The growing complexity of economic sanctions, as well as various political factors, have stymied U.S. attempts to reform sanctions as an effective foreign policy tool, especially in conflict prevention and resolution, as the International Crisis Group’s Delaney Simon smartly detailed recently for Just Security. Added to this is the dramatic demise of cooperation among the Permanent Five in the United Nations Security Council, which has paralyzed the U.N. as the primary generator and legitimator of rule-based multilateral sanctions to advance global peace and security. Many U.S. sanctions derive from, or build upon, U.N. sanctions.

Simon’s analysis joins recent critiques of international sanctions and those imposed by individual States (autonomous sanctions), especially those promulgated by the United States. The critiques generally argue that sanctions have become too easy to impose and thus are overused. Whereas less than 10 percent of the world economy was sanctioned in the 1990s, now nearly one-third of the world economy is sanctioned. Other criticism posits that, because sanctions often fail to achieve their objectives, U.S. global prestige and power have declined dramatically.

Particularly significant is the crescendo of opprobrium from the Global South and from global humanitarian relief and human rights organizations. These organizations operating on the ground in affected areas assert that broad sectoral sanctions target strategically important financial and energy sectors and tend to deteriorate the socioeconomic life of average citizens who were never meant to be targets of the so-called targeted sanctions.

We have no disagreement with these diverse claims. Yet our experience and research indicate that global dialogues and policy actions seeking to correct the negative impacts of sanctions have created a new momentum for serious reform. Its aim is to mitigate — and in many cases significantly reduce — the most deleterious effects of sanctions.

The Sanctions-Refinement Era Has Begun

Our work on sanctions and humanitarian affairs started in earnest when — spurred by concerns about spillover effects of sanctions that detracted from their legitimacy — we tracked competing claims about the humanitarian impact of sanctions in Iraq in the 1990s. Since then, the use of sanctions has increased exponentially, along with the rise in the number of people in need of food, medicine, and other essentials in countries where sanctions are in place. While not all this privation can be directly linked to sanctions, the pervasiveness and various unintended consequences of sanctions need to be mitigated to the greatest extent possible.

Since 2020, various humanitarian organizations have issued serious calls for refining sanctions tools, and various groups in Europe were floating new ideas. In response, in the spring of 2021, we founded an international, multi-stakeholder initiative that represents a global “trisector” grouping, i.e., public, private, and socio-economic actors, working on sanctions and humanitarian considerations, called Advancing Humanitarianism through Sanctions Refinement (AHSR). We consulted and interacted with academics, governments, non-governmental organizations, private/ financial sector actors, as well as regional and international organizations. Collectively, they emphasized the need to develop new ways to mitigate and minimize unintended humanitarian consequences of sanctions and related restrictive regulations, while safeguarding the effectiveness and legitimacy of these tools of economic statecraft.

These meetings took place alongside the global humanitarian momentum that included the U.S. Treasury Sanctions Review of October 2021, which stated that mitigating the unintended impacts of sanctions on civilian populations was consistent with the refinement of targeted sanctions as foreign policy tools. And in a significant action with positive consequences for humanitarian relief, the United States joined Ireland in spearheading U.N. Security Council Resolution 2664 (December 2022), which created an unprecedented humanitarian carveout for most U.N. asset freeze regimes. Shortly thereafter, the United States became the first country to implement the resolution domestically, with the announcement of General Licenses across all U.S. autonomous sanctions programs. The U.S. Treasury went on to publish its 2023 Derisking Strategy; another landmark move that seeks to address the growing problem of banking and private-sector over-compliance in response to the evermore complex global compliance landscape.

These progressive actions, especially UNSC 2664, create new opportunities for U.S. leadership in economic statecraft as this humanitarian momentum continues. The AHSR has convened more than 50 of the world’s leading thinkers and doers on sanctions and on humanitarian aid to jointly drive forward this important work, including two conferences, in May 2022 and May 2023, at Wilton Park in the United Kingdom. Aided by case studies from contexts including Iran, Syria, and Venezuela and discussion of instances such as the penalties levied against Russia after its February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, experts and practitioners in the 2022 conference developed consensus that a careful strategic rethink of the design, implementation, and future use of sanctions was necessary.

