How do sanctions actually work? - Grey Ring - The Best Global IT Recruitment Agency

Over the last few decades “sanctions” have been deployed in a variety of ways to punish states or governments that don’t follow international order. But what exactly are sanctions? How do they affect the running of certain functions in society and how do they affect the regular joe on the street?

When you think of sanctions, what images come to mind?

Most people immediately consider sanctions to be primarily financial punishments, unleashed on “rogue” states that break international order. For example, sanctions have been used recently as tools of international policy and policing by the UN against Russia for their invasion of Ukraine, but they’ve been used for hundreds of years, mostly as tools of trade control in the early years of international trade.

Sanctions are, technically, economic disincentives to do bad things. They are designed to break the economic spirit of a country, its individuals, or organizations within it, via non-violent means that involve everything from asset seizure to individual travel bans and more.

The history of sanctions illuminates their critical position in reducing the need for more violent forms of regime change by replacing arms with policies. However, despite their stated claims, sanctions sometimes have little effect on reducing profit or asset ownership within disrupted countries, and they can end up punishing the most vulnerable in society.


What are sanctions?

Sanctions are primarily economic tools of pressure to coerce states into changing certain behaviors or decisions at governmental level.

They also co-target individuals and companies within states who are considered influential, who have access to large amounts of money, have money stored abroad, or who have undue influence or impact at the governmental level.

However, sanctions are not just used as a reactive punishment for political or humanitarian maladministration. They can also be deployed in response to regressive social or military decisions.

  • “Economic sanctions are commercial and financial penalties applied by one or more countries against a targeted self-governing state, group, or individual. Economic sanctions are not necessarily imposed because of economic circumstances—they may also be imposed for a variety of political, military, and social issues.
  • They can be used as a coercive measure for achieving particular policy goals related to trade or for humanitarian violations. Economic sanctions are used as an alternative weapon instead of going to war to achieve desired outcomes”.

This, then, is the reason why sanctions, for all their varying levels of success, have persisted beyond the end of the cold war – they are often a much more palatable, if questionably effective, alternative to war.

Are sanctions the same thing as an embargo or blockade?

The term “sanction” is rather confusingly used to describe other, more war-like, forms of financial, military, or political punishment. It’s used to describe both an embargo and other more aggressive forms of prohibition of financial assets via seizures or blockades. For example:

  • An Embargo is “a trade restriction, typically adopted by a government, a group of countries or an international organization as an economic sanction”.
  • A Blockade is “A blockade is the act of actively preventing a country or region from receiving or sending out food, supplies, weapons, or communications, and sometimes people, by military force”.

Other “sanctions” can come in the form of:

  • Export Controls – “Export restrictions bar the supply of specified products, services and intellectual property to targeted countries”.
  • Travel Restrictions – “targeted persons cannot enter (certain borders), or travel beyond their member state of nationality”.

So while a sanction, an embargo and a blockade are very different things, they are often all referred to as a type of sanction.

There are also different types of sanctions – unilateral UN sanctions, Mixed Sanctions (where specific entities or countries apply more sanctions on top of the UN contingent) and EU autonomous sanctions.

Who controls who gets sanctioned?

The UN is ultimately in charge of sanctioning states.

“The United Nations issues sanctions by consent of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and/or General Assembly in response to major international events, receiving authority to do so under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter”.

However, the USA and the EU, and more recently China, Russia and India, have an enormous amount of control over critical supply chains and access to fuels, medicines, energy and food that, if leveraged, could unilaterally “sanction” other countries.

While these sorts of inter-state sanctions are sometimes called trade wars, more often than not major 1st world countries will use their position to create mixed sanctions regimes of varying severity if countries break the law.

Do sanctions work?

In some key examples, sanctions have been proven to work at shifting public and government policy away from acts of illegality and stopping humanitarian disasters.

  • South Africa – “the imposition of international sanctions on the country began economic pressure that saw the unravelling of Apartheid”.
  • Malawi – “The United States (and other nations) significantly cut aid in 1992 in a bid to improve the democratic standards and human rights situation in Malawi…(which) swiftly adopted more open policies. After a referendum, multi-party democracy was introduced in 1993, and aid was soon resumed”.
  • Greece vs. Albania – “Greece suspended European Union aid to Albania in 1994 after five members of an ethnic Greek group in the country were given prison terms. After this economic pressure…Albania reduced the sentences and released two, and Greece resumed aid”.

So sanctions can really work, from the macro-economic down to saving individual lives.

When do sanctions not work?

Sanctions have sadly failed to work in some cases.

“Yet sanctions generate meaningful change only about forty per cent of the time. Years of sanctions failed in North Korea, Venezuela, and Iraq. The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, faced multiple sanctions for his brutal repression after the Arab Spring uprising, in 2011, turned into a civil war. Hundreds of thousands have died, yet Assad is still firmly entrenched in Damascus”.

The Bottom Line.

Sanctions, like other global executive decisions, have a checkered past of effectiveness. However it cannot be denied they do and have worked, and we should all bear in mind that they significantly impact the shifting sands of foreign policy, trade and asset ownership, often for the good.

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