(Author’s note: Security Council Report is an independent think tank dedicated to supporting a more effective, transparent, and accountable U.N. Security Council. A version of this article will appear in Security Council Report’s December Monthly Forecast.)


In August 2022, the U.N. Security Council called for the effective implementation of its sanctions measures “as a tool for achieving peace and stability in Africa.”[1] In reality, however, support for U.N. sanctions has eroded among some members, a disagreement reflecting the broader geopolitical divisions coloring the Council’s work.

The sanctions divide is particularly stark between Western countries, on the one hand, and China, Russia, and African countries, on the other. Western countries often maintain that arms embargoes and targeted sanctions, such as assets freezes and travel bans, are vital tools in mitigating violence and supporting the implementation of peace agreements. While China, Russia, and the Council’s African members recognize that sanctions can be a useful tool of the Council, they point to countries that remain under Council sanctions for several years as evidence that sanctions are insufficiently adjusted to account for progress.  At a Mar. 8, 2023, meeting on the Sudan sanctions regime, China remarked that “the Council’s discussions over the past two years led us to believe that certain members have no intention of lifting sanctions, but rather attempt to perpetuate sanctions by setting benchmarks that are too high to ever be met.” Beyond questioning their effectiveness, members of this group argue that sanctions are often counter-productive, harming the ability of the target country to serve its people.

Brief History and Background

The Security Council’s authority to impose sanctions is outlined in article 41 of the U.N. Charter. During the Cold War, the Council imposed mandatory sanctions twice: on Southern Rhodesia in 1968 and South Africa in 1977. The Council had previously authorized voluntary sanctions on South Africa (1963) and Southern Rhodesia (1965).[2]

Sanctions regimes expanded greatly in the 1990s, when several crises erupted and the improved relations among the great powers made agreements easier than during the relative paralysis of the Cold War decades.[3] The unintended humanitarian consequences of comprehensive sanctions led to the development of targeted measures, sometimes referred to as “smart” sanctions. All U.N. sanctions regimes established since 2004 have been targeted in nature.

Security Council sanctions have multiple purposes, including resolving interstate conflict, democratization, human rights and the protection of civilians, nonproliferation, and counter-terrorism.  Scholars and policy makers alike scrutinize the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions, and assess their goals of coercing, constraining, and signaling.[4] Some have also focused on distinct periods or “episodes” in the evolution of sanctions regimes when evaluating their effectiveness to account for changes over the years.[5] In a well-known study of U.N. sanctions, Biersteker, Tourinho, and Eckert concluded that the coercive aim of sanctions is effective 10 percent of the time, while the goals of constraining and signaling are both effective 27 percent of the time.[6]

Current State of U.N. Sanctions

There are currently 14 U.N. sanctions regimes, 11 of which include arms embargoes, travel bans, and assets freeze measures. Every sanctions regime has a sanctions committee, a subsidiary body of the Security Council comprised of all 15 of its members, and all but three are supported by panels of experts. These panels consist of independent experts who monitor, report, and make recommendations on the implementation of sanctions. A panel of experts was first employed in 1999 to support the Angola Sanctions Committee, a creation of then-Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler, who chaired the committee.[7] Some of today’s sanctions controversies pertain to the appointment of, and candid reporting by, these panels of experts. One criticism has been that the permanent members have influenced the appointment of experts with regard to non-proliferation sanctions regimes, with potential implications for their independence.[8]

Sanctions  Types of Sanctions
Arms Embargo Travel Ban Assets Freeze Charcoal Ban Illicit Petrol-eum
IED Comp-
Customs Controls Other Measures[9]
Al-Shabaab Sanctions X X X X X
1267, 1989 and 2253 ISIL (D’aesh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee X X X
1518 Iraq Sanctions X X
1533 DRC Sanctions X X X X X
1591 Sudan Sanctions X X X
1636 Lebanon Sanctions X X
1718 DPRK Sanctions X X X X X
1971 Libya Sanctions X X X X
1988 Afghanistan Sanctions X X X
2048 Guinea-Bissau Sanctions X
2127 CAR Sanctions X X X
2140 Yemen Sanctions X X X
2206 South Sudan Sanctions X X X
2653 Haiti Sanctions X X X

In 2023, through the end of October, the Council voted on 12 sanctions-related draft resolutions. Only six of these votes resulted in unanimous adoptions. The resolutions on sanctions in Sudan (Darfur), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic were adopted with two or more abstentions. There was one abstention on a resolution renewing the authorization for member states to inspect vessels suspected of violating the arms embargo on Libya. Two votes were held on Mali sanctions: one draft that would have renewed the sanctions regime and its panel of experts was vetoed by Russia, while a second draft, presented by Russia–which would have renewed the sanctions regime but not its panel of experts—fell short of enough votes. With the failure of these draft resolutions, the Mali sanctions regime was terminated.

The end of the Mali regime, among other Security Council decisions in 2023, suggests that several members have a growing unease with U.N. sanctions, or their mechanisms, or believe in particular cases that conditions on the ground merit the easing of sanctions. In March 2023, the Council introduced a potential “sunset clause” for the future of the Darfur sanctions regime, on which it would decide within 18 months, by September 2024. Renewing the South Sudan sanctions regime in May, the Council decided that the South Sudanese authorities no longer needed to notify the sanctions committee of the supply, sale, or transfer of non-lethal military equipment in support of the implementation of the peace agreement. And in July, when it extended the Central Africa Republic (CAR) sanctions regime, the Council lifted the arms embargo on the CAR security forces.

The Council’s deliberations on sanctions have been notably difficult in cases where the major powers have strategic interests. In May 2022, China and Russia both vetoed a U.S.-initiated draft resolution that would have strengthened sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), arguing in the negotiations that the resolution would adversely affect the humanitarian situation there and would not help to resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula. This was the first time a DPRK sanctions resolution was vetoed. A draft resolution that China circulated in October 2021 that would have eased sanctions on the DPRK has not been the subject of negotiations involving all Council members, nor has it been tabled for a vote, apparently because it lacks the necessary support to be adopted. Council engagement on CAR and Mali sanctions has also been contentious, as the permanent members have jostled for influence in these countries. The P3 (France, the United Kingdom and the United States) and their allies have criticized the involvement of the Wagner Group, a Russian security company, in the CAR and Mali, former French colonies that until recently hosted French military forces–a tension reflected in the demise of the Mali sanctions regime.

Council members give considerable attention to the unintended humanitarian effects of sanctions. In recent years, Russia and others have accused Western countries of downplaying the humanitarian impacts of both Security Council sanctions and those imposed outside the U.N. context, accusations that Western countries deny. A notable recent development on U.N. sanctions was the adoption of resolution 2664 in late 2022. Drafted by Ireland and the United States in the context of rising food and energy prices resulting from the war in Ukraine, this resolution established a standing humanitarian exemption to assets freeze measures that the Security Council imposes.

Panels of Experts Facing Resistance

While panels of experts have been subjected to scrutiny in the past, 2023 has been a particularly hard year. In August 2023, Russia placed a six-month hold on appointments to the CAR Panel, which had reported in May that the transfer of certain weapons and aircraft from Russia to the CAR did not comply with the notification requirements of the CAR Sanctions Committee. The panel is currently not functional because of this hold. When Russia vetoed the extension of the Mali sanctions regime in August, it accused the Mali Panel of Experts of becoming “a means of foreign influence”, after the Panel claimed that Malian armed forces and foreign security forces, ostensibly from the Wagner Group, had committed conflict-related sexual violence. Council members have also sparred over whether the DPRK Panel of Experts has the authority to issue incident reports regarding missile launches conducted by the DPRK.

Panels of Experts’ reports tend to offer valuable analysis of the political, security and economic developments in the target countries, and are frequently more incisive than the reports produced by the U.N. Secretary-General on U.N. peace operations. As well, they often provide useful recommendations on sanctions for the Council’s consideration.  In 2016, two leading scholars argued that sanctions regimes linked to panels of experts are generally more effective than those that are not, stating that “this explains the now standard recourse to panels for each sanctions resolution and their continued renewal.”[10]  Efforts to hobble or eliminate panels of experts may downgrade the quality of information reaching the Security Council.

The Road Ahead  

Complicated negotiations on sanctions are expected to continue in 2024 and may lead to further adjustments to current sanctions regimes.

It remains unclear how the hold on the CAR sanctions regime’s panel of experts will be resolved. During the MINUSCA mandate negotiations in mid-November, it appears that China and Russia referred to the improved situation in the CAR and urged the Council to adjust the CAR sanctions regime accordingly. The Council is expected to vote on the renewal of these sanctions in July 2024.

The future of Darfur sanctions is also likely to be a focus of the Council. In April 2023, one month after the Council introduced the “sunset clause” on Sudan sanctions, the country descended into a civil war marked by widespread violence against civilians, largely in the Darfur region. In 2024, the Council will need to determine whether the “sunset clause”—originally proposed by the African members of the Council and the United Arab Emirates—is still relevant, especially if the political and security situation in Sudan does not improve.

Some Options for U.N. Sanctions

Many suggestions have been made over the years regarding the design, implementation and management of U.N. sanctions regimes that could help to enhance their effectiveness and perceived credibility.

One option that has been floated is to expand the Office of the Ombudsperson–currently responsible solely for handling delisting requests for the 1267/1989/2253 Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL/Da’esh] and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee–to review and proffer recommendations on delisting requests for all U.N. sanctions committees where individuals and entities are designated. When the Council established the Haiti sanctions regime in October 2022 through resolution 2653, it expressed its intention to consider authorizing the Ombudsperson to receive delisting requests, but has not yet done so. A more systematic review of delisting requests by an Ombudsperson across all relevant sanctions regimes–or, alternatively, a strengthening of the Secretariat’s Focal Point for Delisting)–could enhance the sense of fairness in the work of sanctions committees, potentially increasing their legitimacy and their effectiveness. (The Focal Point for Delisting is a Secretariat mechanism established by resolution 1370 of Dec. 19, 2006, to receive and transmit to the Council delisting requests from designated individuals and entities. Unlike the Ombudsperson, it covers all sanctions regimes, but does not play an independent advisory function and is not mandated to recommend specific action on delisting requests.)

