The Problematic Application of Comprehensive Sanctions on the Rights of Vulnerable Citizens

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Comprehensive sanctions, including arms embargoes, diplomatic isolation, and trade restrictions, are a central coercive policy designed to force member states that violate international law into compliance. The purpose of sanctions is to constrain or limit the sanctioned entity‟s ability to operate or sustain activities of concern and to force a shift in its behavior to comply with international law. The strategic objectives of imposing sanctions consist of preventing or countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, constraining or countering terrorism, deterring human rights abuses and corruption, and promoting accountable and democratic government.

However, comprehensive economic sanctions do not have a good track record, especially in the context of human rights violations. Not only have they often failed to accomplish their intended policy objectives, but they have also resulted in substantial human costs. Furthermore, the reality is that comprehensive sanctions cause national economic pain, such as shortages, higher prices, and deeper poverty for the poor and middle class. In that respect, I argue that though sanctions are applied to address human rights abuse, they are ineffective because their burdens fall disproportionately on vulnerable civilians, while political leaders, their families, criminal groups, and other private individuals often benefit.

In this reflective paper, I explored the nature and legal consideration of sanctions for human rights protection; I conducted a comparative discussion of the pros and cons of comprehensive and targeted sanctions. In the same reasoning trend, I recommended a few mechanisms to anticipate and address these challenges. These recommendations will play a vital role in helping the decision-makers in the senders of sanctions to balance the political gain of applying sanctions and the socio-economic impact they have on vulnerable citizens of the targeted country.


Inter-state and intra-state conflicts with massive human rights violations have characterized the post-Cold War period. The increasing situations of human rights violations are paralleled by the growing frequency of the international community’s resorts to economic sanctions, whose consequences are unavoidable. On another side, these sanctions are significant in pressuring the concerned political regime or political leaders to end human rights violations. In this section, I will conduct a brief reflection on their nature and legal consideration; I will emphasize on requirements for the effectiveness of sanctions. Equally, I will evoke their adverse consequences on the concerned country in general and vulnerable citizens in particular. I will discuss these consequences in detail in the next section.

Legal Consideration and Motives of Application of Sanctions

Sanctions refer to coercive measures taken in response to a violation of international law by an organ legally empowered to act on behalf of the society or community governed by the legal system [1]. In that sense, sanctions are among the most essential and powerful tools to maintain or restore international peace and security [2]. They can be comprehensive, meaning they cover an entire country or designated groups or categories of persons and entities. They can also be non-comprehensive or targeted, covering only specific industries, industry sectors, activities, practices, or individuals.

The United Nations is the Center-Piece for Authorizing the Sanctions

The UN‟s sanctions fall under the authority of Chapter VII of the UN Charter; they consist of non-violent tools used to achieve change in nations‟ behaviors. In other words, without the strict enforcement of sanctions, the only means left to the international community to alter the behavior of proliferators, such as North Korea, is using force under Article 42 of the UN Charter [3]. However, I realized that there is no standard process for enforcing sanctions. These loopholes are significant causes of evasions, as in the case of North Korean evasions of sanctions that the international community imposed on it [4]. The legal framework and regulations required for their successful enforcement are vital as a solution.

I cannot entirely agree with Gordon when noting that in response to the disastrous impact that trade sanctions had on the civilian population in Iraq in the early 1990s, how sanctions were applied was fundamentally reexamined by evolving into more selective, targeted, more effective, and less inhumane, in both UN and non-UN measures [5]. Moreover, before implementing the sanctions provided for in Chapter VII, the Security Council must have exhausted the means of peaceful settlement of disputes under Chapter VI. In that process, sanctions should be resorted to only with the utmost caution when other soft options provided by the Charter are inadequate [6]. It pushes me to question the respect of this requirement when a superpower unilaterally imposes sanctions.

Theoretical Requirements for Implementation of Sanctions

Theoretically, once Chapter VII is activated, the Security Council benefits from a range of actions to punish a State that has either threatened or has already violated the peace. These are of gradual application, with military intervention being the ultimate sanction. In other words, specific graduation in implementing sanctions ranges from lighter measures to more restrictive ones that may lead to a total embargo. Therefore, implementing sanctions is accompanied by special efforts to make sanctions more effective [7]. However, I can observe that this requirement is a simple theory since it does not consider the impact of these sanctions on human rights.

The Aspect of Human Rights Violation in the Application of Economic Sanctions

The Human Rights Council and regional organizations have regularly and consistently adopted resolutions rejecting the use of economic sanctions for decades [8]. I understand that these rejections are based on the financial sanctions regimes that do not ensure minimal regard vis-à-vis basic human rights needs. I am concerned that these measures do not include effective mechanisms to provide remedies and redress for victims of human rights violations arising from the unlawful imposition of sanctions.

Extended Effects of Comprehensive Sanctions to Targeted Sanctions Targeted sanctions are implemented mainly through selective embargo measures. The selective embargo allows the Security Council to adjust the sanction to suit the situation. UN practice reveals many examples of targeted sanctions, which concern the ban on arms and related materials [9], and financial sanctions, including freezing foreign assets, restrictions on access to international financial markets, and stopping any international transfer of payment to a State or another State or a targeted entity. They also include restrictions on travel and commercial flights and trade in natural resources such as oil/ petrol products, diamonds, round logs, and timber products [10]. However, apart from individual travel bans, their results affect the country’s economy.

