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After 50 Years of UN Sanctions, Is the System Broken?


Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, at an African Union conference in Addis Ababa, February 2009. Steps to calm Libya’s violent Arab Spring protests in 2011 through dialogue were stopped cold by a UN Security Council resolution, the authors say. (US NAVY, JESSE B. AWALT/CREATIVE COMMONS

With only few of the current United Nations sanctions cases accomplishing their political objectives, it is not unreasonable to wonder why the system seems broken. As the 50th anniversary of the first use of this important political tool is duly noted, the short answer is that nothing is wrong with sanctions.

The problem is with the sanctions policymakers, particularly the leading countries on the UN Security Council, who routinely interject their national interests to confuse, conflate or corrupt UN sanctions.

In our new book on the workings of UN sanctions, “The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace, Security and Human Rights,” we examine the political context of the 30 sanctions cases since the UN’s founding in 1945 and how each case measures up to the UN Charter’s fundamental principles of promoting human welfare. (Our book, also written with Shawna R. Meister, will be presented at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs on Dec. 6; Barbara Crossette, a contributing editor to PassBlue, will be a panelist.)

Under heavy lobbying by the newly formed membership of the Nonaligned Movement, or NAM, sanctions were first applied in December 1966 on Southern Rhodesia. In the 50 years since, we found at least one of the following shortcomings in sanctions cases, usually caused by one or several of the permanent-five members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — of the Security Council:

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• Manipulating sanctions to fit their objectives rather than to advance UN Charter prerogatives of promoting human welfare, such as in Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Liberia 788 regime and South Sudan.

• Curtailing the time and effort needed to properly carry out sanctions and instead rushing to use military force: for example, doing so after only four months of Iraq sanctions; and in Libya in 2011, after less than a month of sanctions.

• Replacing peaceful and temporary UN sanctions with unilateral sanctions amplified by military or intelligence actions — effectively launching economic warfare — by individual countries or regional organizations. This occurred in varying degrees in the cases of sanctions on ISIS-Al Qaeda-Taliban, Liberia in 2001, Ivory Coast, North Korea and Yemen.

• Neglecting to truly negotiate global support for a sanctions package and therefore ending up with poor political will for credible implementation efforts by all countries as well as the private sector. Strong examples are the sanctions on Somalia and Darfur, Sudan.

In our classification system, we conclude that an astonishing 22 of the UN’s historical 30 sanctions events either fail to meet or barely meet the defined terms for UN sanctions as spelled out in Article 41 of the UN Charter. Sanctions under the Charter are meant to be temporary measures to coerce, contain or constrain violators of international norms in maintaining and restoring international peace and security.

Sanctions are also meant to be last resorts only after good-faith application of Chapter VI measures have been taken (emphasized in Article 98.5 of the NAM final document of heads of state, Sept. 17-18, 2016). They are expected to work simultaneously with diplomacy, dialogue, mediation and negotiation.

The deteriorating standards are exemplified by sanctions on North Korea. First imposed by the UN in 2006, they amplified the long-term enmity between the US and Japan against North Korea and came on top of harsh US economic warfare restrictions in place since 1950. Rather than supporting the six-party talks that should have led to the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization, the UN sanctions worsened tensions, led to the suspension of the talks and failed to prevent or constrain Kim Jong Un’s proliferation efforts.

Despite China’s attempts to counterbalance the lack of a vision from the US for mediation, sanctions have become increasingly vindictive and reminiscent of the comprehensive blockade model abandoned by the UN in the mid-1990s.

Another widespread misuse of sanctions is their commingling with the simultaneous (or almost simultaneous) introduction of military force.

The 2011 sanctions on Libya that purported to act on the neglect of the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s responsibility to protect the Libyan people is a case in point. Attempts to settle Libya’s violent Arab Spring through peaceful dialogue were stopped cold less than a month after adoption of the original sanctions resolution, No. 1970.

France, Britain, the US and some members of the League of Arab States — against the abstentions of five Council members and despite doubt by some African countries — pushed for Resolution 1973, authorizing enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace.

Implicitly a regime-change resolution, the air campaign destroyed the authority of the Libyan government, and in the ensuing chaos, incited tribal warfare and an influx of ISIS and Al Qaeda mercenaries as well as huge arms flows to the Sahel region and violence there. The fighting is still continuing in Libya, causing untold civilian casualties.

The legitimate use of force does have its place and can be authorized by the Security Council under Article 42 of the UN Charter. Through the deliberate design of applying incremental measures, and if Article 41 sanctions fail to bring about the desired change, the Council can move from the peaceful realm of sanctions to military blockades and other uses of force. Yet these steps inevitably result in violence, civil unrest and collateral civilian casualties, which are all anathema to properly designed UN sanctions policies.

In their assessments of sanctions, skeptics, commentators and academic analysts often ignore the separation of UN sanctions under Article 41 from unilateral sanctions (by, say, a government) or from Article 42’s military measures. These experts fail to recognize how such commingling erodes support for Security Council decisions when national interests are allowed to dilute the tools of multilateral conflict resolution.

They also fail to consider the corrosion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s idea of the “four policemen”: the US, Britain, Russia and China, who accepted their role to protect international peace and security in exchange for a permanent seat on the Security Council and use of the veto. After World War II, France was allowed to join Roosevelt’s peace police.

As the Cold War showed, almost instantaneously, these five powers set about breaking their commitment to place global security over narrower national interests. Instead of fulfilling their role as protectors of peace, they have become the greatest threats to international peace and security. As they jealously guard their permanent seats and veto power, they squander the potential of sanctions to protect crisis-riddled countries and their suffering people.

Some partial solutions can fix this imbalance. Many of the countries elected to serve two-year terms on the Security Council assume that their objections are mere confetti against the heavy artillery of the permanent-five members. It is true that elected members’ attempts to push against the brick wall of the veto-power countries often lead to failure. But the implementation of sanctions policies is mandated to committees of the Security Council, so behind the closed doors of committee meetings other rules apply, and all 15 Council members must support decisions unanimously.

The consequence is that in carrying out and enforcing sanctions, each member can exercise the equivalent of a veto by objecting to or abstaining from any decision that does not live up to UN Charter principles. In the Council itself, decisions are made with the concurring vote of nine members. More cohesion in decision-making among the Council’s 10 elected members would mean more sway over its commitments and resolutions.

That is one crucial way that elected members of the Council can counter big-power sanctions policies that go awry.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Enrico Carisch is the co-author of the just-released book “The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace, Security and Human Rights.” He is also a co-founder and partner of Compliance and Capacity Skills International (CCSI), a New York-based group specializing in all aspects of sanctions regimes (

Among other organizations, Carisch has worked for the UN Security Council as a financial and natural-resources monitor and investigator on sanctions violations by individuals and entities in Africa and elsewhere. Previously, he was an investigative journalist for print and TV for 25 years.

Loraine Rickard-Martin is a co-founder and chief executive of Compliance and Capacity Skills International, a nonprofit firm specializing in global sanctions. She is a former senior political affairs officer in the Security Council Affairs Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs. She was also secretary of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel on threats, challenges and change in 2003-2004; a lecturer on UN sanctions at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; and a member of the UN Board of Inquiry into the death of two members of the UN Group of Experts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is a co-author of “The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace, Security and Human Rights” (Springer, 2017).

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After 50 Years of UN Sanctions, Is the System Broken?
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