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UN Sanctions: A Mixed Record

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 17, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The UN’s checkered history with sanctions includes the organization’s worst scandal—linked to the Iraq oil-for-food program—as well as numerous poorly enforced measures aimed at blocking the flow of weapons to Africa’s civil war combatants during the 1990s. But the UN Security Council continues to make extensive use of sanctions and leading states such as the United States regularly promote sanctions to try to rein in behavior they regard as threatening to peace and security. Most recently, the Council imposed sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons test, and is considering sanctions against the Iranian government for its lack of transparency about its nuclear program. The nature of UN sanctions has changed in the past decade away from comprehensive measures levied against states to targeted sanctions aimed at individuals and small groups or entities. Some experts say this shift, when combined with other levers outside the United Nations, can make sanctions more effective. Others say UN sanctions have had only limited impact in changing the behavior of dangerous regimes or individuals.

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Where are UN sanctions currently in effect?

The UN Security Council currently maintains thirteen sets of sanctions. Overseeing them are nine committees, the largest number of UN sanctions committees ever, says George A. Lopez, a leading sanctions expert and senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. More than half of the sanctions are against African states, some connected to conflicts dating back to the 1990s. Here is a look at some of the most recent:

  • North Korea. In October 2006 the Council approved a resolution prohibiting nuclear technology, heavy arms, and luxury goods from entering North Korea. The measure also called upon states to cooperate in inspecting cargo in and out of the country. But news reports say the vagueness surrounding the legal aspects of stopping ships in international waters weakens the sanctions. Simon Chesterman, who directs the Institute for International Law and Justice at New York University School of Law, says that due in part to China’s influence, the Council has created an “unusual” sanctions regime for North Korea. “They really encourage states to do things within their own territories rather than most importantly, a sea blockade, which is not imposed,” he said.
  • Lebanon. In 2005, the Security Council passed a resolution calling on states to prevent entry into or travel through their territory by individuals suspected of involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and to freeze all assets held by such individuals. Lebanon’s government in November approved a UN plan for an international tribunal to try the suspected killers of Hariri, which Syria is concerned could trigger broad sanctions against Syrian officials if they are implicated in the killing.
  • Sudan. The UN Security Council in April 2006 passed a resolution (PDF) imposing sanctions against four Sudanese nationals—two rebel leaders, a former air force chief, and the head of a pro-government militia, accused of war crimes in Sudan's Darfur region. But experts say such a list should be much longer and include more Sudanese government officials linked to abuses in Darfur. China, which has major oil interests in Sudan, has blocked most efforts to initiate tough sanctions against leaders in Khartoum. Lopez, a critic of the resolution, says: “It’s hard to know whether it gives sanctions a bad name or the Council a bad name.”
Where is the Security Council considering new sanctions?

The next major case for consideration is Iran. A July 2006 resolution gave Iran until the end of August to halt its enrichment of uranium and other “research and development” activities or face the imposition of sanctions. Iran rejected the measure and the Council has been divided over next steps. European members, backed by Washington, have proposed banning materials and technology that could assist Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as a travel ban and asset freeze on companies and individuals connected to those programs. Iran’s main backer among veto-wielding members of the Council—Russia—has proposed limiting sanctions to controls on materials linked to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The United States already has tight restrictions on trade, aid, and investment to Iran and penalizes foreign companies that invest in Iran's energy sector. Kimberly Ann Elliott, senior fellow at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, says recent efforts by the U.S. Treasury Department outside the United Nations to cut off Iranian banks from the international system have potential to pressure Tehran. “What they’re trying to do on an informal basis is to give a lot of lenders and investors, private banks primarily, just pause about dealing with Iran and raising the risk factor and the uncertainty factor,” Elliott says. New York University’s Chesterman believes the sanctions effort at the United Nations is more aimed at solidifying political will than changing behavior. “In part there’s a hope we will change behavior on the part of North Korea and Iran but also that by negotiating a sanctions regime you establish a united front that can then be used for other political purposes,” he says.

Separately, there has been talk of possible UN sanctions against Burma amid reports of intensifying political repression and human rights abuses. The Security Council met in September 2006 to discuss Burma for the first time, but any sanctions threats are believed to be a long way off.

