United Nations sanctions

Use of sanctions

Like the use of armed force, Security Council sanctions come under Chapter VII of the Charter on “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression”. The use of sanctions, explicitly provided for under Article 41, allows the Security Council to ask UN Members to apply coercive measures in order to give effect to its decisions and thus contribute to maintaining peace and international security. The different sanctions regimes adopted by the Security Council are thus effectively political instruments aimed at maintaining peace and security.

In practice, sanctions aim to apply political pressure of material constraint upon a player. Since the very first measures against South Rhodesia in 1966, then against South Africa in 1970, the Security Council has increasingly employed the sanctions instrument in increasingly varied situations, including intervention in armed conflict, breaking down barriers to political processes, combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and counter-terrorism.

As of 2013, there are thirteen ongoing Security Council sanctions regimes, against Al-Qaeda, North Korea, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia (including with regard to Eritrea and piracy), Sudan and the Taliban. In several of the countries concerned, a gradual Security Council process is underway to lift the sanctions, thus illustrating that these measures have a precautionary purpose supporting a political process, and that they need to be adjusted regularly based on the situation on the ground.

Increasingly targeted and tailored sanctions

Alongside their increasing scale, the terms of sanctions have evolved. Since the embargo adopted against Iraq in the early 1990s, they have been gradually be targeted either against people and entities (public or private), or against identified materials (such as dual-use items, weapons and natural resources). It was in 1993, in the framework of the sanctions regime against Angola that the Security Council first targeted a non-State entity (UNITA). Since 1999, Al-Qaeda has been the subject of a specific sanctions regime, established by resolution 1267.

Sanctions are most often standardized, such as embargoes on weapons and sensitive items, travel bans and asset freezes. They have thus grown more effective, aimed at depriving parties of their means of action and resources (embargo on weapons in a conflict, ban on transactions linked to proliferation, freezing of assets in the framework of counter-terrorism, embargo on resources financing the parties in a conflict, etc.) or, more generally, to exercise pressure on a party to encourage it to cooperate in the ongoing political settlement process.

Sanctions Committees and Groups of Experts, key instruments for effective sanctions implementation

In order to ensure effective implementation of sanctions by United Nations Members, the Security Council now decides increasingly systematically to create a Sanctions Committee. These Committees are subsidiary bodies of the Security Council, including all Council Members. It most often has three main roles, fulfilled in the framework of Council decisions.

  • selecting the persons, entities and items that should be subject to sanctions, or, conversely, hear requests for removal from sanctions lists that are addressed to it. It thus supplements and updates sanctions lists that have been established by the Security Council itself;
  • supervising implementation of sanctions adopted by the Security Council: each Sanctions Committee collates and controls the information that United Nations Members must send to it on the steps taken to implement the sanctions. If necessary, the Committee directly contacts States that are particularly concerned by these issues. Committees are also responsible for monitoring adverse effects of sanctions, particularly in humanitarian matters, and managing any exemptions stipulated by the Security Council;
  • clarifying terms of sanctions implementation: Sanctions Committees may reply to questions asked by Members on the practical implementation of sanctions or, by its own initiative, address general interpretation guidelines to Members concerning Security Council decisions. The Security Council and Sanctions Committees may, where stipulated by the sanctions regime, draw on the work of an independent Group of Experts. These experts are appointed by the UN Secretariat and supervise the implementation of sanctions and developments in the situation in the country with regard to sanctions and the goals attached to them by the Security Council. They may produce recommendations to improve the effectiveness of sanctions. Their reports are to be made public.

As sanctions regimes have developed, it has become necessary to establish procedures that respect the rights of the persons and entities targeted by sanctions. Resolutions 1730 and 1822, adopted in 2006 and 2008 respectively, strengthen the procedural safeguards applicable to listed individuals and require grounds for the sanctions, clear information for listed persons and regular updating of the list for all sanctions regimes. Concerning regime 1267 (sanctions against Al-Qaeda), resolution 1904, which was adopted in 2009, created the position of a Mediator to facilitate exchanges between the person or entity requesting removal from the list and the Sanctions Committee.

Effectiveness of sanctions

UN sanctions have achieved significant results, including in Angola, Iraq, Liberia, Libya and South Africa. In counter-terrorism, travel bans and asset freezes help disrupt the activities of terrorist groups and their support networks. In the fight against proliferation, sanctions against Iraq stopped Saddam Hussein’s regime from restarting its weapons of mass destruction programmes.

However, the question of the effectiveness of regimes adopted by the Security Council must remain a constant concern, if only because new ways of circumventing these measures are found regularly. Within the Security Council and the Sanctions Committees, France thus works for their rigorous implementation and constant adaptation. Above all, it works to ensure that these measures remain enshrined in a wider political and diplomatic strategy. The effectiveness of sanctions cannot be assessed in isolation from the other measures adopted by the Security Council, which must be mutually supportive: combating impunity, political settlement process, peacekeeping, etc.

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updated : 24.12.13