In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Sanctions

  • International Sanctions
  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Efficacy of Economic Sanctions
  • The Iraq Sanctions and their Aftermath
  • Developments in the Sanctions Instrument: The Design and Implementation of Targeted Sanctions
  • Legal Regimes Applicable to Sanctions
  • UN Sanctions
  • Sanctions and Terrorist Funding
  • Overviews and Critical Analyses of US Sanctions Legislation
  • Overviews and Critical Analyses of EU Sanctions
  • Judicial Challenges to Sanctions in US Courts
  • EU Autonomous Sanctions: Legal Challenges

International Law International Sanctions
Iain Cameron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0032

This article was revised by Iain Cameron and Anton Moiseienko on May 26th, 2021. The revised version can be found here.


There is no authoritative definition in international relations of sanction. One commonly used definition is the “deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of customary trade or financial relations” (Hufbauer, et al. 2007, p. 3; cited under Efficacy of Economic Sanctions). The purpose of sanctions can vary but generally can be said to pressurize the target to comply with the sanctioner’s demands. This definition focuses on economic measures and excludes punitive diplomatic and political measures, on the one hand, and military measures, on the other. This definition also excludes private measures of boycott and other such actions. Powerful states, particularly the United States and the European Union (EU), tend to impose economic sanctions, and these are usually coordinated. The United States and the European Union also try to secure UN Security Council approval for their sanctions. Under international law, the prescriptive regimes applicable for sanctions differ depending on whether the sanction is ordered by the UN Security Council. The “withdrawal of customary economic relations” covers a spectrum of activities, from a general halting of trade (“embargo”), to different types of measure directed against a particular part or sector of a state. Empirically, sanctions cannot always be easily separated from military force, as they can be part of a policy of containment or combined military/economic response or used as a prelude to military intervention to convince domestic and/or international public opinion that “everything has been tried.” Much of the international relations literature on sanctions has focused on the issue of effectiveness. The subject has been transformed by the use since the late 1990s of “targeted” or “smart” sanctions. These are measures that seek to “impose coercive pressures on specific individuals and entities and that restricts selective products or activities, while minimizing unintended economic and social consequences for vulnerable populations and innocent bystanders” (Cortright and Lopez 2002, p. 2; cited under General Overviews). Targeted sanctions have radically altered the discussion on effectiveness. Moreover, a sanction focused on an individual raises starker issues of human and constitutional rights. Legal issues are thus now more in view: unilateral and UN sanctions have been challenged in national and international courts. Last, a subject not usually seen as part of international sanctions but rather as the law of international organizations is disciplinary measures directed against a member of an organization that is considered to be breaching the rules (e.g., World Trade Organization [WTO] “countermeasures” authorized by the WTO by one member against another member).

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