UN SANCTION REGIMES: Global Effects and Recommendations by Adeyemi Oshunrinade


After 1990, United Nations sanction activities reflect the willingness of democratic nations to accept a Security Council determination that, under Chapter VII of the UN charter, internal violence and aggressive human rights violation constitute a “threat to peace.” This may warrant the use of sanctions or other means deemed necessary, for the maintenance of international peace and security. Over the years, the UN with the backing of the Security Council, the major arm of the organization responsible for peace and security, has used sanctions to make so called “rogue nations” to either comply with the organization’s demands or effect change in their sovereign territories. However, there has been debates over how effective UN sanctions are as well as the consequences sanctions have on innocent citizens and third states. Also of concern is how to make sanctions work to prevent unwanted humanitarian catastrophe.

To understand these concerns, it is essential to know the diplomatic roles sanctions play in the global arena: (1) Sanctions are used to help correct the unacceptable behavior of a state toward other states; (2) It may be used to send a signal of international concern to an offending state, to inform that such activities violates global interests and therefore, create concerns deserving a response from the international community: and (3) Sanction warns of punishment for breaking international law. In the past decades, the UN with the backing of the Security Council, has used this powerful tool in some nations.

In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi’s support for terrorism was considered a threat to international peace and security; his initial refusal to hand over the two accused terrorists who blew up the Pan Am 103 flight over Lockerbie, Scotland was met with sanctions. Diplomatic relations were cut and trade with Libya was limited; also the sale of arms to Libya was prohibited and other nations like the United States also imposed unilateral sanctions on Libya.

As a result of the sanctions, Gadhafi later agreed to extridite the two terrorists to London for trial. In Haiti, the justification for imposing sanctions is reminiscent of the action taken against Rhodesia. In both situations, sanctions were imposed as a result of illegal seizure of power and severe human rights violation deemed a threat to world peace and security.

The overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide via a military coup, led the U.S. to call on the Security Council to impose sanctions on Haiti. There was a worldwide ban on oil shipment to Haiti, assets of military officials were frozen and their visas were revoked to limit their travel and movement capability. The civil war in Sierra Leone has been financed by blood diamond and this has created conflicts over who controls the flow of diamond in the region. Proceeds from the sales never reached innocent people; the diamond fields are taken over by the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), led by Foday Sankoh. Under the peace accord negotiated by the UN, the RUF was to relinquish control of the diamond mines to the UN forces but they never did.

By applying chapter VII of the UN charter, the Security Council imposed targeted sanction on both UNITA of Angola and the RUF of Sierra Leone including a ban on illicit diamond. Member states of the UN are not to purchase any diamond that has no ‘Certificate of Origin’ from the government of sierra Leone. Resolution 1306 of July 2000, imposed a ban on direct or indirect import of rough diamond from Sierra Leone not controlled by the government. Since diamond was known to fuel conflict, the sanctions imposed by the UN was used as a tool in curbing the flow of illicit diamond out of Sierra Leone; these actions were later instrumental in ending the civil war in the country.

In December of 2001, the UN Security Council imposed arms embargo on the Taliban, but exempted the Northern Alliance from its stipulations. The terrorist attack on the United States on 9/11 warranted a quick response from the UN; the weapons flow was helping fuel the conflict in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Since the Taliban was harboring Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network, it was necessary to take swift and effective action to ensure global security, as a result, arms embargo were imposed on the Taliban that are still in effect to date. The Security Council through resolution 864 (1993), 1127 (1997), and 1173 (1998) imposed sanctions against the Uniao Nacional Para a Independencia Total Del Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi.

The sanctions were imposed to discourage UNITA from pursuing its aspirations through a military means and to commit to the peace accord negotiated by the international community. The sanctions prohibit the sale of and delivery of arms and military equipments to UNITA, the supply of petroleum to UNITA, the purchase of diamond mined in areas controlled by UNITA and requires the freezing of UNITA bank accounts. The sanctions also mandates a travel ban on UNITA officials and adult members of their immediate families. These actions later led to an end to the conflict in the region.

The Iraq invasion of Kuwait remains as a classic example of aggression which the Security Council may curb by using sanctions. By the insistence of the U.S. the most aggressive sanctions in the history of the UN were imposed on the regime of Saddam Hussein. The sanctions were used to pressure Saddam to comply with UN programs to inspect and eliminate Weapons of Mass Destruction Iraq was accused of possessing at the time. The sanctions were instrumental in persuading the regime to comply with the stipulations of resolution 687. However, despite the aggressiveness of the sanctions, Saddam violated 17 UN resolutions; while the sanctions were effective in forcing Iraq to abandon its nuclear program, there was a huge humanitarian catastrophe. The need for humanitarian assistance later led the UN to establish the ‘Oil For Food Program’ to ease the suffering of innocent Iraqis.

