Moving Targets: The Evolution and Future of Smart Sanctions


Protestors demand an end to sanctions against Iraq in a 2002 march in Washington, DC. Photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The phrase “modern warfare” brings to mind high-tech weapons, pervasive surveillance, and murky borders — not necessarily economic policy. However, as the weapons, strategies, and key players in global conflicts have evolved, so too have coercive diplomatic tactics. Over the past two decades, various nations as well as the United Nations have implemented new sanctions policies, meant to modernize and improve upon old-fashioned, all-encompassing bans. These new policies, known as “smart” or “targeted” sanctions, aim to avoid the total economic collapse that comprehensive sanctions can cause. Yet, it remains unclear whether this goal has been achieved. Sanctions’ consequences for human rights and the legitimacy of multilateral organizations mean that this debate must be resolved sooner rather than later. Economic sanctions and the rise of targeted sanctions are extremely complex issues; however, it is possible to identify trends in how different sanction types, purposes, and effectiveness can affect the results of these policies. An exploration of the history, mechanisms, and consequences of smart sanctions suggests that the bulls-eye for these targeted policies is currently too broad. Still, smart sanctions should not be discarded altogether and may prove a much more effective diplomatic tool in the future.

The Rise of Smart Sanctions

In the mid-1990s, the world was shaken by humanitarian crises and wracked with guilt. Following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq. This supposedly non-violent alternative to military force resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe, according to the Global Policy Forum. The Security Council’s highly restrictive policies, coupled with a bombing campaign, choked Iraq’s economy. Food shortages, malnutrition, cholera, and typhoid riddled the nation, disproportionately and counter-productively harming Iraq’s most vulnerable and poorest citizens, who held no political power. People were forced to focus all of their attention on day-to-day survival. Moreover, Iraq’s Ministry of Trade, which doled out food rations, was perceived as the poorest citizens’ savior; the United Nations and the United States were viewed as agents of starvation, turning public opinion against the West. Thus, the comprehensive sanctions backfired, leaving a legacy of death, disease, and resentment rather than positive change.

The chaos in Iraq served as the final straw for a growing movement of concern about comprehensive sanctions. Leaders of the United Nations concluded that general economic sanctions disproportionately harmed powerless citizens and should be greatly avoided. Meanwhile, the terms “smart” and “targeted,” rich with connotations of precision, modernity, and effectiveness, gained traction on the world stage. As a result, beginning in 1994, “smart sanctions” became the United Nations’ reigning sanction policy. These sanctions are theoretically meant to maximize the target regime’s costs of noncompliance, while minimizing the general population’s suffering. They must hit the target government and its key domestic constituencies the hardest, while ideally sparing economic sectors that affect the population as a whole.


Data on child survival rates in Iraq show the devastating effect that sanctions had on the civilian population. The percentage of Iraqi infants who survived into childhood dropped by close to 10 percentage points. Graphic by Tglomer, using data from UNICEF. Photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The nature of targeted sanctions evolved quickly over the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Thomas Biersteker at the Watson Institute for International Studies. After the catastrophe in Iraq, the Security Council attempted to more narrowly target the regime of Raoul Cédras in an attempt to change the behavior of the Haitian government. The Security Council further narrowed its policies against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in 1997 and 1998: sanctions were levied against individuals and specific economic sectors such as the diamond trading and aviation industries. These sanctions proved relatively ineffective, because they were easy to evade. However, they set a precedent for sanctions the Security Council would pursue in the future, and illustrate the importance of identifying individuals whose assets would subsequently be frozen, a tactic that became popular in later years. In 2003, the Security Council began to explore the option of targeted sanctions for the purpose of implementing a peace settlement, tailoring a set of group-oriented sanctions in Liberia toward this purpose. All of these methods — sanctions against regimes and individuals, implemented in a variety of ways — have remained central to the philosophy of targeted sanctions. Throughout the rest of the decade, targeted sanctions further developed in both purpose and practice.

Control, Change, Communicate

Categorizing sanctions by their purposes and mechanisms allows for an analysis of their successes and failures.

The purposes of smart sanctions can be broken down into three main categories — coercion, constraint, and signaling — each with its own determinants of success and failure, according to a comprehensive report on 22 UNSC sanction regimes by the Targeted Sanctions Consortium. Coercion — forcing governments or actors to change or cease their behavior in order to comply with specific Security Council requests — is both the most ambitious and the most difficult goal. For instance, in 1999, the Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya in order to push the government to renounce terrorism by handing over two suspects. Coercion is most effective when the goals of behavior change are defined relatively narrowly. However, there are many ways coercion can fail, including leaving the potential for circumvention, failing to involve other key players in the region or to use special courts or tribunals, and providing insufficient resources for enforcement. Ideally, sanctions would be able to replace military action as a way to force countries to act more humanely, end nuclear regimes, or reform political systems. However, the limits of coercion mean that the constraint and signaling purposes of sanctions might prove more realistic in the long run.

Smart sanctions can also be used to constrain regimes and organizations. By limiting access to resources or transportation, countries can reduce targets’ ability to engage in certain behaviors, or limit their reach to currently affected regions and constituencies. For instance, the 2003 sanctions in Liberia sought to impose financial constraints on certain individuals in order to lessen their potential influence during a period of transitional government.

