In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0032


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).

General Overviews

Sanctions have, not surprisingly, undergone major developments in the 20th and early 21st centuries. A historical overview can be found in Doxey 1996. The first use of sanctions as an alternative to armed force and coordinated through an international organization were the League of Nations sanctions imposed to punish Japanese and Italian expansionism. The major change that has occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s is the development of targeted sanctions, namely financial and travel sanctions imposed on a person or group (see Brzoska 2003). Three useful anthologies covering different aspects of the subject are Cortright and Lopez 2000, Cortright and Lopez 2002, and Wallensteen and Staibano 2005. Sanctions can also include export/import or investment restrictions and can be directed against an industry, such as the arms or internal security industry, an activity (e.g., research in the production of nuclear power), or a commodity (e.g., trade in high-value goods such as diamonds, oil, or timber). A critical review of the efficacy of sanctions can be found in Rudolf 2007 and a historical perspective of the subject in Wallensteen 2011. Eriksson 2011 provides a useful scholarly summary of the present state of the debate.

  • Brzoska, Michael. “From Dumb to Smart? Recent Reforms of UN Sanctions.” Global Governance 9.4 (2003): 519–535.

    An easy-to-read overview of how the UN practice on targeted sanctions has developed.

  • Cortright, David, and George A. Lopez. The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

    An anthology covering different aspects of (primarily) post-1990 sanctions, including case studies.

  • Cortright, David, and George Lopez, eds. Smart Sanctions: Targeting Economic Statecraft. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

    Another anthology with different articles on the theory and practice of targeted financial sanctions, travel sanctions, and arms embargoes, offering recommendations for improving their design and implementation.

  • Doxey, Margaret Pamela. International Sanctions in Contemporary Perspective. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

    Doxey provides a useful introduction to the subject up until the early 1990s, beginning with the League of Nations sanctions.

  • Eriksson, Mikael. Targeting Peace: Understanding UN and EU Targeted Sanctions. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    This book builds on the author’s academic dissertation. Pages 9–42 provide a good summary of the sanctions debate.

  • Rudolf, Peter. Sanctions in International Relations: On the Current State of Research. SWP Research Paper 6. Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2007.

    The author analyzes critically the claims made relating to the efficacy of economic sanctions and provides bibliographical references. He notes that sanctions are often mistaken for strategies rather than what they are: a tool. He argues that when assessing sanctions one must look at whether the overall political strategy, of which sanctions are an integral part (or at least should be) favor or hamper their effectiveness.

  • Wallensteen, Peter. Peace Research: Theory and Practice. Routledge Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution Series. London: Routledge, 2011.

    Wallensteen provides a good overview of the transformation in sanctions. The author tentatively identifies thirty-year cycles in sanctions debates and analyzes the phenomenon from different perspectives (sender, target, and international systems). See, especially, pp. 183–205.

  • Wallensteen, Peter, and Carina Staibano, eds. International Sanctions: Between Words and Wars in the Global System. London: Frank Cass, 2005.

    An anthology taking a wide view of the subject. It examines different aspects of post-1990 sanctions, including case studies, and focuses on improvements that have been, and should be, made in design and implementation.

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