The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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Sanctions (Diplomatic, Economic, or Military)

Sanctions may be imposed against a State or a non-state actor (individual, rebel movement, political party) that does not respect its international commitments or when its behavior infringes on or threatens the international public order.

Sanctions are a means of coercion that may be political, economic, or military, ranging from arms embargoes to import quotas or interruption of diplomatic relations. They may be imposed by one State against another (unilateral sanctions) or by a group of States in the framework of an international organization such as the UN (collective sanctions).

Unilateral Sanctions

States may try to resolve their differences by resorting to diplomatic or economic sanctions. However, they can also submit their disputes to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration or to regional bodies, such as the Court of Justice of the European Union. Although these judgments represent a legal ruling and are binding on the States concerned, they do not pronounce any criminal sanctions. The only enforcement mechanism in case of state failure to abide by an ICJ judgment depends on a UN Security Council voting coercive decision to enforce the ruling (Art. 94.2 of the UN Charter).

Collective Sanctions

The UN Charter establishes a system of collective security that regulates the pacific settlement of disputes among States. If these mechanisms fail, the UN Charter’s Chapter VII (Arts. 39–51) foresees the possibility of imposing collective sanctions on individual States or non-state actors, in case of “threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” The aim is to pressure the State or non-state entity in question into changing its behavior.

In such cases, the Security Council may adopt certain coercive measures, which must be respected by all UN Member States. Before resorting to military or diplomatic sanctions, which are to be used only in exceptional circumstances, the UN Charter sets forth measures that do not involve armed force. The Security Council can hence adopt mandatory measures to implement economic sanctions that may be selective or limited (embargo on weapons exports, freezing of financial assets, prohibition from traveling, economic embargoes).

The sanctions foreseen by the UN Charter are, in the order of increasing gravity: the complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, radio, or other means of communication; the interruption of diplomatic relations; and armed intervention.

Humanitarian Exemptions

In the case of a “total embargo” on all forms of economic trade, humanitarian relief is always exempt from such restriction.

The UN, or the regional organization that imposed the embargo, sets up a Sanctions Committee to monitor the implementation and effects of the embargo or sanctions and to rule on exemptions.

Collective securityEmbargoInternational Court of JusticePeacekeepingPublic orderSanctions CommitteesSecurity Council of the UN

For Additional Information: Decaux, Emmanuel. “The Definition of Traditional Sanctions: Their Scope and Characteristics.” International Review of the Red Cross 870 (June 2008): 249–57.

La Rosa, Anne-Marie. “Sanctions as a Means of Obtaining Greater Respect for Humanitarian Law: A Review of Their Effectiveness.” International Review of the Red Cross 870 (June 2008): 221–47.

Minear, Larry. “The Morality of Sanctions.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 229–50. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Renault, Celine. “The Impact of Military Disciplinary Sanctions on Compliance with International Humanitarian Law.” International Review of the Red Cross 870 (June 2008): 319–26.

“Sanctions.” International Review of the Red Cross 870 (June 2008): 209–479.

Segall, Anna. “Economic Sanctions: Legal and Policy Constraints.” International Review of the Red Cross 836 (December 1999): 763–84.

Weiss, Thomas G., David Cortright, George A. Lopez, and Larry Minear. Political Gain and Civilian Pain: Humanitarian Impacts of Economic Sanctions . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.