The Issue of Interdependence in the Application of Comprehensive Sanctions

The USA, European Union (EU), and Japan thought that the most effective sanction against Russia was to suspend natural gas imports from the country, which could cause an economic burden by depriving it of foreign currency income. At the same time, these sanctions affected the economic and social activities of the European countries that depended on natural gas from Russia [11]. Changes in their economic and social activities, the risk of electricity shortages, and other problems caused by natural gas shortages became evident [12].

I can infer that countries are reluctant to implement sanctions to avoid the risk of hurting themselves and avoid the impact on their economic activities and national policies. In other words, I can conclude that it is only for small economies, those with asymmetrical interdependence, that sanctions do not cause significant problems. However, implementing sanctions targeting economies of the size of Russia is inevitably tricky.


I will not attempt to explore all cases that the UN and the UN Security Council addressed utilizing sanctions in this section; instead, I will base on a few instances to criticize the ineffectiveness of these sanctions and will especially emphasize their effects on vulnerable citizens of the concerned country.

Effects of Comprehensive Sanctions on the Country’s Economy and Vulnerable People’s Rights

As I introduced earlier, comprehensive sanctions are ineffective, counter- productive, harmful to the economic interests of those imposing sanctions, damaging to relations with allies, and morally questionable yet challenging to lift once imposed. The situation worsens in intra-state conflicts and in failed states where generalized sanctions are ineffective against leaders of armed factions; there are gaps in documentation of imports and exports or borders [13].

Socio-Economic Consequences of Comprehensive Sanctions

As the regime became more repressive, ordinary Iraqis suffered the most from the sanctions, which reduced things like food imports and medical supplies, leading to widespread malnutrition and starvation, and impoverished them. Between 670,000 and 880,000 children under five are estimated to have died during 1990-1995 due to the impoverished conditions caused by the sanctions [14]. From this description, I can deduce that sanctions adversely cause poverty, especially among vulnerable people. This impact increases with the severity of sanctions and is more extensive for multilateral sanctions than for unilateral sanctions imposed only by one superpower and is long-lasting as the poverty gap increases [15].

Comprehensive Sanctions Are Inefficient in Changing the Country’s

Regime and Policies: Without a doubt, sanctions are more likely to fail when they target autocratic regimes that insulate themselves from the international community, precisely countries where human rights violations are rampant [16]. I can infer that they carry little direct weight when it comes to autocratic leaders‟ decisions to repress their populations. It had been the case for failed Sanctions to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola by the United Nations Security Council.

In response to a bitter civil war between the government of Angola and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the UN security council used various measures, including peacekeepers, negotiations, and sanctions. Sanctions included arms embargo and oil sanctions on UNITA, financial sanctions, travel bans for senior UNITA officials, aviation ban for flights to UNITA territory, and diplomatic sanctions that closed UNITA offices in other countries [17]. Regrettably, the Security Council gave up trying to mediate between the Angolan government and UNITA and sought to isolate the rebels, restrict their resources for arms and fuel, and help the government gain the upper hand [18].

On the positive side, I was impressed that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) aided the Security Council in blocking the finances and sources of UNITA‟s weapons and mercenaries by especially blocking exports of UNITA diamonds and monitoring air traffic in the region. In this case, governments, companies, and individuals were identified as violators of these sanctions in various ways [19].

Comprehensive Sanctions Do Not Resist Authoritarian Leadership The Iraqi case and the South African Apartheid are other examples that signal the inefficiency of comprehensive sanctions, especially the failure of the UN‟s sanctions. Typically, the effect of the sanctions imposed on South Africa‟s apartheid regime from the 1960s was believed to have moved the country toward democracy in the mid-1990s, but the situation happened from a reversed angle. The Iraqi case is another leading example of the failure of the UN‟s comprehensive sanctions. The UN imposed sanctions on Iraq after President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, but the Iraqi people did not rise to rebel against the dictator. Instead, his political violence ended after the United States militarily invaded his country in 2003 [20].

The North Korean case is another culminant example. North Korea has also been heavily sanctioned, but this policy instrument has been ineffective, counter-productive, and even harmful to human life, causing political and economic insecurity among the civilian population. Despite extensive sanctions, North Korea continued to test nuclear missiles [21]. Human rights violations became terrible because the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People‟s Republic of Korea recommended that the North Korean case be referred to the International Criminal Court [22].

The Sanctions Period: A Golden Period for the North Korean Nuclear Program

As I emphasized above, the North Korean situation should be a wake-up call for decision-makers regarding comprehensive sanctions because they enabled North Korea to develop its nuclear program further instead of discouraging it [23]. Said otherwise, economic sanctions cannot be effective if policy-makers have a strong will and believe there are more benefits to continuing the policy than any financial burden that can be placed on them [24]. More specifically, in the case of North Korea‟s nuclear development, Kim Jong-un, who had a dictatorial authority to make policy decisions, recognized that the development and possession of nuclear weapons was the most crucial issue for his country‟s survival and had not stopped nuclear development despite these sanctions [25

Although economic sanctions could hamper North Korea from acquiring necessary materials for nuclear development, it has been able to get these materials and continue its policy by developing on its own, smuggling, and other means of evading sanctions [26]. Additionally, although North Korea could not obtain the funds necessary for nuclear development, it could get them through cryptocurrency theft in cyberspace [27]. Without a doubt, economic sanctions will not be very effective if loopholes can be exploited by the concerned state, such as in the case of Korea.

