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 are part of the measures allowed by international law for the peaceful settlement of disputes between states. They are not considered as an act of belligerence or war. They 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 non-military means of coercion that may be applied in various domain such as diplomatic, economic, or cultural relations between states. They materialize in decisions ranging from arms embargoes to other trade, finance or travel restriction, 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 United Nations (UN) (collective sanctions). Historically, sanctions were used mainly against a State with the view to put a maximum pressure on State authorities toward a regime change. To limit their wide impact on the population they have become targeted to focus on groups and individuals acting as a prominent member of a state apparatus. Sanctions have more recently been applied to non state actors. They are used as a central component of the Global counterterrorism strategy restricting financing and material support against international designated group and individuals. Sanctions are also central component of the Global counterterrorism strategy restricting financing and material support against international designated group and individuals. Since 1945, the UN Charter prohibit the use of military force in the relationship between states except in the case of self-defense. Therefore, a military sanction can only be decided by the UN Security Council (UNSC) acting under chapter seven of the UN Charter in case of threat to international peace. Chapter 6 of the UN Charter refers to the various type of non-military sanction to allow pacific settlement of disputes between states.

I. Unilateral Sanctions

States may try to resolve their differences by resorting to diplomatic or economic sanctions. For instance, sanctions have been adopted by US and Europe against Russia and reciprocally, following Russian annexation of Crimea during the war in Ukraine and in 2014, following the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK. As well, sanctions have been imposed in 2021 by the US on China and reciprocally following repression of the Uighurs minority.

However, states 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, these courts do not pronounce any criminal sanctions. The only enforcement mechanism available is in case of state failure to abide by an ICJ judgment and it depends on the UNSC voting to use coercion to enforce the ruling (art. 94(2) of the UN Charter).

II. Collective Sanctions

Collective sanctions can be decided at the level of international or regional organizations such as the UN, EU and the AU. The UN Charter establishes a system of collective security that regulates the pacific settlement of disputes among states at its chapter 6. If these mechanisms fail, the UN Charter’s Chapter 7 (arts. 39–51) foresees the possibility of imposing collective sanctions on states or non-state actors, including the use of military force, in case of “threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” The aim of collective sanctions is to pressure the concerned state or non-state entity into changing its behavior.

In such cases, the UNSC may adopt certain coercive measures, which must be respected by all UN member states. Before resorting to military sanctions, which are to be used only in exceptional circumstances, the UN Charter sets forth other type of sanction that do not involve armed force. The UNSC can hence adopt mandatory measures to implement economic sanctions that may be selective or limited (for example, embargoing weapons exports, freezing financial assets, imposing travel bans, or instituting economic embargoes).

The sanctions foreseen by the UN Charter are, in 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.

Currently, the UNSC has instituted travel bans and asset freezes to sanction over 1000 individuals and entities connected to 14 situations: Central African Republic (11 individuals and 2 entities, by resolutions 2127 (2013), 2134 (2014), 2399 (2018)), Democratic Republic of the Congo (36 individuals and 9 entities, by resolution 1533 (2004)), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (80 individuals and 75 entities, by multiple resolutions including 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013), 2270 (2016), 2321 (2016), 2356 (2017), 2371 (2017), 2375 (2017) and 2397 (2017)), Guinea-Bissau (10 individuals, by resolution 2048 (2012)), Iraq (86 individuals and 61 entities, by resolution 1518 (2003)), ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida (262 individuals and 84 entities, by resolution 2368 (2017) and resolution 2253 (2015)), Libya (28 individuals and 2 entities, by resolution 1970 (2011) and resolution 1973 (2011)), Mali (8 individuals, by resolutions 2374 (2017) and 2432 (2018) ), Somalia (15 individuals and 1 entity, by resolution 1844 (last updated on 8 March 2018)), South Sudan (8 individuals, by resolutions 2206 (2015), 2428 (2018) and 2471 (2019)), Sudan (4 individuals, by resolution 1591 (2005)), Taliban (135 individuals and 5 entities, by resolutions 1988 (2011), 2082 (2012), 2160 (2014) and 2255 (2015)) and Yemen (5 individuals, by resolution 2140 (2014)).

The 1636 sanctions regime was set up in 2005 by UNSC resolution 1636 to assist with the continuing investigation of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission in the 14 February 2005 attack that killed the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on all individuals designated by the Commission or the Government of Lebanon, suspected of involvement, in the terrorist attack. After the mandate of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission ended on 28 February 2009, jurisdiction was transferred to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) (which was created by the UNSC resolution 1757 in 2007). The 1636 sanctions regime currently targets no individual or entity and will remain active until all investigations and judicial procedures have been completed at the STL.

Humanitarian Exemptions

In the case of economic sanction or a “total embargo” on all forms of economic trade, humanitarian relief according to IHL shall always be exempted from such restriction.

Special language has been introduced in those resolutions to guarantee that humanitarian relief remain out of the scope of sanction. For instance, the recent resolution on the Afghanistan 2593(2021) sanction regime, states that: “all parties [need] to allow full, safe, and unhindered access for the United Nations, its specialized agencies and implementing partners, and all humanitarian actors engaged in humanitarian relief activity, (…) to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches all those in need” and the DRC resolution 2582(2021) for its sanction regime : “Demands that States ensure that all measures taken by them to implement this resolution comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international refugee law, as applicable” and finally, the Mali resolution 2590(2021) on its sanction regime stresses that: “measures imposed by this resolution are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population.”

In the specific case of international sanction adopted by UN resolution since 2000 to counter terrorism, special provisions have recently been included to limit a negative impact on humanitarian assistance. Starting in 2016, the UN General Assembly resolution consistently “Urges states to ensure, in accordance with their obligation under international law and national regulations, and whenever international humanitarian law is applicable, that counter-terrorism legislation and measures do not impede humanitarian and medical activities or engagement with all relevant actors as foreseen by international humanitarian law” (A/RES/70/291).

Since 2019, UNSC resolutions also decided to “[…] urges states to take into account the potential effect of counterterrorism measures on exclusively humanitarian activities, including medical activities, that are carried out by impartial humanitarian actors in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law.” (S/2482/2019).

The UNSC, or the regional organization that imposed the embargo, sets up a special group or committee (e.g. the UNSC creates 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:

Biersteker, Thomas, Zuzana Hudakova, and Marcos Tourinho, UN SanctionsApp: An Interactive Database of UN Sanctions, August 2020, available at https://unsanctionsapp.com.

Decaux, Emmanuel. “The Definition of Traditional Sanctions: Their Scope and Characteristics.” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 90, No. 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, Vol. 90, No. 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, Vol. 90, No. 870 (June 2008): 319–26.

“Sanctions.” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 90, No. 870 (June 2008): 209–479.

Segall, Anna. “Economic Sanctions: Legal and Policy Constraints.” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 81, No. 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.