University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Since the end of the Cold War, economic sanctions have become an essential instrument of global and national foreign policy, imposed to end civil wars and thwart nuclear proliferation, mass atrocities, and terrorism. But over the past decade sanctions have become entangled in at least eight major humanitarian disasters. In the cases of Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sanctions have failed to stifle massive violence or maintain the socio-economic condition of civilians. In other cases, like Venezuela, unilateral sanctions have contributed to significant deterioration of the socio-economic life of innocent civilians.

In its mid-October 2021 U.S. Treasury Review of sanctions policy, the Biden Administration outlined its intention to develop a new, more humane, yet effective approach to economic statecraft, explicitly committing to mitigate negative humanitarian impacts of sanctions

As welcome as the stated principles may be after years of draconian sanctions, the review proposes no concrete steps to mitigate these negative results, nor is there mention of employing more proactive diplomacy or other measures in conjunction with sanctions. Also neglected is the strategy of deploying creative incentives, in the form of sanctions relief, to stimulate agreement about changed behavior in the targeted regime. That formula has been especially successful in counter-proliferation bargaining and has been essential to U.S. security.

The three essays in this issue of Peace Policy could not be more timely. They provide research findings on the humanitarian impacts of U.S. sanctions in Venezuela, Iran, and Syria. Distilled from newly released reports on the three cases, the essays present evidence of significant hardships for ordinary civilians resulting from the effects of sanctions and the flawed economic policies of the targeted regimes. Also examined are impediments to humanitarian relief efforts in the three countries and the challenge of trying to pay for food and medical supplies in the context of sanctions-related restrictions on international financing.

In the era of COVID-19, sanctions relief is a humanitarian obligation.

Although written independently, the three reports recommend similar policies for easing civilian hardships. They urge the United States to enlarge humanitarian exceptions to sanctions and establish special financing mechanisms for the purchase of designated medical supplies and other civilian goods. For Venezuela and Iran, the authors recommend ‘oil-for-goods’ arrangements in which limited oil sales would be permitted for the purchase of humanitarian goods, under strict international monitoring and control.

The three essays also agree on the need for strategic policy reform in the use of sanctions. Sanctions should be used as negotiating tools, the authors write, not as instruments of punishment. The U.S. should be prepared to offer specific measures of sanction relief in response to concrete action for incremental policy change by the respective targeted regimes.

Going forward, the Biden Administration faces two continuing dilemmas when imposing sanctions: what is the calculus regarding the level of economic pain it is willing to inflict on civilians in order to attain specific political gains? And, if relief is provided to civilians, how is it possible to hold the targeted actors accountable for their transgressions, which often also victimize innocent citizens? We hope this issue of Peace Policy stimulates new responses to these difficult questions.

The humanitarian and policy challenges of sanctions are greatest in the three cases examined in this issue. The analyses and policy recommendations offered by the authors provide a smart springboard for more humane sanctions and a foundation for serious and effective sanctions reform.

For more resources on these topics, visit the newly refreshed website for the Sanctions and Security Research Project, a joint effort of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Fourth Freedom Forum.

David Cortright is Director of the Global Policy Initiative and Special Advisor for Policy Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. He is also Professor Emeritus of the Practice at the Kroc Institute. George A. Lopez is the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute. Together, they founded the Sanctions and Security Research Project.