Comprehensive Sanctions Benefit the Violators of Human Rights to the Detriment of Vulnerable Citizens: Case of Oil-For-Food in Iraqi Case

Undoubtedly, economic sanctions benefit particular political leaders, companies, groups, and individuals who violate human rights to the detriment of vulnerable civilians. The oil sales authorized under the 1995 Oil-for-Food Programme to pay for food and medical supplies were an exception to the sanctions imposed on Iraq. Apart from restricting Iraq from acquiring or developing any nuclear weapons and placing all nuclear-usable material, such as power plants, under international control, the resolution also required Iraq to compensate victims for losses or damages, using money from the sale of oil [28].

Regrettably, these sanctions resulted from malnutrition, contaminated water supplies, increased infectious disease, and higher infant and child mortality rates, producing a severe humanitarian crisis [29]. It is regrettable that Saddam Hussein, some private companies, and individuals, including some UN personnel concerned with the program, made that exception as their opportunity to exploit it, earning good wealth through kickbacks and surcharges and illegal oil smuggling [30].

Factors that Hinder the Effectiveness of Comprehensive Sanctions

I insisted earlier that sanctions are an alternative way of fighting wars, perpetuating conflicts but not defusing them; they should be an appropriate tool to protect the rights of defenseless categories of people. I cannot assume to explore all the factors hindering this goal’s realization in this section, but I will make an evocative discussion that can alert the policy-makers in the validation process.

Lack of Adequate Follow-Up on Implementation

Typically, effective implementation of sanctions requires an adequate follow-up and a great deal of specific knowledge about the country, people, and groups being targeted. In that sense, it requires identifying funds belonging to those who are targeted, such as government agencies, companies, and individuals, and blocking their access to those funds [31]. However, there are operational and political difficulties in achieving their objectives. Legal loopholes, lack of trained staff, and inadequate budgets in the UN secretariat and member governments are significant operational difficulties. It worsens when weak border control systems and corruption in many countries exacerbate these difficulties [32].

Politically, there is a lack of active involvement and ownership of Inter- governmental organizations (IGOs) other than the UN, which puts the UN‟s legitimacy at stake when sanctions are used. Additionally, the UN is an umbrella of the five permanent members of the Security Council. In other words, it legitimizes the actions of this P-5. Additionally, sanctions are likely to boost popular support for sanctioned leaders [33].

In the Angolan government versus UNITA case I emphasized earlier, the sanctions imposed by the security council on UNITA had little impact on UNITA’s military capabilities from 1990 to 1999 because there had been almost no monitoring to ensure compliance. Though the conflict ended in 2002, its end was not a result of the sanctions but because of the death of UNITA‟s leader [34].

The Influence of Targeted Authoritatiran Leaders

The cases I highlighted in this paper prove that comprehensive sanctions can dramatically affect target government officials who operate within authoritarian countries that are not economically integrated into the global economy. Typically, leaders who commit human rights violations work within countries not profoundly integrated into the world economy [35]. Apart from comprehensive sanctions, even target sanction measures like travel bans or restrictions, asset freezing, arms embargoes, and trade sanctions may make life difficult for such leaders but do not necessarily inflict enough damage on them. Instead, repressive regimes under threat are likely to arm themselves with violent instruments that suppress challengers or violate human rights and reduce prospects for democratization [36].

Strategic Divert of the Country’s International Trade System

In a few smart countries, economic sanctions have hurt the economy without pushing the country to the brink of total economic collapse and without fatally hurting members of the ruling elite. Therefore, the leadership had managed to circumvent the sanctions by doing business with states and companies that either paid lip service to international law or refused to help enforce it. For example, North Korea has traded with countries in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe, and its trade has grown substantially since 2005 [37].

Undoubtedly, there had been a strategic diversion of the sanctions between China and North Korea. Ironically, China had often supported the sanctions against North Korea through its positive votes at the UN Security Council but had hardly done anything to enforce them [38]. I can construe that the main reason is that China had been North Kora‟s largest trading partner. Unilateral sanctions by Japan and South Korea show that North Korea‟s exports to China increased significantly from 2001 to 2012, using various techniques of trade diversion.

The Lack of Binding Force of the United Nations Resolutions

Many cases prove the sanctions’ inefficacy resulting from the UN’s resolutions’ lack of binding force and inconsistency [39]. The Iranian issue is among many other cases that signal how the UN has vainly used its sanctions, instead, allowed the concerned state to reorganize its illegal acts better. The UN‟s sanctions in the Iranian case targeted halting the Iranian nuclear program. I was surprised to read that since 2006, the security council has vainly imposed sanctions through four resolutions to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons because these sanctions did not stop nor impede the Iranian nuclear program [40]. These sanctions called for states to prevent from transferring any items, materials, goods, and technology that could contribute to the Iranian enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and ballistic missile programs. In that regard, they required states to block directly or indirectly the supply, sale, or transfer of such items from their territories by their nationals using their flag vessels or aircraft [41].

Though the 1747 Resolution 2008 authorized inspections of the sea and air cargo to and from Iran, tightened monitoring of Iranian financial institutions, extended travel bans and asset freezes, and enlarged the list of target individuals and companies. The Security Council, based on the application of the sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s and created a monitoring committee, defined humanitarian exemptions and actions required for sanctions to be suspended or terminated [42]. Based on the results of these sanctions on Iraqi and Iranian cases, I argue that the UN had failed to make its sanctions successfully work.

