Why Sanctions Do Not Always Work

Sanctions can be seen as blunt instruments of foreign policy. Their impact is not specific, but instead, it diffuses around whole societies’

To understand why sanctions do not always work, we must first know what they are. Sanctions are decisions by countries or international organisations to deprive target countries of diplomatic, economic, military, or cultural goods. There are different types of sanctions, and they range from simple tariffs on imported goods to full embargos on trade with the recipient country. Countries can also individually sanction other countries, and this is known as unilateral sanctioning. However, organisations such as the United Nations (UN) impose more comprehensive multilateral sanctions, where all the member states are asked to adhere to their enforcement. According to the UN charter chapter 7, the UN has a right to impose sanctions if it perceives that the recipient is threatening international peace or order. The aims of these sanctions tend to fall into three categories: category one is to force cooperation with international law; two is to contain threats to peace in a geographical region, and three, under the determination of the UN security council, is to condemn specific policies or actions in the recipient countries (Chesterman and Pouligny, 2003).

Sanctions imposed by the UN do not necessarily include military force. However, if the sanctions prove ineffective, military force may be deployed depending on the recommendations made by the Security Council under article 42.

Sanctions do not always have to involve countries or large governmental bodies. Private citizens, individuals, and non-governmental entities can also be sanctioned, depending on the circumstance. Now, these types of sanctions will not be discussed here. Due to the limitations of this paper, and because of how many people they affect, we will be mainly focusing on the more visible, broad-based economic sanctions.

Historically sanctions were, and still are, seen as a viable alternative to war when diplomacy fails or falls short of expected goals. In the aftermath of World Wars One and Two, when it became clear that diplomatic efforts by the League of Nations, especially when it came to asserting itself, were not enough, and outright war became costly in terms of its economics and cost to human life, sanctions were elevated and seen as a liberal alternative to facilitate global cooperation (Wessendorf, 2012; Pape, 1997).  Creating binding clauses to these sanctions, enforced by all UN members states, was a crucial change learnt from the failure of the earlier League of Nations.

The aim of economic sanctions is not to directly harm or impact the government or those in power since they can often find other means to secure the resources they need. The aim is to deprive the country’s people in hopes that they increase pressure on said governments to concede to the sanctioning party. This, of course, presents its own humanitarian issues; often, poorer people tend to pay the price. The International Progress Organisation spoke out publicly against sanctions, arguing that they form a ‘collective punishment of the weakest and poorest members of society’. Internal sanctions on Iran, for example, resulted in shortages of medical supplies that cost many people their lives; the people at large felt the brunt of these effects. Obviously, these people are not to blame for their government’s actions, and many resented the imposition of sanctions because of this humanitarian cost.

This resentment, however, can lead to another unintended consequence of sanctions; that is, instead of the population rising against the government responsible for acts contributing to those sanctions, people instead focused their resentment on those implementing the sanctions in the first place. This unintended consequence led to increased radicalisation and people ‘rallying around the flag’ in support of their national governments. This also, of course, contradicts the initial aim of the sanction, which is to pressure governments into change, but instead proves counterproductive. As well as increasing radicalisation, nationalism, and hatred of the sanctioning parties, sanctions may also cut off necessary international support for oppressed or minority communities in the recipient countries. An example would be the arms embargo placed on the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which inadvertently weakened the position of the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs and Croats; the Serbs and Croats had more stockpiles of weapons ready, so they eventually fared better under the embargo than their less fortunate rivals.

In addition to that, the free flow of information from abroad is also vital to increasing social activism locally. With international support for activist groups, as well as support helping them maintain much-needed resources and strategic relationships from within, the imposition of sanctions leads to more centralised government control and oppression; with political groups being sequestered in countries that oppress them, it becomes harder for them to resist. This can be especially problematic if the problem addressed by the sanctions ironically relate to human rights or unfair treatment.

Furthermore, countersanctions may be imposed that also affect the primary sanctioning parties. An example of that would be Russia in 2014; after it annexed Crimea, EU countries along with the US and some of its allies-imposed sanctions. In retaliation, Russia imposed counter-sanctions on the EU that affected its neighbouring countries, some more harshly than others.

