House of Commons Library

Do sanctions work?

Published Friday, June 5, 2015

There are now many analysts who argue that sanctions do work, partly because of their increasingly sophisticated design. However, evidence remains mixed at best. Politicians may be finding them useful for other things than their stated aim of causing 'rogue' countries to choose a different policy

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Sanctions have become increasingly popular as a tool in international relations and security policies. Partly as a result of the end of the Cold War, their use proliferated in the 1990s, so much so that it was labelled the ‘sanctions decade’.

Sanctions have also diversified in format, with the US taking the lead in devising ‘targeted sanctions’, which aimed at particular individuals or organisations, or particular sectors of a target country’s economy. In the case of financial sanctions, the importance of the US (and European) financial sector has been employed as a lever to try to influence behaviour.

Innovations like targeted sanctions were partly a response to the damage that broad sanctions can do to the wellbeing of ordinary citizens in a target country.

Whether either broad sanctions or targeted sanctions achieve their objectives is unclear. Analysts used to be united in agreeing that they generally don’t. But recently, a more complex approach to assessing their effectiveness, going hand-in-hand with the more complex design of the measures, has led some to change that view and argue that they can be effective.

A new approach is to argue that sanctions have other goals than simply to impose pain on the target country and force that country to choose a different policy. Sanctions can also unite allies and send signals to third parties, for example. And they are also useful because they allow politicians to do something, short of military action.

Many analysts view sanctions more favourably these days than used to be the case. This is partly because of a more complex idea of their purpose, and partly because the measures themselves are more complex than they used to be, and can be tailored to those more complex purposes.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7221

Author: Ben Smith

Topics: International economic relations, International politics and government

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