“Keep Sanctions Against South Africa”, at a march in the UK in 1990. Source: Craig Bellamy, FlickrOn the 29th of April 2014 the BBC reported Russia’s condemnations of the ‘Iron Curtain’ style sanctions being imposed on them due to their recent actions in Ukraine. Since late November last year there have been ongoing changes in Ukraine, with mass protests organised to oppose President Yanukovych and his government. On the 1st of March 2014 the Russian Parliament approved President Putin’s request to use force in Ukraine in order to protect the rights of Russian people living there, and to protect Russia’s interests. Both the United States and the EU have begun imposing sanctions in the form of travel bans and asset freezes from March 17th. Throughout this crisis there appears to have been firm opposition from both the US and the EU to using military force to protect Ukraine’s borders, and therefore sanctions have played a vital role in the West’s response to this crisis. Sanctions have become a popular method in diplomatic relations; but have these measures really had the desired effect? Can sanctions be appropriately targeted in order to impact the higher echelons of a society, while not crippling the domestic economy so that ordinary citizens do not suffer indirectly?

Sanctions have been used throughout history by countries in order to blockade their enemies to “compel a change in behaviour”, in Ancient Greece the Athenian authorities imposed a trade embargo on neighbouring Megara in 432 B.C. After World War II the UN included the use of sanctions into its Charter, but this was not used heavily throughout the Cold War. American Presidents have been some of biggest advocates of sanctions in the 20th century with Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Carter and Reagan all using them in different contexts, in 1998 Belize, Columbia, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Vanatu and Venezeula were all under American sanctions for cruelty to whales and dolphins. Although recent sanctions have been imposed most famously on the South African apartheid regime, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq and Myanmar. There is some evidence to suggest that sanctions did aid the decline of the apartheid regime in South Africa, but it was not the only factor and arguably civil society action and boycotts played an even greater role.

Sachs argues that ‘sanctions are the wrong approach, for international marginalisation hurts ordinary citizens far more than it hurts dictatorial regimes’; he outlines the examples of North Korea, Iraq and Myanmar, where public health has suffered greatly due to reduced foreign aid levels and falling international attention. Due to these criticisms and the evidence of how sanctions were doing more harm than good, such as in Iraq, where the regime used the economic and social hardship of the country to unite people behind the government. Therefore there has been a move by the UN towards ‘smart’ and ‘targeted’ sanctions. Smart sanctions were developed in order to focus the impact of sanctions on the leaders of a country and their inner circle of advisors, using measures such as asset freezes and travel bans.

One of the most high profile set of sanctions in place over recent years are those on Iran, which aim to compel the Iranian state to ensure that their nuclear capabilities are only used for peaceful means. The sanctions that have been in place in Iran include; a US ban on all trade with Iran, a number of countries cutting off dealings with Iranian financial institutions. These together reduced the demand for Iranian oil. The impact of these sanctions have been quite damaging to the country as a whole; the macroeconomy has suffered due to reduced oil exports, and the Iranian currency, the rial, has reduced in value considerably. This has caused an increase in the price of food and fuel, a bill which ordinary citizens have to foot. The hard evidence that sanctions, targeted or not, have a major impact on the regimes of a country is debatable. They played a role in South Africa and North Korea but only along with other factors. In other states such as Iraq, Haiti and Cuba they have caused untold hardship for the citizens of these states.

There is little doubt that the question of how to deal with international crises is very complex. It is important to reduce reliance on military action, but equally the idea that open and unstructured sanctions alone will have the desired effect of crippling a despotic and corrupt regime is fundamentally flawed. Often the most difficult aspect of these crises is that the leadership of the regime has managed to isolate their state and government from the international community, and therefore by imposing sanctions it further entrenches this isolation. This can be seen in the North Korean case. Another fundamental aspect of this issue is that sanctions should be an active form of diplomatic relations, rather than a passive one. As such, there needs to be a time scale laid out for reducing the sanctions in return for changes. Without any indication of incentives for their removal, sanctions can serve little long term purpose. Although there has been a normative move towards more targeted sanctions now, there still remains fundamental flaws in the way sanctions are administered. In relation to the situation between Russia and Ukraine, it is clear that targeted sanctions can play a certain role in diminishing the economic stronghold of Putin’s inner circle. However, sanctions need o be combined with other measures too, such as the development of stronger relations between the EU and Ukraine.


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