Where have UN sanctions been successful?
  • Libya. It is frequently cited as a sanctions success story. Under broad U.S. and UN sanctions pressure, the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi admitted to responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombings and renounced its weapons of mass destruction program, paving the way for the lifting of sanctions, as well as normalization of relations with the United States in May 2006. Lopez says crucial to the success of the Libyan sanctions was the engagement of the United States. “Sanctions which are meant to focus on engaged bargaining with the target and the supporters of the target seem to be more successful than sanctions that are meant to isolate and punish,” he says.
  • The former Yugoslavia. Comprehensive arms and economic sanctions after the war with Croatia and at the end of the Bosnian war, in which the former Yugoslavia backed Bosnian Serbs, weakened the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and helped push it toward accession to the Dayton Accords in 1995. Former top U.S. diplomats such as Richard C. Holbrooke and Warren Zimmerman say that sanctions were a major bargaining chip with Belgrade in the early 1990s. But experts point out the sanctions didn’t substantively change the regime’s behavior, and it again faced sanctions for cracking down on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, ultimately leading to NATO air strikes.
  • Liberia.  Some experts see the UN sanctions on Liberia’s lucrative timber trade in 2003, added to existing sanctions, as contributing to the downfall of President Charles Taylor, who now awaits a war crimes trial in The Hague. Lopez says Liberia is an example of a recent UN case where the sanctions were eventually paired with larger multilateral efforts like European Union aid or UN peacekeeping. “Sanctions within a larger framework of dispute resolution become more robust and more effective,” he said. “The Liberia situation is one of the chief ones.”
Where have UN sanctions failed?

Many studies have found the success rate of economic sanctions, both within the UN and without, to be poor. For many African states at war, UN sanctions, mainly in the form of arms embargoes, have had a poor track record, experts say. They cite the cases of delayed or poorly implemented sanctions against Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, as well as initial efforts to halt the flow of arms into devastating civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone.

Tough UN sanctions against Iraq triggered severe humanitarian problems in the early 1990s, leading to the creation of the oil-for-food program. An investigative panel chaired by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found the UN program achieved its central goals of feeding Iraqis and preventing Saddam Hussein from reassembling weapons of mass destruction. But the inquiry cited a range of lapses, negligence, and corrupt practices that allowed Saddam's regime to earn as much as $11 billion while under sanctions.

Another strict UN sanctions program, against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, had the country in a virtual diplomatic and economic straitjacket in 2000 and 2001, but did little to bend the Taliban leadership or rein in the activities of their al-Qaeda guests. “What we’ve seen over the past decade is an effort to make sanctions smarter,” says Chesterman. “But there is still no agreement that they actually can shape behavior. There are very few cases that you can point to where sanctions have worked.”

The latest round of UN Security Council negotiations, in which sanctions proposed against North Korea and Sudan were weakened under Chinese pressure, does not reflect well on the Council, says Elliott, of the Peterson Institute. “It’s differences in interests and politics that undermine the UN sanctions more than anything else,” says Elliott, who has contributed to a thorough study of the impact of sanctions done by the Peterson Institute. “If there’s a fundamental difference in an approach to a potential target country by members of the Security Council then you’re probably not going to get effective sanctions and I think that’s what we’ve seen with North Korea.”

Has the United Nations changed its approach to sanctions?

Yes. The humanitarian toll of the Iraq sanctions—thousands of child deaths were attributed to the early years of the sanctions regime by some health experts—brought an end to the blunt instrument of comprehensive sanctions in the mid-1990s. UN sanctions regimes since that time have targeted sectors such as arms, cash-earning commodities such as diamonds, or financial assets and travel. Lopez, of the Kroc Institute, says the UN’s method for mounting sanctions programs, especially when there is a strong lead nation chairing a Security Council sanctions committee, have improved. “The sanctions package, if you will, now includes support and investigative missions, external expert monitors, a more effective accountability system,” he says.

But targeted sanctions, especially those related to counterterrorism efforts, have drawn criticism that once a person lands on a UN terrorism blacklist, it is difficult to get delisted. Chesterman says: “Once you start identifying individuals there is a presumption that these individuals should be able to challenge that identification.” Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies raises concern about emerging legal challenges to such targeted sanctions in a March 2006 study (PDF). The report recommends improving Security Council procedures to make sure such sanctions are “fair and clear” and do not invite a judicial backlash in some jurisdictions.

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