Human rights: the very limited effectiveness of international sanctions


Sanctions are a widespread economic lever of pressure in the context of foreign policy. But they remain controversial because of their limited effectiveness. Moreover, such decisions inevitably have repercussions on populations. Therefore, to be legal, sanctions must be proportionate.

The principle of proportionality applies at two levels. First, the sanctions must be necessary and broadly appropriate to achieve their objective. In other words, measures that are not effective and do not further their objective are not “necessary” and are therefore illegal. Second, even if sanctions are effective, they should be as light as possible. If they cause significant damage in the country, then the principle of proportionality is not respected.

In our last article research, we studied all the sanctions imposed by the United States between 1976 and 2012, a total of 235 sanction-years and 34 targeted countries. It shows that, despite their primary intention, these sanctions have generally worsened the human rights situation.

Several categories of human rights

In particular, we observe negative repercussions on fundamental rights, such as the right to life or personal inviolability, and political rights, such as freedom of assembly and expression. It turns out that violations of these human rights are all the more marked when the purpose of the sanctions is not explicitly linked to human rights (for example if the purpose of the sanctions is to put an end to violent conflicts or to support democratic change).

We note in particular that this phenomenon can be explained by a notion of human rights taken in too broad a sense. Indeed, when discussing the effects of sanctions, jurists do not distinguish between the different categories of human rights. On the contrary, we believe that there are four: fundamental rights, economic rights, women's rights and political rights, and that the effects of sanctions on these rights must be assessed separately.

Furthermore, jurists tend to prefer multilateral sanctions to unilateral sanctions. The sanctions imposed by the United States thus seem more legitimate if they are endorsed by the United Nations. Yet we demonstrate that the actual damages are similar whether the sanctions are multilateral or unilateral. Our empirical results support the idea that multilateral sanctions are no less harmful to human rights than unilateral sanctions.

Smart sanctions are not

Finally, we looked at the effects of so-called “intelligent” sanctions because they are less burdensome for populations: travel restrictions for leaders, diplomatic sanctions, etc. By targeting the elite of a country rather than the whole of society, the inconveniences are thus limited. As such, smart sanctions are considered more proportionate than others. However, against all expectations, we observe that the smart sanctions do not produce more effect than the others, which could suggest that they are ultimately not better proportioned.

Our quantitative results also highlight the role of statistics in the study of sanctions, proportionality and, more generally, international law. However, law is a normative science, in which empirical data are difficult to integrate. However, we would like to show that the use of data can make it possible to better identify the empirical effects of sanctions in order to judge their legality or illegality.

Armin Steinbach, Professor, Law and Taxation, HEC Paris Business School

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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