Smarten up!

Measuring the real impact of sanctions

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Foreign Affairs
An Iraqi worker checks worn-out valves at the al-Doura oil refinery outside Baghdad in 2002. Many of spare parts could not be replaced due to United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq, while the oil-rich country was allowed to export only a limited quantity of oil as a part of the "oil-for-food" programmeImage Caption:

An Iraqi worker checks worn-out valves at the al-Doura oil refinery outside Baghdad in 2002. Many of spare parts could not be replaced due to United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq, while the oil-rich country was allowed to export only a limited quantity of oil as a part of the "oil-for-food" programme (Reuters)

by Andrea Ornelas and Marcela Aguila Rubin with input from Simon Bradley,

Since the end of the Cold War the United Nations Security Council has increasingly used sanctions as a diplomatic tool. The Swiss back ‘smart’ targeted sanctions but their real impact remains unclear. New research should shed light on their effects.

Although international sanctions, or embargos, were written into the United Nations charter in 1945, they were used more and more from the Cold War era onwards against countries such as Iraq, Iran, Libya and Rwanda among others.
Switzerland’s Secretariat of Economic Affairs (Seco), the federal office that oversees such questions, defines sanctions as the “imposition of restrictive (economic) measures in order to produce certain political effects”.
But, as Seco spokeswoman Marie Avet admits, it is hard to determine which embargos have been the most effective in achieving their objectives.
“The UN Security Council and individual states decide on sanctions to address specific issues, such as terrorism, human rights violations, or the gross neglect of the rule of law or fundamental democratic principles,” said Avet.
While it is true that some sanction regimes receive greater media coverage than others, it is not possible to distinguish between “more or less relevant” sanctions regimes, she added.

Swiss sanctions

Over the past ten years Switzerland has imposed 20 different series of international sanctions, against states such as Somalia, North Korea and Sudan.
“Six sanctions regulations are based on European Union decrees, while 14 are based on UN sanctions. In three cases – Iran, Libya and Guinea-Bissau – the Swiss sanctions are a combination of UN and EU decrees,” Avet declared.
This year alone Switzerland has updated a series of sanctions against individuals linked to Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda/Taliban, as well as Zimbabwe, Syria and North Korea.
But alarmed by the indiscriminate economic impact and negative humanitarian consequences of certain sanction regimes, Switzerland is one of a handful of countries that has pushed for changes to identify ways of applying sanctions in a more targeted and efficient manner.
In 1998-1999 the alpine nation sponsored a series of conferences known as the Interlaken Process focusing on financial sanctions. Germany and Sweden organised similar talks on travel, air traffic and arms embargos, and issues over the implementation and monitoring of sanctions. The results of the Interlaken Process were published in the form of a manual in 2001.

Innocent victims

“Sanctions must not punish the wrong people”

Hans-Christof von Sponeck at the seminar “Accountability and Justice for Iraq” held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on March 14, 2013

The aim of international sanctions is to de-escalate and solve conflicts, but there must be no hidden agendas, says Hans-Christof von Sponeck, former head of the United Nations Oil for Food programme in Iraq.  [...]

Get smart

According to Thomas Biersteker, professor of international relations and political science at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute, smart sanctions – such as the freezing of assets or arms embargos – have the growing support of states and have become a key element of multilateral diplomacy.
In an essay published in 2012 by the Graduate Institute, Biersteker, who has worked with the UN and the governments of Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany on targeting sanctions, argued that smart sanctions allowed terrorism and armed conflicts to be contained, consolidated peace processes, successfully defended human rights and prevented the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But he warned that their true impact – economic and humanitarian – was not clear. Seco also acknowledges that it lacks the tools to measure the impact of the sanctions it has enacted.
But there are moves to change this. Biersteker is one of the co-directors of a huge long-term research project, launched in 2009 and sponsored by Switzerland, Canada and Britain, to look at the effects of UN targeted sanctions.
Fifteen research teams of more than 40 scholars and policy practitioners from around the world have been studying 21 UN targeted sanctions regimes since 1991 such as Al Qaeda/Taliban, Angola, Ivory Coast, North Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the former republic of Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iran and Liberia.
They have already produced a common database on UN targeted sanctions for students and policy-makers, a practical guide for designing targeted sanctions, based on lessons learned and are completing work on the final comprehensive report.
“We are also working on an interactive app in different languages for practitioners that should be completed by the end of May,” Biersteker told
“Training is planned for a selected panel of experts. The challenge will then be to keep the information updated as sanctions are a fast moving target.”

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