David Cortright, President, Fourth Freedom Forum, Research Fellow, University of Notre Dame, The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

George Lopez, Professor of Government and International Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Notre Dame, The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

David Cortright and George Lopez spoke in the Managing Global Issues Seminar Series to share conclusions from their newly published work, The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s. The book seeks to inform the UN Security Council, UN member states, the scholarly community, nongovernmental organizations focusing on peace and security, the media, and the broader public about the use and effectiveness of UN Security Council mandated sanctions during the 1990s. The book project was funded by the Canadian government and was commissioned by the International Peace Academy.

The Focus of The Sanctions Decade

During the 1990s, more than fifty new episodes of sanctions have occurred, including twelve instances of UN Security Council sanctions, with the rest being imposed primarily by the United States and the European Union. The conventional wisdom, seemingly supported by the majority of scholarly research, is that sanctions are ineffective and merely serve to placate public demands for action. Professor Lopez began the presentation by discussing the focus of the book. The authors develop a set of criteria for judging the full impact of sanctions?political, economic, and humanitarian?and then provide detailed studies of the twelve UN sanction regimes. The authors are concerned with the simple question: Do sanctions work? The book explores this issue and challenges some of the conventional wisdom.

Professor Lopez provided a brief analysis of each of the case studies:

In the case of Iraq, the longest, most comprehensive and severe multilateral sanctions regime ever imposed, the authors examine the controversy surrounding the humanitarian effects as well as the effectiveness of the sanctions in gaining compliance from the Iraqi government. The authors argue, contrary to popular belief, that the sanctions against Iraq have been partially effective?six of the eight propositions in UN Security Council Resolution 687 have been complied with by the Iraqi government. The authors recognize that the authorities in Baghdad manipulated the humanitarian impacts for their own political gain, yet they also argue that the major powers misused the sanctions instrument. They stress that the Iraqi government?s partial compliance with the sanctions regime should have resulted in further negotiations at the bargaining table, with incentives (alleviation of sanctions), for further compliance.

The Yugoslav example is an important case for understanding the requirements for effective enforcement and the significant role sanctions can play in bargaining dynamics. The 1991-early 1994 sanctions were weak. The 1994-1995 sanctions regime was a success because of the highly effective monitoring and enforcement procedures that were developed. In contrast, the 1998 arms embargo was limited and halfhearted in its implementation.

The sanctions against Haiti are examined as a case in which hesitation, inconsistency, and a lack of enforcement undermined the political effectiveness of sanctions. The sanctions eventually failed altogether, and the decision was made to opt for a military solution. The cases of Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan are grouped together as examples of the use of travel bans and aviation sanctions as forms of actual (Libya and Afghanistan) or threatened (Sudan) coercive pressure to address the problem of international terrorism.

The case of Cambodia and the UNITA areas of Angola are examples of sanctions applied against non-state actors. In Cambodia, sanctions combined with a large peacekeeping operation to isolate and weaken the Khmer Rouge and contributed to its decline. In the case of UNITA, the Security Council imposed "smart sanctions" targeted at specific leadership groups or factions while avoiding measures that would impose humanitarian costs to already vulnerable populations. The Security Council also used "smart sanctions" against Sierra Leone. In neither case were sanctions effectively monitored or enforced; in turn, the sanctions failed to pressure the parties to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

The final three case studies of Liberia, Rwanda, and Somalia are examples of ineffective arms embargoes applied against failed states in circumstances of war, genocide, and famine. These sanctions reflect the inability of the Security Council or any other international bodies to provide successful solutions to the crisis of violence and human rights abuses that have plagued sub-Saharan Africa.

Overall Findings

The authors conclude that the limits of the effectiveness of sanctions are due less to inherent shortcomings in the instrument itself than to flaws in the design, implementation, and enforcement (of specific sanctions). Compliance is less related to whether sanctions are general and comprehensive or targeted ("smart sanctions"), but is more related to the steadfastness and commitment of member states in implementing and enforcing sanctions. Sanctions must be perceived as a form of coercive persuasion. Sanctions require thoroughness and toughness. They must be viewed not as a punishment, but as a tool of negotiation and bargaining. Compliance improves when sanctions are coupled with positive incentives. For multilateral UN sanctions, these incentives should include the gradual lifting of sanctions as compliance improves with some, or the entirety, of the conditions outlined in the resolutions. The overall objectives of sanctions should be bringing states back into the international arena through constructive engagement. Finally, the impact of sanctions should be carefully assessed?both in terms of the political and humanitarian effects within a country, and in terms of the impact upon neighboring states

Policy Recommendations

David Cortright provided a summarized list of policy recommendations regarding the use of UN sanctions. Overall, he argued that sanctions should be made more humane and effective. Sanctions should be coupled with positive incentives that provide a motivation for compliance. They also need to be strategically designed, and aimed at the elites of targeted regimes, while doing minimal harm to innocent populations, opposition movements within a country, and third parties outside the country affected by sanctions.

