Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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In a World of Evolving UN Sanctions, an Emphasis on the Humanitarian Effects


Part of Italian-made howitzers belonging to the forces of Muammar el-Qaddafi, destroyed by French airstrikes, March 19, 2011. A new book on UN sanctions says that when force is used after UN sanctions have been imposed, it is most often at the instigation of the Security Council permanent-five members. BERND.BRINCKEN/CREATIVE COMMONS

Debates over how to deal with issues like North Korea’s nuclear weapons or the reliability of Iran to adhere to its role in a multiparty nuclear deal have brought questions about the value, design and human effects of sanctions to the fore at the United Nations and in national capitals. Are sanctions a tool of diplomacy, an encouragement to behavior change or often an opening to disastrous military intervention?

Sanctions, embargos, boycotts — these policies are not new; they have been tools of governments and diverse nongovernment movements for centuries. After the creation of the UN, however, they took on a globalized force of law, specifically by the UN’s power center, the Security Council. Over decades of tinkering with sanctions, marked by moments of trial and error and a lot of rethinking, there is an overwhelming amount of documentation to study and analyze. A new, exhaustive reference book has recently appeared to take on the challenge.

“The Evolution of UN Sanctions: From a Tool of Warfare to a Tool of Peace,” whose primary authors are experienced scholars in their field, is a heavily documented, multifaceted work: part historical, part analytical and part judgmental or prescriptive in concluding how and where sanctions fit their purpose as well as where and why they have sometimes gone terribly wrong.

Sanctions can be subverted, lead to extensive corruption by targeted regimes and their cronies, get weakened by lawbreaking corporations and other outsiders and, if applied in a blanket fashion, harm entire populations and cultures.

The authors of this unique reference book are Enrico Carisch, who has monitored the implementation of sanctions for the Security Council in numerous conflict zones, and Loraine Rickard-Martin, who designs training on sanctions for the public and private sectors and is a former senior political affairs officer on Security Council matters in the UN Department of Political Affairs. The authors are also the founders of Compliance and Capacity Skills International.

In the book, they zero in on the use and misuse of sanctions by the five permanent members of the Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

They write: “If one insight has undoubtedly emerged over 50 years of UN sanctions practices, it is that international peace and security cannot depend on ‘the concurring votes of the permanent members.’ In reality, their concurrence rarely happens and in any event, too often increases violence and instability.”

The book concludes that in reality, when use of force follows the imposition of sanctions, whether approved or not, it “is in most cases initiated by P-5 member states.” Some recent military interventions, such as Iraq or Libya, have turned much of the developing world against sanctions (or for that matter, some peacekeeping missions) if they are thinly disguised regime change operations.

“The resulting outcomes of the thirty UN sanctions regimes are therefore not due to shortcomings of the tool itself,” the authors wrote. “The problematic cases, where sanctions and military force are combined to cause serious disruptions and a high toll of human suffering . . . result from the impatience and shortsightedness of powerful UN member states.”

The writing of the book, which is nearly 500 pages, was assisted by a researcher, Shawna R. Meister. Fortunately, it has an excellent index — a welcome resource for anyone in academia or the news media looking for specific cases. Moreover, it has chapters devoted to the many types of sanctions that are now available, from targeted tools like asset freezes to commodity bans and the emerging field of cyberspace and how to deal with the ability of “cyber warriors” and jihadists to violate sanctions or be untouched by them.

The evolution of sanctions policies is a theme running throughout the book. There are numerous case studies from around the world, covering countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East as well as Haiti in the Western Hemisphere.

A comprehensive table shows in graphic form how sanctions were conceived in cases going back to Southern Rhodesia in 1966 (now Zimbabwe) and their effects on human welfare. An accompanying chart records where and how sanctions were often inhibited or undercut over the decades that followed.

The authors conclude with a plea for more analytical, informed judgments of UN sanctions, saying: “Over the past decade critics and skeptics have tended to refer to the alleged ineffectiveness of sanctions, specifically UN sanctions, almost as a genetic failure. This conclusion is premature as long as these failures are not analyzed more carefully and UN sanctions regimes are not measured against their clearly identified purposes and objectives; i.e., the UN’s fundamental humanitarian values.”


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

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs


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