Globalization and Influence of Major and Middle Powers

Globalization is a non-negligible factor that can impact the success or failure of sanctions because when sanctions lead to the closure of one market, targeted nations can shift their economic focus to other markets and trading partners to maintain a respectable trade volume [43]. I agree with Meissner and Mello that the big players like the US or the EU imposing sanctions are treated as an opportunity by other emerging yet significant economies like India, China, and South Korea [44]. The differences in foreign policy among countries have an instrumental role in the survival of sanctioned economies. China‟s foreign policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state is a leading example. That policy has been essential for the rise of China as Myanmar‟s dominant economic ally since sanctions were imposed in the 1980s [45].

In that sense, China has also continued to have sizable economic ties with heavily-sanctioned North Korea, with bilateral trade increasing ten-fold between 2000– 2015 [46]. From this analysis, I observe that sanctions are effective only against regimes that want to trade with the sanctioning regimes. Lopez-Jacoiste insists that sanctions moderately worked in South Africa because of its close alliance with the US during the Cold War. But, it is futile to sanction outsider regimes such as North Korea and Cuba, where publicity does not have considerable influence [47].

Difficulties in Implementing the Sanctions Against the Superpowers

One typical example of difficulties implementing the sanctions against superpowers is when European Union (EU) members hesitated to enforce the economic sanctions against Russia after invading and annexing Crimea in 2014. The reason was that the EU was Russia‟s chief trade partner; Russia was also the EU‟s third largest commercial partner. On another side, economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU prompted Russia to move closer to China, which had refused to participate in these sanctions [48].

The current war between Russia and Ukraine is a critical point worth analyzing regarding the total failure of economic sanctions. Typically, before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the US and NATO countries denied deploying troops in Ukraine and chose to avoid engaging in direct warfare with Russia. However, they did declare that they would impose massive economic sanctions if Russia invaded, thereby seeking to deter Moscow. As it turned out, Russia did not fear the economic sanctions, invaded Ukraine, and continued fighting. In response, the US, the EU, and Japan have implemented broad economic sanctions against Russia, but this has not stopped Russia‟s military aggression [49].

Considering the current war I discussed in the paragraphs above, I still criticize the purpose of economic sanctions for human rights protection. In that sense, I even wonder if economic sanctions should be the best option when using force is not possible; that means if they are a viable alternative to modern warfare. Unsurprisingly, while many countries in the international community condemned Russia, only about 40 states participated in sanctions against Russia, and those that did not join in sanctions might be involved in Russia‟s evasion of sanctions [50]. This case of war between Russia and Ukraine pushes me to conclude that though comprehensive sanctions target the country, it can only happen for smaller states that usually struggle economically.

I have discussed the adverse consequences of comprehensive sanctions and their ineffectiveness. In doing so, I emphasized the aspect of human rights. Since the ideal goal of sanctions is human rights protection, I have proposed a few alternative measures in the details below that the decision-makers can adopt to make comprehensive sanctions more effective. I cannot claim to have produced an exhaustive list of actions, but it is a portion of food for thoughts and a wake-up call for the senders of sanctions.

Personalization and Individualization of Sanctions

In the sections above, I have emphasized the ineffectiveness of comprehensive sanctions by focusing on their harmful effects on the country’s economy and vulnerable categories of people, particularly women, children, aged, and disabled people. Shockingly, the authors of human rights violations are not directly affected by these sanctions. Therefore, targeted or individualized sanctions can play a role as they put direct pressure on key target actors and their support coalitions while causing minimal humanitarian and other adverse effects on civilians; that is, they affect specifically those responsible for objectionable actions [51].


I applaud the UN and European Union (EU) approach to individualizing sanctions in that same trend. These individualized sanctions are intended to disrupt or cut off sources of funds for terrorists, empowering countries to monitor financial transactions and interdict accounts of particular individuals and adopt measures to block funds transfer by the terrorists. On a positive move, these sanctions concerned 500 individuals and groups associated with the Taliban and Al‟Qaida specifically, instead of Afghanistan as a country [52].

Individualized sanctions punish their targets for causing them to reconsider policies or activities; when sanctions target non-state actors such as terrorists, they aim to deprive their targets of access to funds and prevent them from using the financial system to move and store money [53].

Anticipating the Challenges in Applying Individual Sanctions Though personalization and individualization of sanctions is an excellent approach to addressing human rights abuse, it is vital to anticipate some challenges. The target country’s level of human rights protection may be more likely to worsen under an episode of targeted sanctions when compared with a situation where sanctions are not imposed; the same is true for comprehensive sanctions [54]. Sanctioned individuals routinely deny that they have the power to influence the policies that sanctions ultimately seek to affect. In this respect, they invariably claim that policy changes remained beyond their control, even though they held positions of responsibility within the government or the ruling party. The concerned individuals inevitably claim they had little influence or lacked independent decision-making power [55].

Individual sanctions generally do not affect their targets‟ political views or behaviors; that is to say, they might not be genuinely intended to modify their targets‟ political persuasion but aim to induce them to behave strategically [56]. Other challenges relate to using stolen, lost, or fraudulent travel documents by the sanctioned individuals or through the inattention or disregard of the sanction by the Member States [57]. For example, the travel bans imposed in Liberia beginning in 2001 noted that many sanctioned officials could travel under assumed names or on alternative passports where they held dual nationality [58].