Minimize Humanitarian and Third Party Impact (trading partner states, etc.)

  • Sanctions must be accompanied by assessment reports that detail their effectiveness and their impact upon vulnerable populations and third party countries.
  • Expert groups need to be created to carry out assessment tasks?a universal, comprehensive methodology must be used to assess the impact of sanctions on populations.
  • The UN, through Article 50 of the UN Charter, needs to provide economic arrangements for third party countries that are inadvertently harmed by sanctions. Special measures should be adopted if necessary.

Institutional Reforms

  • UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions need greater clarity and specificity?there need to be clear goals in resolutions that specify when sanctions can be lifted.
  • Sanction resolutions must be accompanied by a budgetary process that commits finances for the creation of assessment monitoring groups. The financial dimension of sanctions must be assessed.
  • The administrative and legal capacity of member states to deal with sanctions must be increased.
  • Monitoring efforts must be improved?neighboring states of targeted countries should be provided assistance in these efforts.
  • UN sanctions committees should be given a greater role in drafting and interpreting UN Security Council resolutions.
  • The UN Secretary General?s office is ill-equipped to administer sanctions?the office needs more staff, and more expertise in international economics, terrorism, etc. The office needs to increase its "virtual capacity"? special expert representatives that would be utilized on a case by case basis.

Financial Sanctions

  • There needs to be greater international cooperation in the enforcement of Security Council financial sanctions?lessons can be learned from other areas, such as international efforts to control drug-money laundering.
  • UN legal and administrative systems must be improved to effectively identify and target specific individuals and entities whose assets are to be frozen.

Arms Embargoes

  • Arms embargoes need to be enforced. This can be accomplished through the creation of special investigative commissions that can clearly identify and publicly name those who violate the sanctions
  • Arms embargoes need to be more specific regarding the kinds of weapons banned, the transfer of dual-use technologies, and the use of military training and advising structures.

Travel Bans

  • Surrounding countries need greater assistance to help enforce the bans.
  • Border monitoring efforts need to be improved.

Improving Overall Compliance

  • Secondary sanctions need to be imposed on individuals and corporate entities that violate the conditions of sanction resolutions.


Several participants in the seminar series disagreed with the authors? assessment of the cases and their proposed solutions. As far as Iraq was concerned, some participants inquired who was ultimately to blame for the humanitarian crisis (the Iraqi regime or the US and the UN Security Council), while others wondered if lifting trade sanctions to relieve the humanitarian conditions would merely empower Saddam Hussein and his cronies. George Lopez and David Cortright responded by arguing that the Iraqi government has manipulated the sanctions arrangements to worsen the humanitarian conditions within the country?however, that does not take moral responsibility away from the US and the UN, who allowed the regime to become so damaging to civilian populations. The authors believe that trade sanctions should be completely lifted and replaced by a comprehensive arms embargo and technology transfer sanctions regime. If the US and the UN lift the trade sanctions, that will place increased pressure upon the Iraqi government to comply with the resolution conditions?the Iraqi government will be less able to claim that the US and the UN support an immoral position.

Another popular topic of discussion was the use of sanctions as part of a broader policy towards a country. The authors stressed that sanctions are instruments, and should not be perceived as policies in themselves (as the sanctions in Iraq have become). Sanctions overall need to be part of policy that encourages negotiation and eventual full-fledged engagement. They should be coupled with incentives, and should be tightened (through time limits and through greater specificity). Sanctions must be seen as a bargaining dynamic within a wider process of negotiation. One participant noted, and the authors confirmed, some of the limits of coupling positive incentives with UN sanctions?unlike unilateral sanctions from a particular country, which can be coupled with positive trade and/or aid incentives, the only positive incentive that the UN can offer is the alleviation of particular sanctions.

Some participants argued that sanctions need to be examined as part of an overall coercive effort?they should be exercised in conjunction with the threat or use of force. One participant referred to studies that have shown that sanctions accompanied with the threat or use of force are more effective than sanctions alone.

Finally, the authors stressed that the UN needs to greater emphasize the role of UN resources and agencies, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, in rebuilding post-sanction/conflict countries. As part of an overall policy of engagement, post-sanction arrangements must incorporate development programs that serve civilian populations.

Cortright, David and George A. Lopez. The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000.