International Relations · Second year

Identify the circumstances under which economic sanctions can be an effective tool of foreign policy

Although international sanctions have repeatedly shown their limits, they nevertheless provide a useful tool. Aimed at maintaining peace and security between states, they have evolved from basic and comprehensive approaches with often negative effects, towards targeted actions that require preparation and evaluation with the involvement of all countries of the international community. Sanctions must be based on an open and adaptable methodology, using the constraint of persons or their interests, or humanitarian measures for populations, in order to retain legitimacy and remains an element of international dialogue, in the service of the preservation (preventive) or the return to peace (curative).

It is also important to take into account the cultural, economic, and humanitarian factors. A useful and effective sanction allows actors to maintain sufficient scope for the resumption of negotiations, and avoids inflicting humiliation to nations. It is essential to the successful implementation that the use of sanctions must not be perceived as a population’s persecution. After 30 years of useless or seriously damaging international sanctions, scholars talk about ‘smart sanctions’ (Tostensen and Bull, 2002), which are targeted, progressive, limited in time and evaluated. This essay aims to determine under what circumstances international economic sanctions are likely to be effective. In the first part we will focus on the UN as a key player in the implementation of international sanctions. Then, we will detail the encouraging cases of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia during the Cold War. Finally, we will demonstrate that the Soviet Union’s breakdown led to the rise of UN sanctions.


The issue of international sanctions is linked to the concept of security which remains a key objective of the states. In 1945, the winners of the Second World War realised that the state-centered model needed to change. Following the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies decided to unite the countries of the world around an ideal of peace, or at least the need to ensure the stability of the world after the war. From this intention was born the United Nations at the conference in San Francisco in June 1945 when 51 states signed the United Nations Charter. A supranational authority without a governmental organization, but united around principles guaranteed by a set of rules, including international sanctions. As early as Article 1, the United Nations announces its intention ‘to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace’ (UN website (a)). By emphasizing the ‘effective’ aspect, the UN clearly plan their intention to influence states’ policies and impose their interest. In other words, the UN is authorized to take coercive actions, as long as it is a ‘collective’ decision. The growing number of states entering the UN makes decision-making difficult, which is thus assigned to the Security Council acting on behalf of States. Malone (2004) focuses on the Security Council as a key player in world politics. He highlights some concerns about the shifting institutional factors, the challenges of enforcement, as well as the decision-making process.

However, ‘domestic and international factors interact to shape cooperation among nations’ (Milner and Rosendorff, 1997), thus the use of sanctions is undermined by the divergence of national and international interests. The ability of the Security Council to impose sanctions against a state, was therefore very little used until 1990. The veto of the permanent members and more particularly the leaders of the two superpowers, probably did not allow the UN to exercise influence in this area. There are however two notable exceptions: South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.


In April 1960, the Security Council took a first resolution against South Africa. After the Sharpeville massacre, 29 states filed a complaint against South Africa. The Security Council initiated a condemnation of principle in which it ‘called upon the Government of the Union of South African to initiate measures aimed at bringing about racial harmony based on equality […] and to abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination’ (UN website (b)). However, it was not until August 1963 that a resolution ‘solemnly called upon all States to cease forthwith the sale and shipment of arms, ammunition of all types and military vehicles to South Africa’ (UN website (b)). France and the UK abstained. By the end of 1963, the Security Council considered the possibility of additional sanctions. Until August 1992 and the resolution that enables the deployment of international observers, 48 ​​resolutions were taken by the Security Council against South Africa. Through these resolutions and in addition to the first military measures, the Security Council implemented diplomatic, cultural, sportive and economic sanctions. Even after the announcement in February 1991 of the process to end apartheid, the Security Council continued its action against the regime that actually ended in April 1994 with Nelson Mandela’s election. In parallel in May 1965, the Security Council started dealing with the case of Southern Rhodesia.

During the decolonization from the British Empire, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved in December 1963 to create three new entities: Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia. The first two followed a conventional process of independence that was finalised in 1964 for Nyasaland (now Malawi) and in 1965 for Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Southern Rhodesia is far richer, and is controlled by a strong community of European origin, reinforced by a strong immigration from Malawi and Zambia. The segregationist orientation of local leaders forced London to maintain its authority over this territory. To the UK, the access to independence was synonymous of the establishment of a non-racial, egalitarian regime. Indeed, the ‘no independence before majority rule’ principle (Good, 1973) was adopted, condemning a system ruled by the white colonial minority. At the time, the Southern Rhodesia population was estimated at 4.2 million inhabitants of which only 210,000 whites (Good, 1973, pp.15-16). As negotiations between local leaders and the British government could not reach consensus, Ian Smith, Head of Government of Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence in November 1965 with the support of almost all Rhodies (white population). It should be noted that, until then, the only former British colony to have unilaterally declared its independence had been the United States. Although the British government excluded from the outset any military intervention, it declared illegal the South Rhodesian government, pronounced its dissolution and announced the appointment of a Governor General to resume the administration of the colony; however these decisions were unsuccessful. By November 1965, the Security Council ‘condemns the unilateral declaration of independence made by a racist minority in Southern Rhodesia […](and) calls upon all states not to recognize this illegal racist minority regime in Southern Rhodesia and to refrain from rendering any assistance to this illegal regime’ (UN website (b)). Like its action against the South African regime, the Security Council took 31 resolutions until July 1980, when Zimbabwe was accepted as a new member of the UN. It should be emphasised that the Rhodesian crisis could not have been resolved nowadays, because of the globalised and liberal world economy, characterised by extreme interdependence as well as the ‘alternative trade partner dilemma’ (Jentleson, 2000) (with the only exception of North Korea).

