The mechanism of economic sanctions: Changing
perceptions and euphemisms
20 March 2002 (Rev. November 2003)
“Economic sanctions”, a mode of coercion in international relations resuscitated in
recent years, has prompted renewed and lively scholarly interest in the subject. Why have
such measures become so popular? One answer is that they “constitute a means of
exerting international influence that is more powerful than diplomatic mediation but lies
below the threshold of military intervention”
Another answer is that “they engage
comparatively less internal political resistance than other candidate strategies [.
do not generate sombre processions of body bags bringing home the mortal remains of
the sons and daughters of constituents”
in other words, they cost little to the side
imposing the sanctions. The notable predilection by the United States for economic
suggests that such a tool is particularly useful for economically powerful
states that are themselves relatively immune to such measures.
This tool of collective economic coercion, with antecedents such as siege warfare and
blockade going back to biblical time [
], was used during most of the 20th Century,
particularly in war situations.
Although the United Nations Charter, drafted during the
later stages of World War II, includes provisions for the imposition of economic
sanctions (Article 41), the Security Council - empowered to resort to this tool - only used
it twice between 1945 and 1990, against Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977.
In our discussion we designate
sanctions as “coordinated restrictions on trade
and/or financial transactions intended to impair economic life within a given
To the extent that measures intend to impair “economic life within a
given territory” through restrictions on trade and/or finance, they constitute, for our
sanctions. Selective or individualized measures, such as restrictions on
specific goods (arms, luxury items, some forms of travel), are therefore not considered as
Symbolic economic deprivations, such as partial withholding of aid,
do not amount to economic sanctions if their intended effect is primarily to convey
displeasure, rather than to affect the economy.
Manfred Kulessa and Dorothee Starck,
Peace through sanctions?,
Policy Paper 7 of the
Development and Peace Foundation, Bonn, Germany, Presented at a Conference in Bonn, January
W. Michael Reisman,
Assessing the Lawfulness of Nonmilitary Enforcement: The Case of Economic
, ASIL Proceedings 1995,
Robert P. O’Quinn of the Heritage Foundation, writes in
A User's Guide to Economic Sanctions
(The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1126, 25 June 1997): “Since 1990.
.. the United States
has been far more willing to employ unilateral economic sanctions to achieve other foreign policy
objectives. During President Clinton's first term, U.S. laws and executive actions imposed new