Economic sanctions are not a novel concept in international diplomacy. In fact, they are rather ancient.

The first recorded use of sanctions was in 432 BC, when the Athenian Empire banned traders from Megara from its marketplaces, thereby strangling the rival city state’s economy. It was not however until the 20th century that the use of economic sanctions became more prominent.

The League of Nations, and later the United Nations, played a key role in forging country-based sanctions in the early 20th century, often lazily imposing such measures on countries they wanted to pressure into complying with a specific foreign policy objective. Country-based sanctions are a form of restrictive measure imposed by one country or entity on another with the aim of limiting the target country’s trade and business relations. Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Vietnam are all countries that have had country-based sanctions imposed upon them.

The imposition of country-based sanctions can have a massive adverse effect on the economy and humanitarian wellbeing of the targeted country. As recognised by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General to the United Nations in his 1997 report to the UN, country-based sanctions tend to inflict the most harm on vulnerable civilian groups and can cause great collateral damage to third states.

Widely shared concerns about the adverse impact of country-based sanctions led to the birth of “targeted” or “smart” sanctions in the early 21st century, following the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States in 2001. Targeted sanctions aim to reduce collateral damage to the general population and third countries by targeting specific individuals or organisations believed to be responsible for offending behaviour. Widely considered to be inspired by the Pinochet case and the Bosnian war crime trials, targeted sanctions were born out of a growing emphasis in international law on individual accountability of those in power for the unlawful acts of states. This development has arguably increased the effectiveness of sanctions as a foreign policy tool. However, concerns over their impact on human rights remain. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has questioned the legality of targeted UN sanctions and found them to be in breach of key procedural rights enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) e.g. the right to fair trial (Article 6 of the ECHR) and the right to an effective remedy (Article 13 of the ECHR); see for example, the cases of Nada v. Switzerland (Application No. 10593/08, ECHR 2012) and Al-Dulimi and Montana Management Inc v. Switzerland (Application No. 5809/08).

48th session of the Human Rights Council

At the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, on 16 September 2021, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for governments to reassess and critically re-evaluate their use of sanctions so as to avoid adverse impacts on human rights.

In her statement to the Human Rights Council, Ms Bachelet highlighted the severe impact that economic sanctions targeting an entire country or sector can have on the most vulnerable people in the country, who have “neither perpetrated crimes nor otherwise bear responsibility for improper conduct”. Ms Bachelet flagged that the lack of due process in imposing country-based sanctions enabled those “sought to be targeted” to “perversely benefit through gaming sanctions regimes” and profiteer “from the economic distortions and incentives introduced by them”.

Ms Bachelet further explained that punitive restrictions on banks and financial institutions led to over-compliance which in some instances created obstacles to importing basic food and medical supplies and “risked causing more suffering and death and wider contagion around the world”. She added that “individuals and corporate entities subject to such sanctions often have scant legal process prior to being brought under such regimes, and frequently have little if any effective recourse to any mechanism to appeal liabilities or penalties that are applied against them”.

It is no secret that economic sanctions are a powerful tool of foreign policy. Governments seeking to influence a State’s behaviour in situations where diplomacy is insufficient and military intervention is deemed too risky (or otherwise unacceptable) regularly rely on economic sanctions to further their policy interests. Equally, it is no secret that economic sanctions can have and have had a direct and dire impact on the everyday lives and businesses of normal civilians. The questioning of targeted sanctions’ legality and compliance with fundamental rights, combined with the fact that country-based sanctions remain in use, highlights that the adverse impacts of sanctions on basic human rights continues to be felt by many until this day.

As an increasing number of governments seek to increase and diversify the type of economic sanctions they impose, equal if not even more vigilant effort needs to be made in ensuring that the sanction regimes of restrictive measures enforced both secure respect for human rights and foster accountability. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “human rights cannot be adequately protected – indeed they are profoundly undermined – if sanctions and the means of enforcement themselves violate them”.


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