As for South Africa, sanctions against Southern Rhodesia were progressive and multiple. They concerned the military, economic and diplomatic. Economically, they were not very effective. Indeed, even though Rhodesia’s GDP fell 5% from 1965 to 1966 as an immediate result of sanctions, the real annual growth rate averaged almost 8% between 1967 and 1974 (Strack, 1978). The natural wealth of this country allowed it to adapt its economy quickly and many countries and non-governmental actors did not comply with the sanctions. For example, in August 1978, a UN report denounced companies (including many British oil companies) for violating the boycott rules issued by the Security Council. Some authors even consider that the sanctions did not weaken but rather boosted Southern Rhodesia’s economy who successfully made changes in agricultural production and found new buyers. For example, Losman (1979) argues that the sanctions led to a positive diversification of the domestic economy. Ultimately, the effectiveness of UN sanctions against South Africa and Southern Rhodesia is difficult to measure, even if they did weaken them. In Rhodesia, the guerrillas’ armed struggle may have contributed widely to the fall of the regime. Moreover, Baldwin (1985, pp.201-203) explains that the sanctions weakened the Rhodesian economy, increased the unemployment and made the guerrilla attractive.


The collapse of the USSR broke the balance that had allowed the world to maintain a certain stability. The UN has had a greater role and international sanctions have become a key tool. Some scholars sometimes referred to the ‘sanctions decade’ (Cortright and Lopez, 2000). Indeed 15 sanctions were decided by the Security Council between 1990 and 2000: Iraq (1990), former Yugoslavia (1991), Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992), Libya (1992), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1993), UNITA movement in Angola (1993), Rwanda (1994), Liberia (1994), the Bosnian Serbs (1994), Sudan (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Federal Republic Yugoslavia (1998), the Taliban (1999), Eritrea and Ethiopia (2000). Sanctions were lifted against Haiti in 1994 and the sanctions against the FRY in 1996. A new arms embargo to the FRY was established in 1998 and finally lifted in September 2001. Today, international sanctions mainly affect countries in Africa and the Middle East, and they are being activated mostly because of internal strife, civil or ethnic wars. These policies are under the control of the international community, which has a humanitarian ‘right to intervene’. The aggression of one country by another is rare and the example of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 immediately comes to mind. Countries can also be subject to sanctions because of their programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction such as biological or chemical weapons, or ballistic missiles. Mueller and Mueller (1999) argue that economic sanctions are more dangerous for populations than nuclear weapons, especially because emphasis is put on national security and the threats by ‘bad’ states. Indeed, economic sanctions on their own often fail to achieve important goals, such as the end of a dictatorship, a military regime or the development of nuclear weapons (Pape, 1997).

Finally, it should be noted that none of the countries that have been subject to sanctions are listed as permanent members of the Security Council. The veto power of the five states makes them immune to this device. For example, the Security Council drafted a resolution in 1983 following the invasion of Grenada by the US, who immediately used its veto. As for the situation in Chechnya and Tibet, they have not even been the subject of a draft resolution in the Security Council. Looking at the draft resolutions that have been vetoed, it is possible to trace a map of the areas of influence of the permanent members of the Security Council who cover, depending on their interests, policies that would be sanctioned elsewhere. All resolutions on the situation in Palestine have been vetoed by the US. Sanctions are decided, not when situation demands, but when all interests converge, that is to say when nothing is against it. Until now, sanctions have affected marginal States only, most disreputable not to use the notion of ‘rogue state’ which was popular in the early 2000s (Chomsky, 2000).


To conclude, after this historical approach to international economic sanctions, we must note that they are generally integrated into a ‘wider array of foreign policy instruments’ (Mastanduno, 2012, p.172). It is always difficult to assess the final impact of international sanctions on a general situation. In international relations, the policy debate between economic sanctions and military actions illustrates the theoretical debate between liberals and realists. Moreover, Hufbauer et al. (2009) evaluate the effectiveness of sanctions as a policy tool and identify 40 successful outcomes out of 115 cases. It can be said that international sanctions are useful when states do not have any other options to avoid major conflicts, but if sanctions have considerably changed over the last 30 years they do not resolve all the conflicting issues. If they are useful, sanctions are still insufficient to achieve the objectives assigned by the UN Charter, as evidenced by the many failures. It would be desirable to supplement the arsenal of sanctions by including it in a coherent whole: develop upstream actions (development, economic aid, humanitarian assistance, detection and prevention of conflicts); strengthen the legitimacy of actors for the action of the international community without practicing interference; and improve SMART sanctions (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound), acronym taken from management (Dolan, 1981).


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