Sanctions on humanitarian grounds: efficiency and problems

Reflection on the debate regarding the usefulness and efficiency of economic and trade sanctions imposed on countries or governments that do not respect international humanitarian law

Within the walls of the UN offices, many have begun to debate the effectiveness of sanctions imposed on countries that violate human rights. For example, as early as 1998, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated on this subject: “It cannot be stressed too strongly that sanctions are an instrument of political enforcement, and therefore like any other method of political enforcement they can cause unexpected damage”.

Sanctions were born as a non-violent method to enforce compliance with international humanitarian parameters, and to resolve disputes between states without resorting to armaments. However, there seems to be a structural issue that prevents continuity between the application of the rules of conduct agreed upon by the international community and the mechanisms available to governments to carry out that enforcement.

One of the major issues arising from the application of sanctions is that of indiscriminate harm to anyone operating or living in the affected country. Imposing economic barriers on a nation, in a global market context, is tantamount to excluding all citizens and organisations, effectively threatening their development. In this regard, the debate has always focused on the possibility of introducing sanctions for human rights violations that act selectively. In addition, such sanctions are fragmented and politicised in nature, so it is possible to find scenarios where compliance with the sanctions regime implemented can lead to hostile measures by one country towards another that it previously protected. This is also a problem for companies wishing to invest in a certain part of the world. As companies plan ahead, senior regional and global executives should work closely with international and local entities to ensure they understand the risks they face in their respective regions. "Sanctions make it more difficult to maintain the wellbeing of entire populations and hinder the transportation of goods needed for economic development, result in wasted natural resources, undermine environmental sustainability and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, ed.)," say UN experts. But the most worrying effect is surely the electoral one. A context of economic imposition causing greater unease, in a country already plagued by authoritarianism, offers an unmissable opportunity for the despot of the moment to use the card of foreign oppression, reinforcing the propaganda rhetoric that portrays the head of state as the protector of his own people (a tactic more usual than ever for anti-democratic governments).

Whatever their effectiveness, critics argue that sanctions often fail to achieve their intended objective, and indeed often harm the very groups they are intended to help. The greatest impact is on the already defenceless and powerless section of the civilian population, the social stratum that is unable to protect itself and often has little or no influence on the policies that sanctions are intended to change. Critics often cite as an example the sanctions implemented against Iraq in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, which directly caused the suffering of many innocent people, especially minors. Consistent with these structural motivations, the record seems to suggest that sanctions hardly ever complete their stated objectives - indeed it seems to make explicit that they often fail completely -, having little or no measurable impact on the behaviour of the targeted government. In response, proponents of sanctions have proposed the concept of smart sanctions. Proponents of smart sanctions see financial restrictions as the best way to mitigate the more intricate aspects of traditional trade sanctions. Financial restrictions focus economic pain on precise and limited targets - for example, government officials and associated elites - while minimising damage to innocent populations. An example in this regard was the sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, where large companies owned by oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin's executive were targeted. These kinds of measures are, despite happy assumptions, difficult to achieve politically and there is little empirical evidence that they work. However, the data collected show an apparent improvement of this type of sanctions over traditional ones.

There is, in addition, the long-standing issue of lack of full international coordination. The implementation of unilateral sanctions - such as collateral sanctions against persons allegedly interacting with members of sanctioned governments, or the creation of national civil and criminal sanctions - results in excessive compliance across the country. They seem to have arisen more from a feeling of spite than from rational political planning. These measures exacerbate and extend their impact not only on each individual or company where they operate, but also on citizens and companies in third countries, humanitarian organisations, donors and recipients of humanitarian aid. This could make it difficult to import basic foodstuffs, health equipment and other forms of humanitarian aid - despite applicable exemptions - into sanctioned countries.

