The effectiveness of international sanctions as a political tool was recently recognised when the international community were able to agree a deal with Iran whereby Iran agreed to work with the international community, on its nuclear programme, in return for some relief from crippling economic sanctions.
The growing prominence of international sanctions is evident from three recent examples. First, sanctions imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Second, the European Union has put in place a sanctions regime against Russia following the events in Crimea. Thirdly, the United Nations escalated and imposed tough sanctions against North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile tests.
Whilst sanctions have achieved their desired result in the case of Iran, many see sanctions imposed on Qatar and on North Korea as a failure. Thus the question arises- why have sanctions been successful in one instance but not in case of others?
Sanctions are usually effective when a sizable number of countries work collectively, and impose similar economic sanctions on a country so as to compel the so called guilty country to comply with international norms. The objective behind imposing economic sanctions is often to isolate a particular country from the global economy, thereby restricting its ability to trade.
The most effective scenario is for sanctions to be imposed through a resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council. This is because it imposes an obligation on all members of the United Nations to give effect to that Resolution. Since the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) have a right to veto a United Nations Security Council Resolution, it is usually difficult to agree a sanctions regime at that level. The next best option is for a group of like-minded countries to come together, discuss and impose similar sanctions, through national legislation, against the so called rogue state. The least desirable option is for a country or a group of small countries, in terms of their respective economies, to act alone without support of the international community.
It could be argued that the sanctions regime against Qatar has failed to achieve its desired result as it does not have the international backing as seen in case of Iran and North Korea. One could describe the sanctions regime against Qatar as being a regional sanctions regime as opposed to an international sanctions regime as it lacks participation by influential countries such as United States, United Kingdom, Russia, India and China. A lack of international consensus has allowed Qatar to minimise the economic impact, intended to be caused by sanctions, as it left open loopholes allowing it to reroute its trade.
As the key idea behind imposing sanctions is to exert economic pressure on a country, to force it to change its policy, a sanctions regime must be well thought out and cleverly crafted.
In today’s global economy, countries have various means, opportunities and options for trade. International consensus is key to an effective sanctions regime as it is absolutely essential to plug all or any gaps which may allow a country to reroute its trade. It is akin to a game of chess where one has to contemplate the other-sides’ next move with the intention of achieving a checkmate i.e. leaving nowhere to go for your opponent and in the case of a rogue nation, to put them in a corner economically, until they agree to comply with terms of the imposing nations.
Another factor which has significant bearing on whether sanctions can put pressure on a country to comply with international norms, is the political system of the sanctioned country. An unintended but common feature of a sanctions regime is its impact on the ordinary citizens of the sanctioned country. In a democracy, a sanctions regime could persuade people to vote for a government which is willing to engage and work with the international community, thereby making way for a shift in policy. In contrast, in a country ruled by a single party or an autocratic system, people are devoid of the right to dictate or change the country’s policy. In such countries, sanctions are usually perceived to be less effective as the power is vested with a few rich and powerful people. One could therefore argue that the political system in North Korea is one of the main factors due to which sanctions have not had their intended effect despite widespread international consensus against the activities of North Korea.
It is encouraging to see the widespread use of sanctions as a means to induce a nation to resolve disputes through dialogue. Even though at times sanctions do have the unintended effect of affecting lives of ordinary citizens, it would be fair to say that they are, any day, a better alternative to war in resolving disputes.