Since these types of sanctions do not seek to directly manipulate behavior but rather attempt to limit the range of possible behavior, they are more likely to be successful, especially when they target specific parties within a conflict, such as terrorist groups or individuals. Furthermore, since these sanctions aim to limit rather than dictate one group’s behavior, they are often less extreme than those with the purpose of coercion and are less likely to affect a broad slice of the population.

Finally, signaling sanctions are meant to clearly flag countries that deviate from international norms and standards. In Angola in 1999, for example, the UNSC publicly named officials who had undermined other sanctions and implemented stronger monitoring mechanisms for sanction violations for the purpose of stigmatizing UNITA, because of its deviations from international norms. These sanctions are often the first type of threat or action imposed, and are most effective when other peacekeeping operations are present, the Security Council is simultaneously supporting a democratic or otherwise peaceful government, and key leaders and their families are explicitly targeted through policies like travel bans or commodity sanctions.

Coercion, constraint, and signaling are widely accepted purposes of “smart” sanctions. But given the ambitious goals of sanctions programs, how targeted can these sanctions truly be? While the comprehensive sanctions of the last century have been condemned, and policies as broad as those in 1990s Iraq can no longer be legally implemented, sanctions can never fully avoid affecting the general population. The most pressing problem, then, is finding ways to ensure that this effect is minimized — that sanctions truly deserve the name “smart,” rather than simply “narrow.” Until now, the Security Council’s and individual nations’ success has been modest at best. An exploration of the ways in which sanctions are implemented reveals a variation in the size of targets, which can result in a wider-than-ideal impact.

The Spectrum of Sanctions

As well as categorization by purpose, targeted sanctions can be categorized by method, according to the High Level Review of UN Sanctions. Individual sanctions — when leaders, leaders’ families, and other key players have their assets frozen or are placed under a travel ban — are the most targeted type of sanctions and carry the least risk of unintended consequences for the broader population. Next, diplomatic sanctions, such as travel limits for diplomats, the closing of embassies, or a revised visa policy, are similar to individual sanctions but are applied to larger groups of people. Sectoral sanctions are somewhat broader, targeting sections of the economy or government. Sectoral sanctions include arms import embargoes and export bans, aviation restrictions, and shipping sanctions. Next, commodity sanctions are restrictions on the trade and production of products such as diamonds, charcoal, oil, and luxury goods; these sanctions can have implications for the economy as a whole. Finally, financial sector sanctions impact diverse economic sectors and citizens; these sanctions include curbing the actions of investment bans and freezing the assets of central banks. While they are still more targeted than a comprehensive condemnation of a country, sectoral, commodity, and financial sector sanctions can directly affect large swathes of the population. Furthermore, while individual sanctions are narrow in scope, the actions individuals might take to evade those sanctions, such as a reliance on black markets or safe havens, can affect citizens without significant political power and render the sanctions ineffective. Targeted sanction policies often include a combination of several of these strategies. On the whole, then, the targets of sanctions are often much wider than the sanction’s name suggests. Can these sanctions truly be deemed “smart”?

Are Smart Sanctions Wise? Perspectives from Iran and Libya

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, US and UN sanctions on Iran reveal the ways in which the terms “smart” and “targeted” do not necessarily represent the true nature of policies. Initially, US and UN sanctions “targeted” Iran’s oil and gas industries in an attempt to undermine the development of an Iranian nuclear program. However, oil and gas account for a full quarter of Iran’s economy, so shrinking these sectors adversely impacted the livelihood of many citizens. UN sanctions also targeted a bank, Bank Mellat, and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which facilitated financial transactions for military entities and transport of military cargo, respectively. However, Bank Mellat was one of the biggest banks overall in Iran, and IRISL was the largest shipping line, raising similar concerns about the repercussions of these supposedly targeted sanctions for the bulk of the population. Such a strategy could well have stirred up anti-American sentiment, similar to the earlier case in Iraq. Furthermore, throughout the past decade, Iran has managed to evade sanctions in a number of ways, including using the black market, trading with countries including Russia, China, Turkey, and India, and making adjustments to the economy, according to the Middle East Policy Council. These adjustments have allowed the regime to sustain its power and legitimacy. Overall, sanctions in Iran, though intended to target specific companies and sectors, fell short of the goal of maximizing impact on those in power while minimizing impact on the general population. The United States and United Nations lifted economic sanctions on January 16, 2016, leaving them with a questionable record of achievement.

Iran Talks. Abschluss Iran Verhandlungen. UNO. Wien, 14.07.2015, Foto: Dragan Tatic

Foreign ministers from China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union meet with the Iranian nuclear negotiation team to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. Photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

In contrast, sanctions on Libya in the early 1990s are hailed as a success story for targeted sanctions. Beginning in 1992, multilateral sanctions were imposed on Libya’s arm sales, aviation, and foreign assets — relatively contained targets. Ultimately, Libya ended its support for terrorism and gave up its nuclear program, both stated goals of the sanction policies. Furthermore, sanctions did not ban the sale of oil, only the import of equipment necessary for extracting and transporting it, which helped lessen the impact of sanctions on the average citizen. However, it is unclear how much of this success can be attributed to the sanctions themselves, as opposed to other diplomatic methods and Muammar Qaddafi unpredictability. Moreover, while the effects were not as drastic as those in Iraq, the average quality of life did significantly decrease in Libya during the period of sanctions. Therefore, sanctions in Libya were more targeted, and more successful, than those in Iraq and Iran. But their failure to fully spare the general population and their questionable clout still raises doubts about the effects of smart sanctions.