Strategic Cooperation for Implementation of Asset Freezes Concerning enforcement of asset freezes, it is vital to create a substantial technical capacity and cooperation from the private sector to seize assets and freezes. The main reason is that implementing asset freezes in each country supporting the sanctions requires supporting domestic legislation, extensive cooperation from private sector financial institutions, and a high level of procedural formalization and capacity. Nonetheless, this cooperation is often lacking, especially in less developed economic systems. Another cause is that sanction lists often fail to provide sufficient information to unambiguously identify sanctioned individuals and entities [59].

Anticipating Economic Challenges of Assets Freezing

As I insisted earlier, asset freezes are a form of targeted sanctions, relatively effective in achieving their goals while affecting only the individuals and companies that are bad actors [60]. In that sense, asset freezes, and other targeted financial sanctions may be imposed on government officials, government agencies, or private companies critical to the target country’s economy [61]. For example, a country’s central bank, national oil company, or national shipping line may be severely compromized due to its inclusion on a financial blocklist. In addition to the explicit prohibitions imposed by targeted financial sanctions, it is vital to anticipate economic challenges when international banks and corporations withdraw from the target country altogether because the burden of compliance with these measures is so significant and the potential penalties so high.

Other challenges concern identifying assets for freezing, mainly when the owners use fugitive accounts and names in foreign countries; this is a practice by many leaders from smaller states. Under US regulations, opening an account with a bank by a blocked national is not a credit transfer, and there is no reason why this transaction should be prohibited. The account, once created, becomes automatically blocked, and the money of a blocked national, up to this time uncontrolled, is brought under the control of the state [62].

Practical Application of Smart Sanctions

Unlike comprehensive sanctions that set measures whose consequences affect the entire country, smart sanctions target specific individuals and groups accused of carrying out activities such as terrorism, territorial aggression, and human violations of which the international community or its members disapprove [63]. Smart sanctions cover specific measures, most notably the freezing of assets, financial and travel restrictions, boycotts on particular commodities, and arms embargos [64]. In general, the use of smart sanctions is based on the optimistic assumption that they can inflict pain only on the primary targets, usually ruling elite members and non-state actors such as terrorist groups, but avoid collateral damage by sparing civilians from adverse effects and preventing a repeat of the painful experience of ordinary people in the country [65].

Democratization of Sanctions and Public Ownership

Concerning the effective enforcement of sanctions and their impact on the population, I agree with Bierteker and Bergeijk that sanctions can lead to more substantial and compelling opposition in democracies than in autocracies [66]. Undoubtedly, authoritarian regimes can distribute the losses and gains from sanctions in ways that penalize their opponents and reward their supporters, thus strengthening authoritarian rule in the process, as was the case in Iraq during the 1990s [67]. Targets of sanctions in authoritarian regimes often mobilize popular support through their control of the media and their ability to depict the sanctions as targeted not against the proscribed activities of the regimes in power but against the entire nation [68]. However, when the target population approves of the behavior that the sanctioning organ is opposing and seeking to change, it increases the chance of success because the population owns it. I can infer from this discussion above that in democratic countries, public opinion can significantly influence the lifting of sanctions because they inevitably affect the lives of citizens by imposing restrictions on economic activity, with public discontent building up. However, in the case of authoritarian political regimes, such public discontent is often absent. In this respect, economic sanctions are more likely to have a positive impact when people can express dissatisfaction in elections, influencing policy-makers. A typical example is the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, primarily reached because of the 2013 presidential elections. Hassan Rouhani was a moderate leader who pledged to lift economic sanctions [69].

The Need for Public Awareness and Depoliticization of Sanctions

If the sanctions fail, they worsen the situation because instead of altering the political leaders’ policies, they become an excellent opportunity to mobilize support. For Saddam Hussein, sanctions did not change the behaviors of the Taliban in Afghanistan; the same applies to Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Charles Taylor, and others linked to wars in the 1990s. Instead, sanctions should target their wealth and resources, such as diamonds, oil, and timber, to succeed [70]. As a solution, it is vital to keep people in target countries informed of what they can do to challenge their leaders. In other words, coupling sanctions with a concerted messaging campaign will diminish leaders‟ ability to politicize these measures for their ends. An informed public is a powerful asset; engaging influential public figures from fields can be particularly effective [71]. c)

In the sections above, I have discussed the adverse effects of comprehensive sanctions. In reality, comprehensive sanctions injure innocent civilians in the target country and thus violate the ideal objective of human rights protection; that is, the sanctions imposed on countries violate the rights of vulnerable citizens because they lack strategic and achievable goals. In other words, economic sanctions cannot be effective unless there is clear communication of the purpose for which they are imposed [72]. For example, economic sanctions against Iran were set to halter its nuclear development. However, the burden of economic sanctions became greater since Iran had not withdrawn from the NPT and insisted that its nuclear development was a peaceful purpose [73].

Setting Strategic Objectives for Effective Enforcement of Comprehensive Sanctionspage21image37603152

However, the Iran nuclear agreement did not hamper Iran‟s conventional weapons in the Middle East region nor reduce its influence over neighboring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Additionally, it has continued to threaten Israel, which led the USA to withdraw from the agreement and unilaterally reimpose sanctions [74]. I can infer that these sanctions were far from achieving their strategic goals, partly because they had not placed enough economic burden on Iran to exceed its resolve.

Improving the Pre-Assessment and Conceptualization of Sanctions

Undoubtedly, not all sanctions can apply to any country; specific issues and needs exist for a particular country. Therefore, paying special attention to the pre-assessment and contingency planning of sanctions would enable a more solid conceptualization and design, thereby maximizing the chances of success [75]. Regrettably, the cases I discussed earlier prove that the increasing imposition of harsh sanctions has not been accompanied by a thorough pre-assessment and contingency planning stage [76].

