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What history tells us about sanctions

Do sanctions really topple regimes? History shows they've had mixed results. CC BY-NC-ND / Marco Fieber

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted unprecedented sanctions. The question of whether they will have an effect on the course of the war is still open. History shows they have been used for centuries, with mixed results.  

This content was published on May 11, 2022 - 09:00

Medieval kings happily expelled foreign wool traders if they were having a spat with other kings. They relaxed and tightened taxes and even bans on imports, depending on whether they were feeling friendly or not towards their country of origin. 

In the American civil war, and in World War One, physical blockades were imposed on the Confederates, and on Germany and its allies, in a bid to prevent them getting any supplies, including food, which could fuel their war effort. 

Economic damage for positive change? 

The strategy seems simple enough. Countries imposing sanctions hope that by undermining a hostile state’s economy, that state may stop doing whatever it is that is deemed to be hostile. Just days after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, governments from the West imposed a slew of sanctions on Russia, unprecedented in scope. These include a ban on Russian flights over the United States and European airspace, the ban of exports of luxury goods to Russia as well as wide-ranging measures aimed at paralysing the country’s financial system.  

Or, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put it, “the European Union and its partners are working to cripple Putin’s ability to finance his war machine”. 

Beyond the headline effect, do sanctions really topple regimes? “I’m always skeptical of this question,” admits Erica Moret, a specialist on sanctions at Geneva’s Graduate Institute. “It’s easy to ask, but difficult to answer.” 

Moret agrees that sanctions can sometimes be a useful tool, particularly where diplomacy has been exhausted and military action is not an option. But she points out that, while there are a wealth of studies looking at the effectiveness of sanctions, none have been able to draw firm conclusions showing that sanctions alone led to a major change in policy. “We don’t have a way of proving that a political change happened because of sanctions," she says.

South Africa is often held up as a place where economic sanctions brought about positive change. Nelson Mandela, when asked on his release from prison whether sanctions had helped to end apartheid, answered “oh, there is no doubt.” In total, 23 countries imposed sanctions on South Africa, including an arms and oil embargo, from 1964 until the end of the regime in 1990.  

In fact, Moret explains, there were “a range of internal political developments” going on in South Africa at the same time. Sanctions, she argues, should be seen as just one part of the equation, and “only as good as other mechanisms, such as diplomacy, mediation, and [even] the threat of military action".

Iran, Cuba, North Korea 

Another example often used to demonstrate the positive effects of sanctions is the Iran nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security CouncilExternal link and the European UnionExternal link. Known as the JCPOA, the agreement was designed to ensure Iran did not develop nuclear weapons. It’s widely accepted that Tehran was encouraged to agree the deal because of the prospect of having sanctions eased. 

Again, Moret says, this was very likely part of the equation, but not necessarily the entire picture. “There was also a change in government, a change in public sentiment.” 

Meanwhile Cuba, or North Korea, have endured United States sanctions for more than half a century. Yet these countries have not noticeably altered course. Several political scholars have even argued that the imposition of sanctions can even make a small, undemocratic state more isolated, and more stubborn. 

Humanitarian concerns 

Added to the question of whether sanctions are effective, are more questions about exactly how they impact a country, and who suffers most.  

In the 1990s, international sanctions against Iraq to protest the invasion of Kuwait were sweeping. They included medicines and equipment for cancer treatment, spare parts for water supply stations, the chlorine needed to purify water, and even vaccines against childhood diseases. Governments blocking the deliveries argued that all these might be used to develop weapons of mass destruction. 

“It was incredibly controversial,” says Moret, referring to the sanctions. Such was the concern of aid agencies that a number of senior United Nations officials resigned, including the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, and the World Food Programme’s Director for Iraq, Jutta Burghardt. 

“Five thousand children are dying every month,” Halliday said at the time.  

Burghardt later argued in an in-depth review of the sanctions that, under international law, they might even be classed as genocide.  “There can be no doubt whatsoever that the imposition of the sanctions on Iraq by the Security Council is leading to partially or totally destroying a nation,” she said in the reviewExternal link.