A Broader Look at Efficacy

As the cases of Iran and Libya illustrate, targeted sanctions often fall short of their lofty goals. Analysis by the TSC has found that the overall success rate of targeted sanctions, assessed based on whether the policy goal was achieved and if the sanction played a major role in achievement, is just 22 percent. Sanctions are more effective in signaling or constraining a target — with 27 percent and 28 percent efficacy, respectively — than coercing a change in behavior, where full success is achieved only 10 percent of the time. The type and number of sanction mechanisms imposed has a significant impact on success: while UN sanction regimes use an average of three types of sanctions (for instance, the typical combination of arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze), the average for effective sanctions is closer to four. Effective outcomes were never produced with the use of fewer than three types of sanctions. Finally, arms embargoes are the most common type of sanction. They are never effective on their own, but are present in all effective cases, so they appear to be important, though only when paired with other methods. Asset freezes, commodity sanctions, and transportation bans are common and relatively effective as well.

The low rate of success is the result of several factors. Regimes are still often able to evade sanctions and avoid the full effect. Black markets, trade diversions, safe havens, strategic reserves, and economic adjustments allow leaders to avoid the consequences of sanctions or pass them on to the general population. In addition, UN sanctions often lack the speed and force necessary to produce meaningful change: on average, the Security Council takes 14 months to impose targeted sanctions, leaving regimes plenty of time to proactively adjust.

Most importantly, targeted sanctions are plagued by unintended consequences, found in 91 percent of cases. These consequences include virtually unavoidable impacts on a country’s overall economy or political structure, higher corruption and criminality, the strengthening of authoritarian rule, greater political splintering, humanitarian costs, and unintended harms to neighboring countries. For instance, an arms embargo increases the costs of procuring weapons, potentially forcing government to devote more of its resources to weapons and therefore leaving those who rely on other areas of public spending worse off. Travel sanctions can affect the availability of food and medicine. All of these consequences affect the general population, particularly those without any political power — exactly the citizens that targeted sanctions aim to spare. An increase in corruption as well as in humanitarian crises also reflects poorly on the United Nations, costing the organization credibility in future conflicts. These consequences can undermine the purposes of sanctions, and sometimes worsen the situation.

The future of targeted sanctions can appear bleak. They may not actually be very targeted; they still hurt the general population while rarely achieving their purposes. Yet the strategy of targeted sanctions should not be discarded. Many of the problems with targeted sanctions stem from the fact that they still target too broadly: while national banks or shipping companies, for instance, are single entities, they clearly impact the entire country. In contrast, sanctions that target individuals or very small groups could have greater success in maximizing impact on leaders while sparing the general population. Additionally, if sanctions are implemented more quickly, with greater multilateral support, many evasion tactics could be eliminated. Tactics like secondary sanctions — sanctions on other countries that aid the problematic country — are rarely implemented. However, they were used against Liberia in support of peace in Sierra Leone, and against Eritrea for a similar situation in Somalia, and in both cases were very effective. This policy might warrant a second look. Furthermore, as TSC data suggests, increasing the number, though not necessarily the scope, of sanctioning mechanisms can make success more likely. Finally, when the purposes of sanctions are narrowed along with their targets, greater success could be achieved. Coercion, at least for the moment, is an unrealistic goal for targeted sanctions, but constraint and signaling are more achievable aims. A narrower focus along with narrower targets could serve to increase success rates, prevent unintended consequences, and preserve the image of the United Nations.

Finally, although sanctions are far from a cure-all, it is important to remember that they are a valuable alternative to more traditional methods of war, where casualties are certain. As the catastrophe in Iraq demonstrates, sanctions can rob civilians of their livelihoods, and even their lives. But, in theory and in practice, they are a more humane approach than bombs and weapons, while more forceful than verbal reprimands alone. Thus, to avoid a descent into disastrous violence or ineffective negotiation, economic sanctions must be kept on the table.

Ultimately, the United Nations’ instinct to transition to narrower, deeper sanctions is justified, but “targeted” sanctions are still too broad. Quicker sanctions that are oriented towards individuals and small groups can help eliminate evasion tactics, while sanctions that aim to constrain rather than coerce can maintain the credibility of the United Nations. Finally, a move away from sectoral and financial sanctions to individual, diplomatic, and even secondary sanctions can lessen the impact of unintended consequences on the general population. A narrowing of purposes and of targets will allow sanctions to become “smart” not only in name but also in truth.

About Author

Laura Kanji

Laura Kanji is a staff writer for the Harvard International Review. She contributes to both the Features and the Global Notebook/World in Review sections of the magazine.