“Sanctions Are No Longer the Blunt Instrument They Once Were”

Women and children wait for medical consultations at a clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo: UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi

UN sanctions have undergone a substantial transformation over the last 30 years. Many still recall that during the first Gulf War in 1990, the Security Council imposed a near-total financial and trade embargo on Iraq days after Baghdad’s forces invaded Kuwait. The policy was widely decried, with some calling it “collective punishment”. Today, UN sanctions are not the blunt instrument they once were, even if they can still be made more effective.

The Security Council has a long history of employing sanctions to support conflict resolution efforts, prevent the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and counter terrorism. The Council has established 30 sanctions regimes in total, the first dating back to 1966, when it imposed restrictions on Southern Rhodesia. Today, there are 14 sanctions regimes in place, just one shy of the highest number in the Organization’s history and a sign that Council members consider that these measures work.

But sanctions have evolved considerably in the last few decades. Much of the change has aimed at avoiding unintended consequences or harm to civilians. Economic sanctions have been referred to as a blunt instrument that the international community has often wielded without full consideration of the impact they could have on the population of targeted countries. However, since 1994, all new Security Council sanctions regimes have been targeted. They include measures such as travel bans and asset freezes on designated individuals or entities; arms embargoes; bans on the trade of specific commodities (diamonds, coal, wildlife products, charcoal); restrictions on items, material, equipment, goods and technology related to nuclear ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction programmes, or bans on the export of certain luxury goods.

Today, Security Council sanctions are continually adjusted in response to changes on the ground. In addition, the most applied sanctions measures include standardized humanitarian and other exemptions. In the case of arms embargoes, exemptions are routinely granted for the import of non-lethal equipment necessary for humanitarian actors to operate in conflict zones. In the case of travel bans, exemptions are provided for medical or religious reasons or to participate in peace processes. Exemptions to asset freezes allow payment for food, utilities or medicines. There are also standing humanitarian exemptions in the Somalia and Afghanistan regimes, as well as case-by-case humanitarian exemption systems in the Libya, Yemen and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) sanctions regimes.

Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, briefs a UN Security Council meeting on the general issues relating to sanctions. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

During the last Security Council debate on sanctions on 7 February, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo told the Council that UN sanctions remain “a vital tool”, but that they should be part of a comprehensive political strategy to be effective. She also acknowledged that concerns about the impact on the civilian population remain.

DiCarlo added that de-risking policies and over-compliance are two of the most important problems facing humanitarian actors. Financial actors and other service providers may impose additional conditions, increase their costs, or simply refuse to provide the requested goods and services, thereby inhibiting the delivery of humanitarian assistance. “The continued difficulty in reviving the banking channel for humanitarian transfers to the DPRK since its collapse in 2017, is a prime example of such challenges,” she said.

People wait in line for food and oil being distributed by the World Food Programme in Andkhoy, Afghanistan. Photo: WFP/Photolibrary

Also briefing the Council earlier this month, and detailing the impact of sanctions on humanitarian agencies, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said that in Somalia and Afghanistan, the UN sanctions regimes have been able to adapt and “carve out” space for humanitarian activities to continue.

Mitigating the humanitarian impact of sanctions, Griffiths said, requires the continued review of both the way sanctions are designed and the way they are implemented. “However smart, however targeted they are, compliance with sanctions is a daily element in the work of humanitarian agencies. They can impact our logistics, our finances, our ability to deliver,” he said, suggesting that the Security Council and other jurisdictions implementing sanctions should build into the original legislations, comprehensive, humanitarian carve-outs from the outset, rather than case-by-case authorization procedures, which could be cumbersome and inefficient. Carve-outs should then be smoothly translated into national legislation to lessen the concerns of humanitarian donors, NGOs and private companies, he urged.

Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo, for her part, stressed that the continued monitoring by sanctions committees of the possible humanitarian impact of sanctions is vital. Their groups of experts may assist by gathering information about the possible unintended impact of sanctions on humanitarian activities. “It is also essential to increase cooperation with humanitarian actors and the private sector,” she added. The UN Inter-Agency Working Group, established in 2014, has helped promote better understanding and a system-wide approach to sanctions. Furthermore, the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs’ (DPPA) Security Council Affairs Division has launched other initiatives, including training, to build capacities and increase synergies among these key constituencies.

The last decade has also shown that sanctions can do more than limit the influx of arms and ammunition or the financing of armed groups in conflict-based situations. Almost all the sanctions regimes supporting conflict resolution now include designation, or listing, criteria intended to uphold international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo explained that sanctions are also increasingly being used for protection purposes. More than 50 individuals and entities have been designated, or put on sanctions lists, by the Council or its committees, in whole or in part, for involvement in conflict-related sexual violence, the use of children in armed conflict, migrant trafficking, attacks on humanitarian workers, and obstruction of delivery of humanitarian assistance, among other international humanitarian law criteria. They include Sultan Zabin, the director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Sanaa, Yemen, for torture and sexual violence in conflict; and Ahmed Ag Albachar, self-proclaimed “president of the humanitarian commission” of the Kidal region in Mali, for obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The inclusion of such acts as stand-alone criteria for imposition of sanctions is a relatively recent step that has been welcomed by humanitarian and human rights partners. Pramila Patten, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, presenting the latest report on sexual violence in conflict (document S/2021/312) to the Security Council in April 2021, advocated for sanctions regimes to effectively target sexual and gender-based crimes, which can “change the calculus” of parties who assume they can commit such crimes with no repercussions. In all contexts, it is crucial to emphasize that “policies of zero tolerance cannot carry zero consequences”, she said. DiCarlo, in her Council briefing, said this use of sanctions sends an unmistakable signal about the Council’s commitment to ensure accountability for violations and abuses of international humanitarian or human rights law.

Women IDPs at Haatafo IDP camp, in Baidoa, in Somalia’s South West State. 26 January 2021. UN Photo/Mokhtar Mohamed

Another set of sanctions targets “threat finance”. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic, and Somalia sanctions regimes allow the designations of those who assist in the trafficking of natural resources used to fund armed conflicts.

In the case of Somalia, as a result of the reporting of the then Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group that the export of charcoal constituted a significant source of revenue for Al-Shabaab, the Security Council decided in 2012 to impose an embargo on the export of charcoal from Somalia with the adoption of resolution 2036 (2012). The embargo contributed to addressing illegal logging, massive deforestation and land degradation which charcoal production in Somalia had been fueling, in addition to exacerbating communal violence and regional conflicts, which often led to humanitarian crises. The resolution 2060 (2012) added violations of the charcoal ban to the listing criteria for targeted sanctions. With the adoption of resolution 2182 (2014), the Council also authorized the maritime interdiction of charcoal from Somalia. Member States like Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran and Iraq, which had been destinations of Somali charcoal, took various measures against the import of Somali charcoal. As a result, the Panel of Experts on Somalia (the successor of the Monitoring Group) did not report any violations of the charcoal ban between 2018 and 2021.

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Politically Speaking

The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs