July 2014 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 June 2014
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In Hindsight: Sanctions

The Council has recently demonstrated renewed activity in using sanctions as a tool for maintaining international peace and security. With the adoption of resolution 2140 concerning Yemen on 26 February 2014, the Council reached an all-time high number of concurrent sanctions regimes: 15. Some Council members and observers, however, have recognised that there remains considerable room for improvement in UN sanctions design and implementation.

Since the imposition of the first mandatory sanctions in 1968 with resolution 253 concerning Rhodesia, the Council’s approach has evolved in several ways:

  • in order to minimise unintended consequences such as humanitarian impact, sanctions regimes since the mid-1990s have been primarily targeted rather than comprehensive;
  • designation criteria have expanded to address human rights violations and the protection of civilians, particularly children and women (precedents were established—both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—with resolution 1698 and resolution 1807 respectively);
  • regarding structure, sanctions committees and a panel or group of experts have become standard for most regimes (all 15 current regimes have a committee, and 12 of 15 committees have a monitoring mechanism); and
  • in response to due process concerns, the Focal Point (resolution 1730) and the Office of the Ombudsperson (resolution 1904) were created to facilitate delisting processes.  

One area that remains relatively underdeveloped is sanctions strategy. In the interest of improving sanctions implementation, most practitioners and scholars have focused on relatively narrow measures of efficiency, which can obscure the bigger picture of what UN sanctions are intended to achieve. At a strategic level, there is often considerable ambiguity regarding how sanctions are meant to reinforce other aspects of UN engagement, such as peacekeeping, mediation or peacebuilding. There may also be insufficient consideration of alternative policy options being effectively ruled out by imposing sanctions under certain circumstances. Prior to authorisation, the Council could take a more strategic approach to sanctions design by systematically determining objectives, identifying potential unintended consequences and mapping linkages with other aspects of UN peace operations.                 

Improved coordination and cooperation within the UN system and with regional organisations could also lead to enhanced effectiveness of sanctions regimes and better compliance. This might include greater synergy between the work of panels/groups of experts and UN peacekeeping operations, further communication between the Council and UN country teams, more coordination among sanctions committee chairs and information sharing among panels/groups. Regular consultations between the Council and regional organisations—potentially including efforts to harmonise certain sanctions regimes—could lead to better compliance and enforcement through complementary international and regional measures. Perhaps sanctions coordination and cooperation could be an agenda topic for the next annual joint consultative meeting with members of the AU Peace and Security Council.      

Transparency is perhaps the most conspicuous area of sanctions practice where the costs of reform are low and the benefits (i.e., awareness, legitimacy and compliance) are high, yet there have been few changes. Nor is transparency in sanctions regimes a new issue: notes by the President of the Security Council were issued on the matter in 1995 (S/1995/234) and 1999 (S/1999/92), while the Informal Working Group on General Issues of Sanctions, a subsidiary body of the Council, made further recommendations in 2006 (S/2006/997). Measures to increase transparency could include regular consultations with non-Council member states affected by specific sanctions regimes, more frequent public briefings by the chairs of sanctions committees, the inclusion of more specific information in the annual reports of sanctions committees, and publicly available transcripts or summary records of sanctions committee meetings. 

Due process continues to be a subject of interest within a sanctions context. The creation of the Focal Point for Delisting in 2006 and the Office of the Ombudsperson in 2009 were largely in response to legal challenges in national and regional courts, particularly in relation to the then 1267 Al-Qaida/Taliban regime. Addressing the Council on 10 May 2013 following a briefing by the chairs of the counter-terrorism subsidiary bodies, a group of like-minded states on targeted sanctions—comprising Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland—proposed extending the procedural safeguards of the Ombudsperson from the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida regime to the other UN sanctions regimes (S/PV.6964).

Ultimately, the sanctions issues outlined above—institutional evolution, strategy, coordination, transparency and due process—are secondary to Council dynamics. Put more concretely and starkly, there may be no other greater indicator of the potential success or failure of a UN sanctions regime than consistent, sustained commitment among the Council members themselves, particularly the P5. When Council members fail to follow through with secondary sanctions against sanctions spoilers, or they themselves undermine a UN sanctions regime, the message for the wider UN membership is clear. And when Council members block or delay publication of a report by a panel/group of experts, the integrity of the process may be compromised, as may also occur when the experts appointed to such panels/groups are predominantly nationals of certain Council members. Likewise, when seeking to understand why certain sanctions regimes are actively implemented (e.g., 1267/1989 Al-Qaida) while others remain for all intents and purposes dormant (e.g., 1591 Sudan), the answer can be found within Council dynamics.

Taking up several of the challenges outlined here, the governments of Australia, Finland, Greece and Sweden in partnership with the Watson Institute at Brown University and Compliance and Capacity International launched on 28 May the High Level Review of UN Sanctions (http://www.hlr-unsanctions.org). Three working groups will consider issues related to UN integration and coordination, external institutions and instruments, and regional organisations and emerging challenges. This high-level review has a few notable state-led predecessors, including the Bonn-Berlin Process, the Interlaken Process, and the Stockholm Process, which generated reports published from 2001 to 2003. Building on these initiatives, the Informal Working Group on General Issues of Sanctions issued its final report on 18 December 2006 (S/2006/997). Reinstating the Informal Working Group could be a useful way for the Council to consider insights and lessons from new policy-oriented research on UN sanctions. 


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