The Briefing

What do political sanctions hope to achieve?

Learn about what sanctions can do.

February 24, 2022
Reading time 2 min.

🌈 A quick taster for you:  

  • Sanctions can be imposed on a country if they violate international rules. 
  • 59% of UN sanctions are in response to armed conflict.
  • ‘Smart sanctions’ are intended to protect the wider society.

🧐 Why do I care?

Sanctions are often threatened, demanded or imposed. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news in the last few days then you’ve probably heard all those options being discussed. Yet sanctions aren’t only a topic of international concern — even your parents might have threatened you with sanctions at some point. Because, in essence, sanctions are just about punishing a certain behavior, or trying to enforce a different behavior. And this exertion of power happens everywhere from the parent-child relationship to the world stage. It’s the latter that we're looking at today: what does a political sanction look like, and why does it come about?

🔍 What exactly is happening here?

  • Sanctions in international politics  
    If a country or region violates international norms or obligations, then other countries or regions may impose sanctions against it. There’s no specific size or shape that sanctions have to take — they could be imposed on an entire region, or just on certain individuals. Yet when it comes to the specific measures, a lot of thought will go into them because the goal of any sanctions is to create agreements that can be complied with — and sanctions are pretty much always the last resort before conflicts escalate into war or violence. Sanctions are therefore often a symbolic message of criticism toward a certain regime — an act taken in the high art of diplomacy. 
    Examples of classic sanctions include import and export restrictions, the expulsion of diplomats, and the halting of arms deliveries.

  • When are sanctions imposed?  
    It’s not only states or countries that can impose sanctions — organizations such as the UN, EU or African Union can impose them too. Different triggers will therefore lead to different types of sanctions. For example, the majority of UN sanctions have been imposed in response to an armed conflict. Other reasons include fighting terrorism, stopping nuclear weapons, or promoting democracy.
    The U.S. and EU largely use sanctions to combat abuses of power or to weaken autocratic regimes.

  • Criticism of sanctions
    Sanctions are by no means the panacea for every conflict. They actively interfere in the events of another country and, in some instances, the entire population of that country will be affected — which means that ‘innocent’ people suffer. When it comes to authoritarian regimes, sanctions can even lead to a weakening of the opposition, as those in power sell it as an attack on the entire country. Incidentally, in our globalized world, sanctions often also hit the country that imposed them. So-called ‘smart sanctions’ are supposed to counteract this from happening — rather than imposing sanctions that will affect entire countries, ‘smart sanctions’ aim to be more targeted at the individuals in power, or terrorist or rebel groups. Examples of this would be freezing the assets of selected individuals, imposing travel bans on them, or prohibiting people from doing business with them.

🤓 What does this mean for me?

The next time you hear about sanctions in the news, remember that it won’t have been a decision that was taken lightly just to enforce the will of a certain government or organization. Any sanctions are usually well thought out because there is much more to them than simply doling out some punishment. 

Certain sanctions may also affect you directly. For example, should import and export restrictions be imposed, or if the financial market reacts to sanctions, then this can have consequences for us all. So it’s worth looking at any situation objectively, and considering what the impact of certain sanctions could be.

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