It is also important to keep in mind that imposing sanctions on one country not only impacts that country but all of its trading partners too. This unintended consequence can have a tangible impact on ordinary people’s lives, even those whose governments may not have been targeted in the first place.

Sanctions, in this way, can be seen as blunt instruments of foreign policy. Their impact is not specific, but instead, it diffuses around whole societies and those who rely on them. This leads to a lot of them ultimately not achieving their sought-after goals. They are better at containing violence, in fact, rather than stopping or preventing it. At the same time, they also create severe economic hardship for many people from within and without.

 Sanctions do, however, work to a limited extent; it would be unfair to paint them purely in light of their deficiencies. As an alternative to war, sanctions do save lives and lead to desired goals in a few cases. However, the success of sanctions is contingent on a few factors: notably among them is time and the relationship between the sanctioning party and the recipient. Although more effective at creating a firmer cut-off for trade, multilateral sanctions may not be as effective in encouraging policy changes. The relationship to the sanctioning party here plays a role.

Unilateral sanctions made by countries with a close relationship to those they sanction are more likely to succeed in achieving policy objectives. This might sound counterproductive; if only one government sanctions another, surely the assumption made is that the sanctions would not be as effective as multiple countries doing so. But there is an important caveat to this, as discussed earlier, that multilateral sanctions can cut off oppositional groups within the sanctioned country and so more firmly solidify a regime’s control over social and political movements, stagnating change.

Time, too, has an impact. With more time that passes, the effectiveness of sanctions diminishes. This is because states become more used to life with sanctions imposed and can therefore develop a resistance economy’. The more the country becomes self-reliant, the less impact the sanctions will have on them in the future.

Sanctions are also more effective against more democratically led regimes than autocratic ones. This is because autocracies (where one or a few people have absolute power) will not have to respond to constituents or people who the sanctions have harmed. In contrast, democratic regimes will have more people to answer to and hesitate more about being sanctioned. As well as answering to the people, the policy changes needed for a government to reshuffle and survive sanctions would be more difficult to pass if it had to go through multiple people.

Although economic sanctions are effective in cubing and limiting potential activities of the recipient country, the issues presented above pose a troubling reality for one of the most currently used foreign policy tools. Like anything, there is no one-fix-all solution to these problems, and by their use, sanctions may be made to feel like they can fix everything when, they cannot. For the future of foreign policy, different, more innovative solutions must be found to better maintain the global peace and order so important to many of us today. Though sanctions have certainly played a role in keeping this peace, their efficacy and drawbacks must be carefully considered. One example of the limitation of sanctions in terms of curbing and maintaining global stability is North Korea’s completion of its nuclear weapons program. Despite one of the most comprehensive sanctions ever placed, 56 countries still violated these rules by continuing to trade with the country, and this number is growing. This obviously constitutes one of the most glaring problems with sanctions.

With all this in mind, it is therefore essential to reassess our reliance on sanctions as the primary tool used to ensure global peace and diplomacy. This report is missing many crucial elements of this relationship, and the types of sanctions discussed here are by no means comprehensive. This should show that, rather than them being an overall solution or a precise and effective tool, sanctions are blunt instruments that can have far-reaching implications, some of which we may not fully understand. With this too in mind, we must go forward with more imagination and innovation in developing these tools to ensure the safety and continued protection of the social order we have painstakingly created.


Chesterman, S. and Pouligny, B., 2003. Are Sanctions Meant to Work? The Politics of Creating and Implementing Sanctions Through the United Nations. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 9(4), pp.503-518.

Pape, R., 1997. Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work. International Security, 22(2), pp.90-136.

Wessendorf, N., 2012. The Charter of the United Nations. OUP Oxford.



https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/un-sc-consolidated-list https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/league-of-nations























Fahad Al Sheikh is currently pursuing his Criminology and Sociology undergraduate degree at Royal Holloway University of London. His interests include social research, criminal law, human rights, psychology and philosophy.

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