While sanctions are effective depending on the circumstances, there are situations where they have limited or no effect at all. Iraq is a text book example of humanitarian dilemma caused by too much sanction. Countries targeted by UN sanctions have always criticized the UN for its extensive use of the regime. Iraq was a oil rich country before the Gulf war, financial constraint as a result of the sanctions, prevented importation of food into the country and likewise, medicine became limited crippling the health care system of Iraq; as a result, infant mortality rose and from 1991 t0 1998, children under the age of five died from malnutrition related diseases in number ranging from 2,690 a month to 5,357 according to UN reports. Due to the effects of the sanctions, children were affected by diseases such as pneumonia, leukemia, typhoid fever, cholera, and polio which had been eradicated in some countries but still killing in Iraq. Children died from common illnesses due to lack of equipment as a result of the sanctions.

The sanctions however, had little effect on the primary target the regime of Saddam. He remained in power and efforts to end his weapon’s program continued to be in limbo but at the same time the sanctions, had adverse effect on 22 million innocent Iraqis. UN reports indicated that unemployment rose by more than 50% while the sanction was in place; in some cities like Basra unemployment was even about 75%. Robert Watkins, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross called the situation “a natural disaster not caused by forces of nature but by forces of man.”

Whether the human cost of sanctions on Iraq was worth what they may accomplish became a debate among UN member states and is still a global debate today. Cuba for example, prior to 1959 was the largest importer of peas from the U.S. but immediately after the sanctions were imposed, the U.S. lost the market and Canada took over the role as the exporter of peas to Cuba. Besides the adverse effects of sanctions on targeted nations, its use is also known to have same effect on third countries that are not the focus of such sanctions; as a result, innocent people are cut in the middle and are made to pay the price for bad behavior of a foreign state.

A decade old sanction imposed on Serbia to end the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, ended in 2001 however, unintended effects of the sanctions remain to be felt for years. The sanctions include visa ban, trade embargo, and arms embargo to help discourage continuation of the war and to bring compliance with the Dayton Peace Accord of 1995. While the sanctions helped curb the actions of Milosevic government, they also hindered economic recovery, encouraged a weak economy and help promote black market and restricted access to humanitarian aid such as medicine and energy supplies. The latest use of sanctions has been on both Libya and Syria however, it is unknown whether those sanctions will serve their intended purposes most especially, in Syria where the government is still holding onto power. To make sanctions effective, other approaches must be employed by the international community through its most powerful organ the Security Council.

Proper Coordination: To make sanctions work, there must be proper coordination of whatever regime is in place. Member states should work more closely to ensure there are no loopholes which allows some member states to secretly trade with a targeted state. A typical example is the case of Iran; while the sanctions are in place, nations such as Russia and China still trade with the regime. During the regime of Saddam, some nations continued to trade in oil secretly with Iraq despite UN resolutions. The lack of cooperation among the 5 Permanent members of the Security Council is another factor making UN sanctions to be sometimes ineffective on targeted states.

Targeted Sanctions: During the regime of Saddam, the sanctions could have been more effective had they been properly targeted on Saddam and the regime itself. In 1997, as a response to Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with UNSCOM, the Security Council applied more sanctions that obliged member states to deny travel or entry to Iraqi civilians and military personnel who failed to comply with UNSCOM’s requirements but for unknown reasons, the sanctions did not last long, became weak on the officials of Saddam regime but rather strong on innocent Iraqis. Sanctions are meant to be targeted on the aggressor and when they are not innocent people pay the price.

Short Term Sanctions: No doubt the sanctions on Iraq continued for too long and as a result it became less effective while at the same time it became a tool of destruction of the middle class in Iraq. Whenever sanctions are imposed, the international community should make sure there is a time limitation, the sanction should be allowed to run out and then renewed if necessary. During such period of expiration, the sanction should be reviewed by a special committee to deduce whether the sanction is having the effect it is targeted to have and based on such verification regime, a decision can be made whether or not to renew the sanction.

Proper Monitoring: A monitoring regime should be established for all sanctions imposed by the UN. Special committee should be set up to constantly gather information on imposed sanctions and report findings to the Security Council based on facts on the ground. There should be new technology and equipments to verify via satellite and human intelligence how the sanction is working for the sanction to serve the intended purpose.

Sanctions With Teeth: To be effective, the regime must have “teeth” to bite the intended leadership or regime. Member states must make sure such sanction does not create unintended effect on a third state and for this to happen, the sanction must have proper enforcement. The Security Council must ensure that its sanctions are effective enough to bite the intended individual or leadership and not create unwanted burden on innocent people.

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