The Council could also make preassessment visits to potential target countries to analyze the potential adverse humanitarian effects of sanctions being considered.[11] There are precedents for such visits, for example to Sudan in 1997 and Angola in 1998.[12]

Another potential measure is for the Council to resurrect its Informal Working Group on General Issues of Sanctions, which was established in 2000 to “develop general recommendations on how to improve the effectiveness of United Nations sanctions” but was discontinued in 2006.[13] China suggested re-establishing the Working Group in 2022, noting that it had done “crucial work in order to help fine-tune and improve Council sanctions.” The accomplishments of this Working Group included creating “a rudimentary ‘delisting’ process for names of individuals and entities added to targeting lists and the establishment of a ‘focal point’ position—a U.N. staff member—charged with the responsibility of facilitating communication with those who wish to petition any listings.”[14] The Working Group could provide a forum for members to discuss best practices and find common ground on the use of sanctions.

The New Agenda for Peace, in which U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres presented his ideas for preventing conflict and advancing peace, asserts that Security Council sanctions “remain an important Charter instrument to address threats to international peace and security.” It also emphasizes values such as trust and solidarity for healing the rifts among U.N. member states. Sanctions regimes, with their current divisiveness, could benefit from trust-building measures, however modest, to restore and retain their intended function as a critical Security Council tool for the maintenance of international peace and security.

* * *

[1] U.N. Document S/PRST/2022/6, Aug. 31, 2022.

[2] Security Council Report, U.N. Sanctions, Special Research Report, Nov. 25, 2013, p. 3.

[3] As David Cortright and George A. Lopez noted in The Sanctions Decade: Assessing U.N. Strategies in the 1990s: “Whereas the Council had only imposed sanctions twice in the first forty-five years of its existence…during 1990s, the Security Council imposed comprehensive or partial sanctions against Iraq (1990), the former Yugoslavia (1991,1992 and 1998), Libya (1992), Liberia (1992), Somalia (1992), parts of Cambodia (1992), Haiti (1993), parts of Angola (1993, 1997, and 1998), Rwanda (1994), Sudan (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), and Afghanistan (1999).” David Cortright and George A. Lopez, The Sanctions Decade: Assessing U.N. Strategies in the 1990s, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 2000, p. 2.

[4] Sue Eckert, “The Role of Sanctions”, in in The U.N. Security Council in the 21st Century, edited by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Malone, and Bruno Stagno Ugarte, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 2016, p. 415

Of these three categories, Eckert notes, “…the international community generally employs sanctions to achieve three strategic purposes: to coerce targets into changing policies or behavior (the most widely perceived goal of sanction); to constrain targets in their ability to conduct proscribed activities; and to signal support for an international norm or stigmatize targets.”

[5] Thomas J. Biersteker, Marcos Tourinho, and Sue E. Eckert, “The effectiveness of United Nations Targeted Sanctions” in Targeted Sanctions: The Impacts and Effectiveness of United Nations Action, edited by Thomas J. Biersteker, Sue E. Eckert and Marcos Tourinho, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 226.

[6] Ibid, pp. 232-233

[7] Enrico Carisch and Loraine Rickard-Martin, “Implementation of United Nations Targeted Sanctions”, in Targeted Sanctions: The Impacts and Effectiveness of United Nations Action, edited by Thomas J. Biersteker, Sue E. Eckert and Marcos Tourinho, Cambridge University Press, p. 154, 2016.

[8] Alix Boucher and Caty Clement, “Coordination of United Nations Sanctions with other actors and instruments” in Targeted Sanctions: The Impacts and Effectiveness of United Nations Action, edited by Thomas J. Biersteker, Sue E. Eckert and Marcos Tourinho, Cambridge University Press, pp. 125-126, 2016.

[9] Among others additional measures, the DPRK sanctions include bans on items related to mass destruction-related programs and ballistic missiles, various energy products; seafood; and luxury goods.

[10] Michael Brzoska and George A. Lopez, “Security Council dynamics and sanctions design”, in Targeted Sanctions: The Impacts and Effectiveness of United Nations Action, edited by Thomas J. Biersteker, Sue E. Eckert and Marcos Tourinho, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 77.

[11] David Cortright and George A. Lopez, The Sanctions Decade: Assessing U.N. Strategies in the 1990s, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 2000, p. 225.

[12] Ibid, pp. 225-226.

[13] See also Sue Eckert, “The Role of Sanctions,” in The U.N. Security Council in the 21st Century, edited by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Malone, and Bruno Stagno Ugarte, 2016, p. 432.

[14] Joanna Weschler, “The evolution of security council innovations in sanctions”, International Journal, Winter 2009-10, p. 42.

IMAGE: Security Council chamber at the United Nations (via Getty Images)