In December 2020, the European Union enacted a law designed to protect human rights, which will give greater flexibility to target those responsible for serious humanitarian violations around the world. The new mechanism allows the EU to list the persons or entities responsible, regardless of where they occur or who is responsible. The sanction mechanisms will be mainly the following: travel bans to the EU for listed persons; freezing of assets held in Europe; no economic resources to be made available to listed persons and entities. In addition, the overall EU human rights sanctions regime should consist of measures such as asset freezes and travel bans. Following the adoption of the EU's comprehensive human rights sanctions regime - also called the European Magnitsky Act -, the EU started to impose its first restrictive measures in March 2021. On 2 March, sanctions came into force against four Russians allegedly involved in the arbitrary arrest, prosecution and conviction of activist Alexei Navalny and the suppression of peaceful protests in relation to his treatment. On 22 March, targeted sanctions were also enacted against Chinese officials for the large-scale arbitrary detention of Uyghurs from the Xinjiang region, which provoked a large media and public reaction.

Fonti consultate per il presente articolo:

Berejikian Jeffrey D., Deploying Sanctions while Protecting Human Rights: Are Humanitarian “Smart” Sanctions Effective?, in Journal of Human Rights, febbraio 2007.

Nielsen Richard A., Rewarding Human Rights? Selective Aid Sanctions against Repressive States, International Studies Quarterly, No. 57, 2013.

UNHRC, Punishment of ‘innocent civilians’ through government sanctions must end: UN experts,

UNHRC, Bachelet calls for major re-think over impact of sanctions on human rights, 16 settembre 2021.

United Nations, Report of the Secretary General on the Work of the Organization, 1998.

Wahl Thomas, EU Imposes First Sanctions for Human Rights Violations,, 1 aprile 2021.

What Are Sanctions and Human Rights?,

Share the post

  • L'Autore

    Edoardo Cappelli

    Edoardo Cappelli nasce a Roma il 21 ottobre 1995. Ha conseguito la laurea triennale in Lingue e Culture Straniere, e quella magistrale in International Studies, presso l'Università degli Studi di Roma Tre. Data la precedente frequentazione del Liceo Linguistico Giuseppe Peano di Roma, ha potuto apprendere fluentemente l'inglese, il francese e lo spagnolo; andando poi a curarsi del tedesco nei primi tre anni universitari.

    Appassionato di arte - soprattutto di cinema, di cui scrive sulla rivista online "Quarto Potere"-, ama discutere di politica e attualità, soprattutto riguardo temi sociali che sfociano in ingiustizie e disuguaglianze umanitarie. Questo connubio tra amore per la scrittura creativa e voglia di approfondire tematiche politiche lo portano a sperare in una possibile carriera giornalistica.

    Da Marzo 2021 collabora con Mondo Internazionale Post, nel progetto Framing the World. Recentemente ha anche assunto il ruolo di Copywriter Freelance per l'associazione no profit Youth Leadership Network, e lavora come Junior Project Manager per la società Codex Global.

    Edoardo Cappelli was born in Rome on October the 21st, 1995. He holds a bachelor's degree in Foreign Languages ​​and Cultures, and a master's degree in International Studies, at the University of Roma Tre. Given his previous attendance at the Giuseppe Peano Linguistic High School in Rome, he was able to learn English, French and Spanish fluently; later taking care of German in the first three years of university.
    Enthusiast about art - especially cinema, of which he writes for the online magazine "Quarto Potere" -, he loves to discuss politics and current affairs, especially regarding social issues that lead to injustices and humanitarian inequalities. This combination of love for creative writing and the desire to explore political topics lead him to hope for a possible journalistic career.

    Since March 2021 he has been collaborating with Mondo Internazionale Post, in the Framing the World project. He also recently took on the role of Freelance Copywriter for the non-profit Youth Leadership Network, and works as a Junior Project Manager for Codex Global.


Sections Human Rights Framing the World


Unione Europea European Union sanzioni Economia Sviluppo ONU SDGs

You might be interested in


The horror of sex trafficking in Europe

Greta Thierry

The European Union and human trafficking: what are the strategies implemented to combat this phenomenon?

Fabrizio Valerio Bongiorno

Framing the World XV

Log in to your Mondo Internazionale account
Forgot Password? Get it back here