted sanctions targeted

The continuous (and ever-transforming) use of targeted sanctions has produced other sets of challenges that also demand the attention and work of Germany. One major challenge is the need to keep targeted sanctions targeted. While almost all targeted sanctions applied today are not comprehensive sanctions or total embargoes, different types of sanctions have different capacities to discriminate between targets and non-targets. For instance, while an individual assets freeze affects only one person (and probably their family), an assets freeze on a major bank affects an immense number of individuals, families, businesses, and may adversely affect cash access to purchase basic goods.

While a strong consensus persists with regard to the non-use of comprehensive sanctions, targeted sanctions have often become less targeted. Sanctions against Libya, for instance, included a ban on all finances controlled by the government – a measure that is largely indiscriminate and had important humanitarian consequences. The most recent round of sanctions against North Korea is also concerning to the extent that the sanctions are ambiguous about who exactly should be targeted, and how this could affect the (already difficult) daily lives of citizens.

This is important because the expansion of sanctions (and their effects) often takes place outside of the sanctioning body and is involuntary. The private sector, for instance, is frequently over-compliant with targeted sanctions (expanding their reach beyond the intended targets) due to a lack of clarity in implementation obligations and for fears of the penalties imposed by regulators. Being aware that making sanctions more comprehensive does not necessarily improve their effectiveness (especially as they are implemented off-target), more efforts should be made to keep targeted sanctions targeted.

Competing sanctions regimes at the UN and the EU

One of the principal factors contributing to the perception that UN targeted sanctions are becoming more comprehensive is the coexistence of multiple sanctions regimes and the lack of clear coordination among them. The European Union (EU) is the only regional organization in the world to use sanctions as a tool of foreign policy (as opposed to an instrument to enforce treaty agreements among its members).

As an influential member of the European Union, Germany must pay more attention to the interactive effects between unilateral/autonomous sanctions and the sanctions imposed by the UN under the collective security system. For instance, in spite of the widespread use of sanctions, there is still no monitoring mechanism (analogous to UN Panels of Experts) in place to realistically and independently assess their political, economic or social impacts (positive or negative) on targets and non-targets. The European Union should create an independent monitoring and impact evaluation mechanism to assess its sanctions. Within the European Union, Germany can play a key role in setting up such a mechanism.

The UN needs to remain the center of the collective security system

While for some the extension of sanctions measures beyond the more limited scope of UN sanctions may appear to be an important way of strengthening international sanctions, for others it creates an opportunity for forum shopping that can weaken the legitimacy of UN multilateral sanctions. From the target’s standpoint, there is often no differentiation between UN sanctions and the sometimes far more extensive sanctions applied by others. This creates legitimacy challenges for the UN, the necessary center of the collective security system. The multiplicity of institutional players involved in a single case, each with their own policy objectives, tools and mandates, harms the coherence of international sanctions and further undermines UN sanctions’ effectiveness.

Combining targeted sanctions with mediation efforts

In spite of these issues, the use of targeted sanctions still offers important opportunities to the collective security system. Much remains to be done in understanding how mediators and the Security Council can use targeted sanctions in situations of conflict and peacebuilding. There is significant evidence that a more coordinated use of sanctions with mediation efforts can provide important political leverage to conclude peace agreements. When this coordination does not exist, as it recently was the case in Yemen, a hard-fought peace agreement can simply collapse and civil war ensues. In peacebuilding cases, sanctions imposed on spoilers of political processes have also been effective in supporting political transitions, such as in the recent case of Liberia.

Sanctions need to be designed strategically

Finally, sanctions must be used with absolute caution and based on very precise design and implementation planning. While short of military force, sanctions still are often a form of violence that should not become an automatic response. Policymakers need to be realistic about what sanctions can reasonably achieve. Targeted sanctions need to be conceptualized in strategic terms, in relation to other measures, and should be designed with the deliberative planning characteristic of military operations, that is, with clear advance consideration of purposes, objectives, consequences, impact assessments, evasion possibilities, contingency planning, and exit strategies. The decision to impose targeted sanctions should be made with as much consideration, preparation, and deliberation as the decision to use force.

Vereinte Nationen Europäische Union Early Action English

Marcos Tourinho

Marcos Tourinho is Assistant Professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo.