University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

George A. Lopez

United Nations Security Council sanctions continue to be used frequently to address a range of peace and conflict issues, from nuclear nonproliferation to the prevention and settlement of armed conflict. UN sanctions have also been utilized for atrocity prevention purposes, as illustrated in the cases of Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. In this essay I describe the sanctions policy instruments available for atrocity prevention and discuss the requirements for making sanctions work more effectively.

Sanctions have different applicability whether the target is a repressive national government, with officials who work for or support that government as individuals (and are thus judged responsible for atrocities), or the target concerns nonstate actors in violent extremist groups, death squads and militias. Below are some of the specific policy measures that can be applied as part of a political strategy to prevent mass atrocity crimes.

  • Freezing foreign financial assets of a national government, designated regime members in that government, or persons recognized as key supporters or enablers of that regime.
  • Suspension of credits, aid and loans available to national governments from international financial institutions.
  • Denying access to overseas financial markets and especially banks, both to governments and to individual officials within governments.
  • Arms embargoes and other measures that deny or control access to specific goods that enable power holders to conduct repressive activities, focusing on the most frequently traded and income-producing commodities, such as weapons, computers and communications technologies.
  • Travel bans and denial of flights for designated individuals and specific air carriers.
  • Denial of visa, travel and educational opportunities to designated individuals.

In all of these types of targeted sanctions, measures are applied against specific targeted individuals or entities deemed responsible for atrocities. The Security Council typically adopts some or all of these measures and applies them to those on the designee list. The Council and its subsidiary organs develop designee lists based on the names of individuals and entities submitted by member states.

Research indicates that the success rate for targeted sanctions of this nature is approximately 33 percent. Sanctions are most effective when they involve coordinated efforts by the Security Council and when combined with diplomatic initiatives.

UN sanctions have the advantage of requiring all member states and the international community to comply with the approved measures. Because the Security Council is a political body, however, it often takes considerable time to mobilize, legislate and implement sanctions. This limits the effectiveness of these measures since even a rumor of UN action is often enough to spark potential targets to move or hide their assets or begin to produce false companies, passports and bank records in order to circumvent the impact of sanctions.

Sanctions work more effectively when they are combined with a range of diverse policy tools to achieve a larger set of strategic objectives. The policy aims need to be clear, consistent and well-articulated so that they are fully understood by the target and by the countries charged with implementing them.

Policymakers who impose sanctions must be sufficiently nimble to adapt to changing circumstances, such as the emergence of a new support group or enabling system, or changes in the targets. An example might be the defection of a high-ranking individual who has been placed on the sanctions list, as occurred when UN measures were applied against Libya in 2011. In such circumstances sanctions act as an incentive to change the behavior of targeted decision makers and encourage the withdrawal of political support from the repressive regime. For this process to unfold, it may be necessary to lift sanctions quickly on those who defect, sending a clear signal of support for other regime supporters to follow suit.

When sanctions fail, it is often because the declared policy goals lack clarity and are overshadowed by other policy objectives. In these circumstances sanctions become the policy rather than a means of exerting influence. This was the case with U.S. and UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, when sanctions were maintained even after the Baghdad regime complied with most UN policy objectives. Maintaining sanctions became the objective, rather than using sanctions in an effective way to achieve larger strategic goals.

Finally, sanctions work not only when they enrage the targets, but engage them in a process of dialogue and diplomatic bargaining. Sanctions which are excessively punitive and which aim to isolate the target without reference to broader policy objectives frequently fail to achieve success. Sanctions are most likely to succeed when they provide a framework for bargaining and for exploring political solutions that resolve underlying political disputes and bring perpetrators of mass violence to justice.

* An earlier version of this essay appeared in the policy brief, “Tools, tasks and tough thinking: Sanctions and R2P,” Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, October 3, 2013,

George A. Lopez is Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.