Home The Washington Diplomat May 2007

U.N. Sanctions Produce Mixed Bag of Successes

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NEW YORK — The collapse of the Soviet Union had many effects—one of the most underreported of which may have been the complete overhaul of sanctions policies at the United Nations.

By the late 1980s, the sanctions system was practically dead, and there was a general belief that East-West tensions would never result in any meaningful sanctions getting past the U.N. Security Council.

If the Soviet Union or China wanted to sanction anyone, any of the three other permanent Security Council members—the United States, Great Britain and France—could protest and easily block the effort. Likewise, if the Western democracies wanted action, the Soviets or Chinese could whip up a flurry of indignation.

David Cortright—who along with George A. Lopez co-authored “The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s”—is one of the world’s leading experts on U.N. sanctions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he said there has been a dramatic rise in the usage of sanctions—most notably against Iran and North Korea.

Cortright has immersed himself in trying to solve a question that many at the United Nations and around the world would also like answered: Do sanctions actually work and how can they be implemented more effectively? The question has never been more pressing, especially given the fallout of the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq and the tortuously slow negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Those negotiations suffered another setback last month when Iran announced it had begun enriching uranium on an industrial scale, dramatically expanding a program that the United Nations has demanded it halt—despite the passage of two U.N. sanction resolutions since last December.

Cortright estimates that at last count, there are 11 active cases of U.N. sanctions—“pretty much a historic high” that is likely to remain at high levels in the future.

He said that with all of the U.N. sanctions sprouting up across the globe in the 1990s, the United Nations went through a phase of “sanction fatigue” toward the end of the decade, with a growing sentiment that the world body couldn’t keep up this level of pressure against so many regimes—but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. “There was a belief that this extraordinary phase of sanctions would decline, but it is continuing all the time,” he said.

Cortright and Lopez have an admittedly vague and broad definition for assessing if sanctions are effective. They measure the impact on the offending regime and if the sanctions helped to resolve a specific problem. In their view, sanctions have been effective only in about a third of all cases since 1990.

For Cortright, Iraq is a good example in which sanctions had the desired effect, helping to disarm Saddam Hussein’s regime and cutting off military imports in the aftermath of the Kuwaiti invasion. Sanctions, however, would most likely not have prevented Iraq from invading Kuwait, as this has been happening as long as countries have existed.

According to Cortright, the United Nations has struggled to find the right type of sanctions to combat the wave of ethnic and religious strife that has swept across Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the post-Soviet era. Here again though, Cortright said the United Nations has had some significant successes, such as Yugoslavia, where sanctions put heavy pressure on Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and were a key factor in the negotiations that led to the Dayton peace accords.

Sanctions have also helped with other international problems, playing a major role in coaxing Libya to abandon state-sponsored terrorism and bring the Pan Am bombing suspects to justice in The Hague. Cortright cited other achievements such as Liberia, where the diamond and timber embargoes helped focus negotiations before the resignation of the country’s controversial president, Charles Taylor, in 2003.

But those one-third are just the success stories. On the negative side lie examples such as Ethiopia, where an arms embargo introduced after Ethiopia’s border conflict with Eritrea has been virtually ignored, which in turn has weakened the global standing of the United Nations. “People effectively just ignored it,” said Cortright.

In Sudan, the sanctions in response to the Darfur conflict have been so weak that Cortright called them “almost a joke,” pointing to the limited travel and financial asset restrictions placed on a tiny group of Sudanese political and militia leaders.

Darfur raises a major issue that remains a problem with sanctions: Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are still major national agendas being played out in the U.N. Security Council.

China, for instance, has oil interests in Sudan, as do some of the European powers, said Cortright. And with the United States bogged down in Iraq and concentrating its diplomatic efforts on Iran and North Korea, U.S. attention has been focused elsewhere. Moreover, the African nonpermanent members of the council are hardly enthusiastic about a Western intervention on their continent.

Clearly there are benefits and drawbacks to U.N. sanctions. In the case of North Korea, Cortright argues that the rogue regime is hardly under any type of sanction. The United Nations has urged Kim Jong Il’s government to stop building nuclear arms and has implemented bans on luxury good imports and travel, but Cortright said these are utterly meaningless under a regime as desperate and restrictive as that of North Korea.

In many such cases, Cortright added, the effectiveness of sanctions lies in their symbolic importance. With North Korea, for example, China and Russia have put aside their own economic and political interests in the country to press the North Korean government to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For Edward Luck, a professor and U.N. expert at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, U.N. sanctions have a better track record than most people might assume. “The implementation has definitely been uneven and they are not always the right sanctions, but some have been very successful—if you see them as part of the puzzle and not the entire puzzle itself.”

Before the 1990s, he noted, the only real sanctions were the arms embargoes on South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe). Since then, he agreed with Cortright that sanctions have had a positive effect on Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. He added that in Sudan, before the Darfur crisis, they probably helped to push Osama bin Laden out of the country.

There is often a country’s internal reaction to consider as well. Although sanctions can result in a “rally-around-the-flag effect,” Luck said they can also be an embarrassment and huge economic risk for the political and economic classes.

Despite the pronouncements of its president, Luck said the Iranian sanctions are feeding into an already divided society and that many Iranians are embarrassed and deeply concerned about their country’s sense of isolation, as recent press reports from Iran seem to suggest.

This factor is underestimated in reports gauging the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions, Luck explained. “A lot of studies look at the technical side—did it stop the economy, arms and technical support? They forget that sanctions are invoked for political and symbolic importance. They are meant as a weigh station between words and war.”

A good example, he said, is that of South Africa and the slew of sanctions that the United Nations slapped against the apartheid government before its demise in the early ’90s. The country took a huge economic hit as a result of those sanctions, but the shame imposed on its people was greatly exacerbated by a ban on participation in international sports. According to Luck, this last element, a tremendous blow to the sports-crazed country, had a significant impact on South African morale and helped hasten the end of apartheid.

“Sanctions are a complex business. The trick is to squeeze,” he said, “just don’t squeeze too much.”

About the Author

Sean O'Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999