Economic sanctions are penalties applied to certain aspects of trade with either an individual, Non-governmental organisation, or state. These economic sanctions are primarily deployed in an attempt to modify the behaviour of state and non-state actors, often in the name of a state’s security or for the sake of foreign policy. For the United Nations (UN), economic sanctions are levelled against actors that the United Nations Security Council have determined to be a threat to international peace and security. Sanctions are widely regarded as one of the less intrusive forms of intervention available to the international community. Most policymakers consider the use of sanctions as not just an action to try and coerce actors into returning to the status quo of international and domestic behaviour, but also as a declaration of intent, demonstrating the willingness of the international community to intervene more intrusively should diplomacy fail. Increasingly the use of sanctions has become a defining feature of the western response to challenges on the international stage, the US and EU primarily regard the use of sanctions as one of their most powerful tools on the global stage, especially the EU which lacks a unified military force. These sanctions include embargos on arms trade with North Korea and sanctions against Russia in response to military intervention in the Crimea peninsula.
As one of the main organs of the UN the Security Council is the primary body responsible for immediate crisis response. The Security council have the power to implement sanctions on state and non-state actors should they continually violate international behavioural norms as specified under Article 41 of the UN Charter
“The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” (United Nations Charter Article. 41, 1945)
However, the Security Council will often employ other more diplomatic means to influence the behaviour of offending parties. At this point the threat of sanctions, though often only subtly implied, are used as a foreign policy tool, in an attempt to bring conflict parties to the negotiating table and begin a dialogue. Nevertheless, the threat of sanctions is sometimes not enough to significantly impact an actor’s conduct, or – often in the case of non-state actors – conflict parties might outright refuse to open a dialogue. At this point it is the role of the security council to determine the extent and severity of the sanctions. The UNSC then adopts a resolution outlining all conditions and measures to be imposed as part of the sanctions regime which must pass by majority vote no vetoed by any of the five permanent member states of the Security Council. Historically these sanctions have been “comprehensive sanctions” or outright embargoes of states violating international law and stability. That isn’t to say that there have not been exemptions from comprehensive sanctions, but these are almost always limited exclusively to humanitarian goods including food and medical supplies (Farrall 2007, p.108). Nevertheless, a growing awareness of the suffering caused in Iraq in part by UN sanctions in the 1990s, and the US response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks marked a new change in the implementation of sanctions. Less than two weeks after the attacks US President George W. Bush signed an executive order empowering the US Treasury Department with the authority to freeze the assets of suspected terrorists and entities affiliated with them. Weeks later the UN imposed major targeted sanctions on terrorist factions and their supporters, demonstrating a noticeable shift towards the use of targeted or “smart” sanctions, blacklisting individuals and major non-state entities, a tactic that has been since continued by future sanctions regimes. These implemented sanctions are rarely deployed in a vacuum. Instead sanctions regimes are at their most effective when implemented in concert with a wider peacekeeping or peacebuilding strategy. (United Nations n.d. (a))
As a resolution passed by the Security Council, any sanction resolutions passed are binding for all UN member states. It is also normal that a special committee is implemented to manage a sanctions regime, these committees often have a more involved role with targeted sanctions, identifying key entities and adding or removing them from sanctions. These sanction committees have in some cases been assisted by a panel of specialists appointed by the Secretary-General to monitor the implementations of sanctions and report their findings back to the committee or directly to the security council. However, it is worth noting that without the same coercive apparatus typical of a state the UN lacks the capability to enforce these sanctions independently and it instead must rely on cooperative member states to do so, many of which lack adequate incentives to provide dedicated resources for the “hard enforcement” of a sanction regime.