Targeted sanctions 

The outcry over Iraq did lead to a change – not in the countries being sanctioned, but by the countries imposing them. Led by Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, what became known as the Interlaken Process developed a model for “smart sanctions”, designed to target governments, despots, or terrorist groups, but not the civilians they presided over. 

For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), it is critical to think about the potential adverse humanitarian consequences of sanctions. While the Geneva Conventions say nothing about the effect of sanctions on civilians, the ICRC, like other humanitarian agencies, is concerned when it sees civilians negatively impacted by a conflict not of their making. 

“Even today if you’re not careful, if you don’t craft these sanctions, they may still have this negative effect, ” warns Svoboda, the ICRC’s deputy director of international law and policy.  

Humanitarians restricted 

Of particular concern to the ICRC is the risk that sanctions will restrict their work on the ground. "Sanctions should not undermine, criminalise or otherwise inhibit the work of humanitarian agencies," says Svoboda.

This is a risk with the current sanctions against Syria or Yemen — both have been subject to sanctions since 2011 and 2014 respectively.  Svoboda and Moret point to the “chilling effect” that a sanctions regime can have on companies who traditionally supply aid agencies with equipment.

"Some private companies can feel they are not allowed to do business… so if we want to buy spare parts and ship them into a place that is sanctioned, they may be reluctant," explains Svoboda.

"That can mean maybe we can’t maintain a water supply because we can’t get the spare parts."

Other challenges posed by sanctions include the first aid training the ICRC often provides to local communities in conflict zones, or medical treatment it offers to the wounded, including former fighters.  

These are standard activities for the ICRC, and part of its mandate under the Geneva Conventions. But under sanctions designed to deny support to terrorist groups or states, such activities could be deemed illegal.  

Humanitarian exemptions 

Meanwhile, there is concern that the unity around targeted sanctions achieved through the Interlaken Process may be slipping. So many people and organisations were affected by broad sanctions imposed after the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan last year that many aid agencies could scarcely operate. 

Moret of the Graduate Institute argues that sanctions which isolate an entire national banking system, as they have done in North Korea and threaten to do in Afghanistan, may not be a good strategy. “Civilian pain does not mean political gain,” she says. “There is no case in which [economically] destroying a country has translated into political benefits.” 

Moret believes it may be time for a revival of an Interlaken-style forum, and hopes Switzerland, which has developed expertise in targeted sanctions, may convene it again. 

And what about Russia? 

So where does that leave the world when it comes to Russia? The sanctions, everyone agrees, have been swift and far-reaching – and they are having a domino effect. Companies which could in theory continue operating, like McDonald’s or H&M, are pulling out. Nestlé, under pressure from Ukraine, has had to devise its own humanitarian exemptions, putting an end to the sale of KitKats in Russia but allowing sales of baby formula to continue. 

Everyday goods such as iPhones or Big Macs are no longer available. This may cause the population to reflect on why this has happened, but it’s unlikely to affect their basic survival. 

Nor will it affect “Putin’s war machine", which requires cash, and spare parts. The latter will be hard to get if they come from the US or the EU, but not if they come from India or China. And cash is still flowing, courtesy of Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and oil, for which it pays millions of euros a day.  

Both Moret and Svoboda make the point that sanctions are just one “tool in the toolbox”. But with Russia, where diplomacy is virtually non-existent and military intervention has been ruled out, they appear to be the only tool. And those who call for an immediate end to Europe’s use of Russian gas and oil argue that tool is weaker than it should be. 

What to watch for

As Moret pointed out on our recent Inside Geneva podcast, “We shouldn’t just think about sanctions as some kind of silver bullet that’s going to come in and sort out the situation.” 

Nevertheless, she adds that: “These sanctions are so unprecedented, it’s hard to see what the outcome will be, but they are certainly raising the cost of the war to Russia.” 

What we should be watching for because of sanctions, she believes, are not dramatic regime-toppling style changes, but smaller, “more nuanced” developments, wherein “parties come back to the negotiating table, or the war in Ukraine slows down because Russia is finding it difficult to fund the war”. 

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