Decisions for imposing sanctions are frequently made at short notice, whereas there are early warning signs of impending crises that should allow the decision-makers time to prepare measures before the final decisions. Consequently, this lack of adequate preparation undermines the effectiveness of the sanctions [77]. As a solution, the sanctioning organ should pay particular attention to the pre-decision phase, contextualize the measures, and decide accordingly. In that sense, I believe these sanctions can even be avoided if it is clear they will worsen the situation. In other words, while the injury to innocents is a drawback to sanctions use, the decision-makers should compare the cost and benefits that sanctions provide.


The main goal of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the EU, the USA, or other superpowers is to prevent or halt armed conflict in the form of cross- border aggression and civil wars. Equally, they are also used to respond to situations including terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, illegal change of government, governance of natural resources, human rights violations, and protection of civilians. In this paper, I discussed how strangling a country‟s economy does not necessarily impose any economic pain on government leaders or affect them specifically, but they affect vulnerable citizens.

As a solution, sanctions should not be generalized for the entire country through its so-called government regime but tailored to specific situations and individuals. This solution refers to targeted sanctions focusing on specified individuals, groups, entities, activities, commodities, or regions rather than countries. This approach is expected to help inflict costs on the target regime and its supporters while minimizing harm to the general population. These include travel bans and asset freezes, arms embargoes, restrictions on trade in specified commodities or luxury goods, or restrictions on economic sectors such as finance or transportation. However, it is regrettable that the sanctions that target elite individuals are essentially being turned into the suffering of the innocent masses.

In this paper, I offered recommendations for policy-makers about addressing these challenges and implementing economic sanctions to maximize their effectiveness. These include undertaking significant steps to gain widespread international cooperation for the sanctions efforts and setting clear and achievable goals for making sanctions realistic and objective, clear communication, and public involvement. Therefore, the decision-makers should compare the cost and benefits that sanctions provide because the injury to innocents is a drawback to sanctions use. They should examine other courses of action, such as international and diplomatic negotiations.

If the sanctions are a last resort, they should be highly targeted, contain precise enforcement mechanisms, and erect workable structures capable of monitoring the effects of each sanctioned event throughout its effective duration. I have demonstrated how comprehensive and targeted sanctions contribute to severe human rights abuse. As a solution, it is vital to engage international organizations and non-governmental organizations to foster auxiliary environments protecting minority groups within targeted states.

Finally, diplomats, government officials, and heads of state should consider these unintended negative consequences sanctions may have on vulnerable groups in target states. In that sense, non‐state actors and international organizations must increase their ground support to minorities in states witnessing economic sanctions.


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Harris, Elisa D. “Threat Reduction and North Korea‟s CBW Programs.” The Non- proliferation Review 11, no. 3 (September 1, 2004): 86–109.

Holtom, Paul. “United Nations Arms Embargoes Their Impact on Arms Flows and Target Behaviour.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2007. id=356. Accessed May 15, 2023.

Howlett, Amy. “Getting „Smart‟: Crafting Economic Sanctions That Respect All Human Rights.” Fordham Law Review 73, no. 3 (2004): 1199.

Human Rights Council. Human Rights and Unilateral Coercive Measures, RES/27/21 § (2014). Accessed May 2023.

Karns, Margaret P., and Karen A. Mingst. International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010.

Kazuto, Suzuki. “Can Economic Sanctions Replace Armed Forces in Modern Warfare?” Observer Research Foundation ORF Issue Brief No. 595 (December 2022). forces-in-modern-warfare/. Accessed May 16, 2023.

Kreutz, Joakim. “Hard Measures by a Soft Power?” Bonn International Center for Conversion 45 (2005). Accessed May 18, 2023.

Landman, Todd. Protecting Human Rights: A Comparative Study. Advancing Human Rights. Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2005.

Lenard, Britney. “Making Smart Sanctions Smarter.” The Diplomat, 2015. https:// Accessed May 16, 2023.

Lopez-Jacoiste, Eugenia. “The United Nations Collective Security System and Its Relationship with Economic Sanctions and Human Rights.” Edited by A. Vom Bodgandy and R. Wolfrum. Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law, 2010. Accessed May 16, 2023.

Lucas, Brian. “Imposing Sanctions on Individuals.” K4D Helpdesk Report 1119. Institute of Development Studies, March 2022. DOI: 10.19088/K4D.2022.069. Accessed May 16, 2023.

Mallory, King. North Korean Sanctions Evasion Techniques. Research Report, RR- A1537-1. Santa Monica, Calif: RAND Corporation, 2021.

Marinov, Nikolay. “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?” American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 3 (2005): 564–76. Accessed May 15, 2023.

Meissner, Katharina L., and Patrick A. Mello. “The Unintended Consequences of UN Sanctions: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis.” Centre for European Integration Research: University of Vienna 43, no. 2 (2022): 243–73. Accessed May 15, 2023.

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Peksen, Drury, and A. Cooper Drury. “Human Rights Review.” Economic Sanctions and Political Repression: Assessing the Impact of Coercive Diplomacy on Political Freedoms 10, no. 3 (2009): 393–411.

Portela, Clara. Targeted Sanctions Against Individuals on Grounds of Grave Human Rights Violations: Impact, Trends and Prospects at EU Level Study. Brussels: European Parliament, 2018.

