Is the UN Security Council counterproductive

Domestic conflicts

Julia Grauvogel

is Senior Research Fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies. She is the spokesperson for the Interventions and Security research team. Her research interests include authoritarianism, legitimation strategies of non-democratic regimes and international sanctions.

Christian von Soest

Dr. Christian von Soest is Lead Research Fellow and head of the research focus "Peace and Security" at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA). He is also an employee of the GIGA office in Berlin. His research interests include international sanctions and interventions, authoritarianism, governance and statehood. His regional focus is southern Africa, especially South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations and governments in the West have increasingly been using international sanctions for conflict management. They are imposed to take action against breaches of international law, human rights violations, the development of weapons of mass destruction or terrorism.

February 26, 2018: The United Nations Security Council extends sanctions against Yemen, including an arms embargo. (& copy picture-alliance, Photoshot)

Sanctions are economic or political coercive measures that are imposed by international organizations, regional organizations or states against other states, groups or individuals who violate international norms or obligations. Prominent examples are the sanctions by Western states against Russia for the illegal annexation of Crimea and its role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as the coercive measures taken against the Assad government to end the war in Syria.

A wide variety of measures are summarized under the term sanctions:
  • Trade embargoes
  • Import and export restrictions
  • Financial controls
  • Investment restrictions
  • Stop arms deliveries
  • Suspension of development aid
  • diplomatic restrictions, e.g. expulsion of diplomats or breaking off diplomatic relations
  • targeted sanctions against individual persons ("black lists"), especially entry bans and account freezes
At the international level, the UN has a formal monopoly on the legitimate use of force and other coercive measures. Article 41 of the UN Charter provides that the UN Security Council can impose sanctions if there is a threat to peace and security in the world.

Regional organizations are also active on behalf of or in cooperation with the UN: In most cases, UN sanctions are combined with more extensive regional sanctions. As part of its common foreign and security policy, the EU imposes sanctions to deal with violent conflicts, especially in its immediate neighborhood. In its guidelines of 2002 it emphasizes that its restrictive measures must be "in accordance with international law" and must go hand in hand with "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms".

Particularly noteworthy is the African Union (AU), which has almost automatically imposed sanctions on the affected member state and the coup plotters in the event of unconstitutional transfers of power since the early 2000s. Regional African economic communities are also increasingly resorting to sanctions. In 2017, for example, the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) forced the long-standing Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to hand over power to his democratically elected successor under threat of sanctions and military intervention.

In principle, individual governments can also impose sanctions. As a rule, it is powerful states like the USA that use this means of coercion. This was particularly the case during the Cold War, when the UN Security Council was almost completely blocked.

Sanctions as a means of conflict management

To the extent that internal conflicts have become a central issue in international politics, sanctions are increasingly being used to influence the parties to the conflict. 59% of the UN sanctions since 1990 have been imposed in response to an armed conflict, 14% to combat terrorism, 11% for the proliferation of nuclear weapons and 10% to promote democracy (Biersteker, Eckert, and Tourinho 2016: 25). About a third of UN conflict sanctions since the end of the Cold War have focused on conflict between different countries, while two-thirds have aimed at ending civil wars, as in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Liberia and Lebanon.

The senders pursue very different purposes with sanctions and their threats (Hafner 2016: 394): the prevention of violence and the limitation of combat operations, compliance with international and human rights rules, the punishment of legal violations and the destabilization of states or individual organizations. If one considers this multitude of purposes systematically, sanctions fulfill three functions: They can force certain behavior, limit the scope of action of the sanctioned actors and send a certain signal (Giumelli 2011). Sanctions therefore not only serve as an instrument of coercion, but also to reinforce the norm of peaceful conflict resolution internationally. By means of sanctions, norm-violating states, organizations and individuals are publicly punished and other states are encouraged to behave in solidarity.

In response to internal and international conflicts, the UN usually first imposes an arms embargo. Arms embargoes are particularly popular because - unlike extensive trade restrictions - they are less costly for the sanctioning powers. In the case of the sanctions against Eritrea and Ethiopia (1999-2001), Yugoslavia (1991-1996) and Kosovo (1998-2001), the restrictions on arms imports by warring parties remained. In contrast, the arms embargoes against Liberia (2001-2003) and Côte d'Ivoire (from 2004) were part of a broader set of measures.

Whether and to what extent the UN Security Council issues sanctions in serious regional and global conflicts depends on the interests of its permanent members. This is currently particularly evident in relation to the war in Syria. Permanent Security Council members Russia and China have prevented decisions to sanction the Assad regime on several occasions. Moscow supports Assad and sees him as an important ally. Beijing fundamentally rejects sanctions that could lead to a regime change in another state. In contrast, the Security Council repeatedly imposed sanctions on the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, which all members perceived as a threat to international peace and security. In internal conflicts in which no central great power interests are affected, UN resolutions are more likely. This is often the case in sub-Saharan Africa - most UN resolutions apply to internal conflicts on the continent. Of the 21 states that have been sanctioned by the UN since 1991, often several times, 12 are in sub-Saharan Africa (Biersteker, Eckert and Tourinho 2016: 6, 19).

Compared to the UN, the USA and the EU use sanctions much more frequently to tackle abuse of power and human rights violations (Portela / von Soest 2012). Western states use sanctions to promote democracy and weaken autocratic regimes. They impose sanctions especially when dramatic events such as coups d'état or rigged elections suddenly bring the affected countries into the light of international attention and the chances of success appear high (von Soest / Wahman 2015). This applies in particular to authoritarian states that have already been weakened by domestic protests, a fragmented political elite or high inflation.

