The Prominence of International Sanctions in World Politics by Kartik Mittal

May 03 2018

In the past decade international economic sanctions have become a common feature in world politics. They are often considered an alternative to military action, designed to compel another sovereign nation to re-consider or re-formulate its policy in line with international norms.

The effectiveness of international sanctions as a political tool was recently recognised when the international community was able to agree a deal with Iran whereby Iran agreed to cooperate with the international community in relation to its nuclear programme in return for relief from some of the crippling economic sanctions placed against it.

The growing prominence of international sanctions is evident from three recent examples. First, sanctions imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Second, the European Union has put in place a sanctions regime against Russia following the events in Crimea. Third, the United Nations escalated and imposed tough sanctions against North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile tests.

Whilst sanctions have achieved their desired result in case of Iran, many see sanctions imposed on Qatar and on North Korea as a failure. The question therefore arises - why are sanctions successful in one instance but not in another?

Sanctions are usually effective when a sizeable number of countries work collectively and impose similar economic sanctions on a country in order to compel that country to comply with international norms. The objective behind imposing economic sanctions is often to isolate a country from the global economy, thereby restricting its ability to trade.

The most effective scenario is for sanctions to be imposed through a resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council. This is because it imposes an obligation on all members of the United Nations to give effect to that Resolution. Since the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) have a right to veto a United Nations Security Council Resolution, it is usually difficult to agree a sanctions regime at that level. The next best option is for a group of like-minded countries to come together, discuss and impose similar sanctions, through national legislation against a country. The least desirable option is for a country or a group of small countries to act alone without support of the international community.

It could be argued that the sanctions regime against Qatar has failed to achieve its desired result as it does not have the international backing as was the case with Iran and North Korea. One could describe the sanctions regime against Qatar as ‘regional’ as opposed to ‘international’ as it lacks participation of influential countries such as United States, United Kingdom, Russia, India and China. A lack of international consensus allowed Qatar to minimise economic impact as it was able to reroute its trade.

As the key idea behind imposing sanctions is to exert economic pressure on a country to force it to change its policy, a sanctions regime must be well thought out and cleverly crafted.

In today’s global economy countries have various means, opportunities and options for trade. International consensus is a key to an effective sanctions regime as it is essential to plug the gaps which may allow a country to reroute its trade. It is akin to a game of chess where one must contemplate your opponent’s next move with the intention of achieving a checkmate i.e. leaving him or her with nowhere to go. In the case of a country this would mean putting it in an ‘economic corner ‘until it agrees to comply with the terms of those nations imposing the sanctions.

Another factor which has significant bearing on whether sanctions can put pressure on a country to comply with international norms is the political system of the sanctioned country. An unintended but common feature of a sanctions regime is its impact on the ordinary citizen.

In a democracy, a sanctions regime could persuade people to vote for a government which is willing to engage and work with the international community, thereby making way for a shift in policy. In contrast, in a country ruled by a single party or an autocratic system, people are devoid of the right to dictate or change policy. In such countries sanctions are usually perceived to be less effective as the power is vested within a few rich and powerful people. One could therefore argue that the political system in North Korea is one of the main reasons why sanctions have not had their intended effect despite widespread international consensus.

It is encouraging to see that certain sanctions regimes have induced nations to come to the negotiating table and resolve disputes through dialogue. Even though sanctions can have the unintended effect of affecting lives of ordinary citizens, it would be fair to say that they are always a better alternative to war.


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