Portela, Clara, and Van Laer Thijs. “The Design and Impacts of Individual Sanctions: Evidence From Elites in Côte d‟Ivoire and Zimbabwe.” Politics and Governance 10, no. 1 (2022). Accessed May 16, 2023.

Prusa, Thomas J. “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered. In „Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, Kimberly Elliott, Barbara Oegg, 3rd Edition, Peterson Institute for International Economics (2007).‟” Journal of International Economics 76 (2008): 135–37.

“Putin: Russian President Says Liberalism „Obsolete,‟” June 28, 2019. Accessed May 17, 2023.

Reed, Graham. “An Inquiry on the UN Iraq Oil-for-Food Programme.” NYU School of Law, September 6, 2006. Accessed May 16, 2023.

Rogers, Elizabeth S. “Using Economic Sanctions to Prevent Deadly Conflict.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 1996.

deadly-conflict. Accessed May 18, 2023.
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Spaniel, William, and Bradley C. Smith. “Sanctions, Uncertainty, and Leader Tenure.” International Studies Quarterly 59, no. 4 (2015): 735–49.

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List of Footnotes

[1] Rein A. Mullerson and Institut de droit international, eds., Unilateral Sanctions and International Law, Annuaire / Institut de droit international, volume 76 (Institute of International Law, Paris: Editions A. Pedone, 2016), 4.

[2] Masahiko Asada, ed., Economic Sanctions in International Law and Practice, Routledge Advances in International Relations and Global Politics (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2020), 18.

[3] Elisa D. Harris, “Threat Reduction and North Korea‟s CBW Programs,” The Nonproliferation Review 11, no. 3 (September 1, 2004): 7,

[4] Michael R. Gordon, “North Korea Eludes Sanctions, Buying Oil and Selling Arms and Coal, U.N. Report Finds,” Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2019, sec. World, 11552269431. Accessed May 17, 2023.

[5] Asada, Economic Sanctions in International Law and Practice, 18–19.

[6] Asada, 43.

[7] Asada, 45.

[8] Human Rights Council, “Human Rights and Unilateral Coercive Measures,” RES/27/21 § (2014), Accessed May 2023.

[9] UN Security Council, “Security Council Resolution 733 (1992) [Somalia],” Pub. L. No. S/RES/733 (1992), S/RES/733 (1992) (2023), Accessed May 17, 2023.

[10] United Nations Security Council, “United Nations Security Council,” S/RES/2397 (2017) § (2017), Accessed May 17, 2023.

[11] Mark Flanagan et al., “How a Russian Natural Gas Cutoff Could Weigh on Europe‟s Economies,” IMF (blog), July 19, 2022, cutoff-could-weigh-on-european-economies. Accessed May 17, 2023.

[12] Suzuki Kazuto, “Can Economic Sanctions Replace Armed Forces in Modern Warfare?,” Observer Research Foundation ORF Issue Brief No. 595 (December 2022): 4, modern-warfare/. Accessed May 16, 2023.

[13] Margaret P. Karns and Karen A. Mingst, International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance, 2nd ed (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010), 318.

[14] Peou Sorpong, “Why „Smart‟ Sanctions Still Cause Human Insecurity,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 7, no. 2 (2019): 4, 10.18588/201911.00a092. Accessed May 14, 2023.

[15] Sorpong, 7–8.
[16] Landman Todd, Protecting Human Rights: A Comparative Study, 2005, 108–11.

[17] Daniel W. Drezner, “How Smart Are Smart Sanctions?,” ed. David Cortright and George A. Lopez, International Studies Review 5, no. 1 (2003): 7.

[18] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations, 321.

[19] Karns and Mingst, 321.

[20] Nikolay Marinov, “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?,” American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 3 (2005): 8, Accessed May 15, 2023.

[21] Sorpong, “Why „Smart‟ Sanctions Still Cause Human Insecurity,” 12.

[22] Sarah A. Son, “Chasing Justice: Victim Engagement with Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in North Korea,” Asian Studies Review 44, no. 4 (October 1, 2020): 11,

[23] Gordon, “North Korea Eludes Sanctions, Buying Oil and Selling Arms and Coal, U.N. Report Finds.”

[24] Son, “Chasing Justice: Victim Engagement with Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in North Korea,” 26.

[25] King Mallory, North Korean Sanctions Evasion Techniques, Research Report, RR- A1537-1 (Santa Monica, Calif: RAND Corporation, 2021), 26.

[26] Mallory, 21.

[27] Choe Sang-Hun and David Yaffe-Bellany, “How North Korea Used Crypto to Hack Its Way Through the Pandemic,” The New York Times, June 30, 2022, sec. Business, Accessed May 17, 2023.

[28] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations, 317.
[29] Richard Garfield, “Economic Sanctions, Humanitarianism, and Conflict After the

Cold War,” Social Justice 29, no. 3 (89) (2002): 6.

[30] Graham Reed, “An Inquiry on the UN Iraq Oil-for-Food Programme,” NYU School of Law, September 6, 2006, Accessed May 16, 2023.

[31] Clara Portela, Targeted Sanctions Against Individuals on Grounds of Grave Human Rights Violations: Impact, Trends and Prospects at EU Level Study (Brussels: European Parliament, 2018), 12.

[32] Security Council, “UN Sanctions,” Security Council Special Research Report (New York: Security Council, November 25, 2013), 5, CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/special_research_report_sanctions_2013.pdf. Accessed May 12, 2023.