"Smart" sanctions against state and non-state actors

In the past, entire societies or economies - like the former apartheid regime in South Africa - were sanctioned. Nowadays the UN, but also the EU and the USA, only try to hit the government elite, their supporters and important economic sectors with targeted sanctions - also known as "smart sanctions". The trigger for this change of direction was the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the complete UN embargo against Iraq in the 1990s: While the Iraqis suffered from the economic crisis and the collapse of the health system, which was not least triggered by the sanctions, the then ruler Saddam Hussein intensified the repression of the Population and was even able to consolidate its power.

"Intelligent" sanctions are directed not only against state but increasingly also against non-state actors such as rebels or terrorist organizations. Prominent examples of this were the measures taken against UNITA in Angola and the RUF in Sierra Leone in the 1990s and 2000s. Both rebel groups had used the proceeds from the sale of "blood diamonds" to finance weapons and their military activities. The sanctions were aimed at preventing the trade in mineral resources. The individual UN sanctions against members of the terrorist group al-Qaeda are regarded as a current success. As in the case of the Islamic State (IS), international measures have severely restricted the funding and freedom of movement of these terrorist groups.

Recently, however, as in the case of the US and EU measures against the Syrian Assad regime, an expansion of sanctions has been observed, which can also affect broad sections of the population. In addition to the arms embargo and entry bans and account freezes for the Syrian regime elite, the West is relying on export bans, the suspension of aid payments and the restriction of financial transactions.

The ambiguous effect on domestic conflicts

The effects of sanctions are controversial. While a group of renowned US scientists came to the conclusion that sanctions were successful in a third of the cases (Hufbauer, Schott / Elliot 2007), others were much more pessimistic about their effectiveness. In any case, sanctions do not automatically contribute to a peaceful solution in armed conflicts. If they shift the balance of power between the civil war parties, they actually increase the likelihood of a military "elimination battle" rather than promoting a negotiated solution. This applies in particular to measures that only affect one party in the civil war. The UN sanctioned the former rebel groups UNITA in Angola and RUF in Sierra Leone, armed groups in the northeast of the DR Congo, Hutu militias from Rwanda and the Janjawid in Sudan, but not the governments of the countries.

Even the threat of sanctions can initially increase the intensity of a conflict, since all sides try to improve their position before sanctions make the fighting more difficult and delegitimize it internationally. But sanctions can also shorten the duration of the conflict if they limit the military and financial resources of the parties to the civil war. This is particularly successful when sanctions are imposed by multilateral organizations. The combination of sanctions with other instruments for conflict management, such as mediation and UN peace missions, tends to increase their effectiveness. In this regard, the sanctions against Liberia (2001-2003), which included an arms embargo, travel restrictions and an export ban on diamonds and tropical timber, are considered a success story. From the point of view of the then chairman of the UN sanctions committee, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the measures - together with the blue helmet mission - ensured security and political stability in the former civil war country and paved the way for negotiations and democratic elections (UN Security Council 2007, S / PV.5806). In contrast, the arms embargo imposed on Ethiopia and Eritrea between 2001 and 2003, which was not accompanied by other measures, proved to be largely ineffective.

Arms embargoes are a frequently used means of sanction, but their contribution to conflict management is questionable. This is mainly due to various problems in the implementation. In view of the weak statehood and porous borders in the sanctioned states and their neighboring countries, enforcement is difficult. In the past, UN peacekeeping missions often did not have the capacity or authority to monitor arms embargoes. However, a change in thinking can be observed. The blue helmets in the DR Congo and Côte d'Ivoire were given a more comprehensive mandate. Even if an arms embargo is successfully enforced, success is mostly limited to heavy combat equipment, while small arms continue to circulate unhindered.

Sanctions can even prove counterproductive by strengthening an authoritarian regime and weakening the democratic opposition. If rulers deliberately circumvent economic restrictions, use the emerging shadow economy in their favor and deliberately suppress political opponents, they can withstand external pressure. Politically, sanctions benefit the rulers above all if they succeed in portraying the measures as an attack on the entire country and thus conjuring up a wagon-castle mentality against the common external enemy (Grauvogel / von Soest 2014). The opposition, on the other hand, benefits from sanctions if the population, frustrated by the economic restrictions and motivated by external support, rebels against the regime. The external pressure of sanctions can also promote divisions in the regime elite if, for example, moderate members of the government feel encouraged by international pressure to break away from the ruling regime.


Biersteker, Thomas J. / Eckert, Sue E. / Tourinho, Marcos (2016): Targeted Sanctions. The Impacts and Effectiveness of United Nations Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giumelli, Francesco (2011): Coercing, Constraining and Signaling: Explaining UN and EU Sanctions after the Cold War, Essex: ECPR Press.

Grauvogel, Julia / Soest, Christian von (2014): Claims to Legitimacy Count: Why Sanctions Fail to Instigate Democratization in Authoritarian Regimes. European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 635-653.

Hafner, Gerhard (2016): Limits under international law and the effectiveness of sanctions against subjects of international law, in: Journal for foreign public law and international law, Vol. 76, pp. 391-413.

Hufbauer, Gary Clyde / Schott, Jeffrey J. / Elliott, Kimberley Ann / Oegg, Barbara (2007): Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, Washington, DC: Peterson Institute of International Economics.

Portela, Clara / Soest, Christian von (2012): GIGA Sanctions Dataset, GESIS Data Archive.

Soest, Christian von / Wahman, Michael (2015): Not All Dictators Are Equal: Coups, Fraudulent Elections, and the Selective Targeting of Democratic Sanctions, in: Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 17-31.


Dornblüth, Gesine / Pick Ulrich / Welter, Ursula (2018): Foreign policy instrument. How effective are sanctions? Deutschlandfunk, February 15, 2018.

European Council: Sanctions: when and how the EU applies restrictive measures.

European Council: World map and listing with all states sanctioned by the EU.