Significantly, these diverse practitioners in national policy, banking, and humanitarian work, recommended developing an internationally agreed-upon set of non-binding, guiding principles for future sanctions use — a sanctions compact of sorts — for actors designing and implementing the measures. Further, the experts group advocated for the creation of a publicly available checklist of guiding principles or factors to be considered as sanctions-unit staff and other relevant practitioners design, implement, and revise sanctions, with the aiming of minimizing the unintended negative humanitarian impacts.

Moving from Practical Checklist to Sanctions Compact

This model checklist draws from the body of scholarship and policy studies, as well as best practices generated in recent years. The checklist is in its final stages of completion before publication this September. It has been informed by various rounds of consultations with the humanitarian community and permanent missions in Geneva; U.N. missions and humanitarian actors in New York; European Union member States and institutions; and national sanctions units. The tool benefitted from inputs by the private sector (including banking), transnational youth and Global South communities, and experts in Feminist Foreign Policy and the Women Peace and Security Agenda regarding gender-focused sanctions issues.

The checklist – intended as a useful tool for sanctions units – presents the factors to be considered as a menu of options (depending on the context and the sanctioning actor) prior to imposing sanctions, as well as used during periodic reviews after their imposition. It is intended to be useable and practical, considering time and resource limitations of those designing sanctions. Currently envisaged as a publicly available web-accessible tool, the checklist can be used by any government or organization.

With the growing prominence of autonomous sanctions impacting most types of public and private activities across most parts of the world, checklist categories of socio-economic harm and rights provide busy policymakers with the range of humanitarian-related considerations that sanctions pose. These categories are deeply rooted in international humanitarian law, to which all U.N. member States subscribe. The checklist is informed by various standing humanitarian norms and regulations, and facilitates the next step of creating a compact among sanctions imposers that could also draw in related areas, such as export controls.

The Challenging Agenda Ahead

Countries imposing sanctions – mostly Global North nations — are evaluating these deleterious effects of such measures and undertaking reforms even as they struggle with a varied, growing set of direct and indirect challenges linked to the prevalence of sanctions in the global economy. In addition to the one-third of the world economy that is sanctioned, as noted above, eight of the worst cases of humanitarian disasters tracked by Concern Worldwide are also sanctioned environments. Sanctions are operative in 10 of the globe’s violent conflicts listed by the International Crisis Group.

More directly, the world’s major economies face new types and depth of fragmentation of the international financial system and bottlenecks in supply chains. In addition, the growing practices of de-risking, wherein banks and related financial institution, avoid the risk of running afoul of sanctions by restricting their business in targeted nations, and over-compliance with sanctions, illustrate the complexities of the new economic landscape. Finally, new sanctions “battlegrounds” implicit in Sino-U.S. and Russian-Western tensions, and intractable sanctions stalemates with nuclearizing nations such as Iran and North Korea, present chronic security crises. These trends disrupt effective trade and travel corridors as well as  once-trusted practices for humanitarian action.

In the Global South, experts and officials are skeptical about the ability of sanctions to address mounting threats to international peace and security, horrific cases of mass atrocities, and protracted resource wars in Africa. In addition, private and not-for-profit sectors find it increasingly difficult to navigate current sanctions and related regulations on anti-money-laundering, counter-terrorist financing, export controls, and sanctions evasion via cryptocurrencies and other means.

Sanctions officials in several nations commented in various meetings that such complexity hamstrings leaders who need to leverage sanctions for more strategic and positive outcomes in ongoing disputes. Diplomats are looking for flexible methods for easing or lifting sanctions during negotiations, including paths toward eventual peace settlements. They are also acutely aware of the legal and ethical need to prevent the negative humanitarian impact of sanctions. More effective, efficient sanctions tools and more astute, agile policies steeped in humanitarian norms are central to addressing these dilemmas.

Clearly more serious and sustained reform is needed to build upon the initiative taken in UNSCR 2664 and efforts to implement it at the national level by granting general licenses and other exemptions. Implementation of checklists to guide sanctions officials working in Washington and in the EU, for example, as they design and implement sanctions, will also help to institutionalize the mitigation of sanctions’ negative outcomes.

Efforts to make sanctions more fit for purpose as legitimate forces for peace and security must continue. A major, achievable step would be to clarify and expand exemptions in various ongoing sanctions episodes using an agreed-upon checklist. Another step is to harness more fully the humanitarian momentum that has developed to achieve the goal of a global sanctions compact.

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