[33] Katharina L. Meissner and Patrick A. Mello, “The Unintended Consequences of UN Sanctions: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis,” Centre for European Integration Research: University of Vienna 43, no. 2 (2022): 5, Accessed May 15, 2023.

[34] Todd Landman, Protecting Human Rights: A Comparative Study, Advancing Human Rights (Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 108–11.

[35] Christine Carneiro and Dominique Elden, “Economic Sanctions, Leadership Survival, and Human Rights,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law 30, no. 3 (2009): 8.

[36] Drury Peksen and A. Cooper Drury, “Human Rights Review,” Economic Sanctions and Political Repression: Assessing the Impact of Coercive Diplomacy on Political Freedoms 10, no. 3 (2009): 241.

[37] Mallory, North Korean Sanctions Evasion Techniques, 18–19. [38] Mallory, 16.
[39] Security Council, “UN Sanctions,” 6.

[40] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations, 322.
[41] Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once

and For All (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 72.
[42] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations, 322.

[43] Meissner and Mello, “The Unintended Consequences of UN Sanctions: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis,” 4.

[44] Meissner and Mello, 4.
[45] Meissner and Mello, 6.
[46] Harris, “Threat Reduction and North Korea‟s CBW Programs,” 13.

[47] Eugenia Lopez-Jacoiste, “The United Nations Collective Security System and Its Relationship with Economic Sanctions and Human Rights,” ed. A. Vom Bodgandy and R. Wolfrum (Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law, 2010), 2, Accessed May 16, 2023.

[48] “Putin: Russian President Says Liberalism „Obsolete,‟” June 28, 2019, Accessed May 17, 2023.

[49] Kazuto, “Can Economic Sanctions Replace Armed Forces in Modern Warfare?,” 2.

[50] Kazuto, 3.

[51] Clara Portela and Van Laer Thijs, “The Design and Impacts of Individual Sanctions: Evidence From Elites in Côte d‟Ivoire and Zimbabwe,” Politics and Governance 10, no. 1 (2022): 2, Accessed May 16, 2023.

[52] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations, 322.

[53] Brian Lucas, “Imposing Sanctions on Individuals,” K4D Helpdesk Report 1119 (Institute of Development Studies, March 2022), 3, DOI: 10.19088/K4D.2022.069. Accessed May 16, 2023.

[54] Portela, Targeted Sanctions against Individuals on Grounds of Grave Human Rights Violations – Impact, Trends and Prospects at EU Level, 20.

[55] Portela and Thijs, “The Design and Impacts of Individual Sanctions: Evidence From Elites in Côte d‟Ivoire and Zimbabwe,” 32.

[56] Portela and Thijs, 28.

[57] Paul Holtom, “United Nations Arms Embargoes Their Impact on Arms Flows and Target Behaviour” (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2007), 4, id=356. Accessed May 15, 2023.

[58] Lucas, “Imposing Sanctions on Individuals,” 16.
[59] Security Council, “UN Sanctions,” 14.
[60] Marinov, “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?,” 3.

[61] Thomas J. Prusa, “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered. In „Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, Kimberly Elliott, Barbara Oegg, 3rd Edition, Peterson Institute for International Economics (2007),‟” Journal of International Economics 76 (2008): 2.

[62] Arthur Bloch and Werner Rosenberg, “Current Problems of Freezing Control,” Fordham L. Rev. 11, no. 1 (1942): 9, Accessed May 20, 23.

[63] Security Council, “UN Sanctions,” 4.

[64] Sorpong, “Why „Smart‟ Sanctions Still Cause Human Insecurity,” 9.

[65] Sorpong, 5–6.

[66] Thomas J. Biersteker and Peter A. G. van Bergeijk, eds., How and When Do Sanctions Work ? The Evidence (Paris: EU Institute for Security Studie, 2015), 24.

[67] Peter Boone, Gazdar Haris, and Hussain Athar, “Sanctions Against Iraq: Cost of Failure” (Brooklyn: New York: Center for Economic and Social Rights, November 1997), Accessed May 14, 2023.

[68] Biersteker and Bergeijk, How and When Do Sanctions Work ?, 25.
[69] Amy Howlett, “Getting „Smart‟: Crafting Economic Sanctions That Respect All

Human Rights,” Fordham Law Review 73, no. 3 (2004): 37. [70] Karns and Mingst, International Organizations, 318.

[71] Britney Lenard, “Making Smart Sanctions Smarter,” The Diplomat, 2015, 18, https:// Accessed May 16, 2023.

[72] Elizabeth S. Rogers, “Using Economic Sanctions to Prevent Deadly Conflict,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 1996, 7, conflict. Accessed May 18, 2023.

[73] Lance Davis and Stanley Engerman, “History Lessons: Sanctions – Neither War nor Peace,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17, no. 2 (June 2003): 7,

[74] William Spaniel and Bradley C. Smith, “Sanctions, Uncertainty, and Leader Tenure,” International Studies Quarterly 59, no. 4 (2015): 11.

[75] Anthonius W De Vries, Clara Portela, and Borja Guijarro-Usobiaga, “Improving the Effectiveness of Sanctions: A Checklist for the EU” (Centre for European Policy Studies, November 2014), 4.

[76] Joakim Kreutz, “Hard Measures by a Soft Power?,” Bonn International Center for Conversion 45 (2005): 12, Accessed May 18, 2023.

[77] Biersteker and Bergeijk, How and When Do Sanctions Work ?, 18.

Jean Marie Vianney Sikubwabo

Accredited court Mediator, university Lecturer, doctoral student (EUCLID university)

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