Sanctions, we’re told, work. If they didn’t then they wouldn’t be so frequently used in global politics. This piece doesn’t dispute that sanctions make an impact—but could they be better? Can they be better employed and more effective in achieving their aims?


The International Compliance Association (ICA) is a professional membership and awarding body. ICA is the leading global provider of professional, certificated qualifications in anti-money laundering; governance, risk, and compliance; and financial crime prevention. ICA members are recognized globally for their commitment to best compliance practice and an enhanced professional reputation. To find out more, visit the ICA website.

What are sanctions for?

To improve sanctions, we need to know what they are and what they are for. Economic sanctions are commercial and financial penalties imposed by one or more countries/bodies against targeted countries, groups, or individuals. They are often imposed for a variety of military, social, or political reasons. Generally, economic sanctions aim to improve the relationships between the countries involved.

However, the efficacy of sanctions is debated, and their unintended consequences are well known. The expectation is they will affect targeted bad actors and force a change in behavior or to stop certain activities. The danger is that if unintentional consequences become manifest—such as citizens being harmed, sanctioned countries being pushed to trade together, and innocent parties being punished—then the very purpose of sanctions is negated.

For states, the optimum is limiting the risk of unintended consequences and making sanctions more effective. What follows are four ways of achieving this aim.

1. Enforce with maximum support

Most United Nations (UN) sanctions are unanimously adopted. Once they are adopted, support from council members can vary (often depending on their own political and economic interests). Yet when all 15 members of the UN Security Council support sanctions, they have proven to be far more effective in bringing about the intended results.

In a UN Security Council meeting in 2017, U.S. representative Michele J. Sison noted that when implemented swiftly and effectively, sanctions could have a widespread positive impact. The United States and Russian Federation had worked together in formulating sanctions against Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Because the Security Council spoke with one voice, those sanctions were showing real results on the ground. By the same standard, when sanctions lacked wide support, they were meaningless and degraded the credibility of the Council, making the next threat to peace and security more likely.

At the same time, Sison noted the Council had been unable to come together to agree on several issues, including a format to discuss cross-cutting issues relating to sanctions. “When it does this, the Council shoots itself in the foot,” said Sison. “If widespread support is the way to do sanctions right, the way to do them wrong is unfolding before us.” When member states fail to comply with sanctions leveled against an aggressor, and no action is taken, the Council loses credibility. In turn, this will lead to an erosion of any impact sanctions could have.

2. Be specific to the situation

Sanctions should be tailored to specific and volatile conflict situations. Imposing sanctions and just leaving them in place with no review or assessment will prove ineffective in the long run, due to changes brought about by the sanctions being put in place. The cycle of issuing sanctions succeed in changing behavior and updating/removing them is crucial to their success—otherwise, sanctions become stale and ineffective.

By specific, we mean that often a targeted approach is better than a broader one. Does a wide-ranging “trade embargo” on a country really work? Would it be better to offer a strict, targeted approach, for example “no trade in diamonds,” and focus on that? Specific sanctions also limit the possibility of unintentional impact on anyone outside of the sanctioned activity.

A good example here is the specific targeted sanctions that were imposed upon Iran before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015. Focused on Iran’s nuclear program, the sanctions imposed—and Iran’s willingness to talk and reach an agreement—were central to the deal being signed and, subsequently, sanctions being eased while the deal was in place.

3. Support from neighboring states

When sanctions are issued by global bodies (e.g. the UN) but then not imposed by those countries that border the sanctioned country, they lose effect and impact. The application of UN sanctions is almost always followed by adoption by regional bodies, for example the United States or the European Union, and then it is down to individual countries to incorporate it into their legislation.

When each of these steps are taken, sanctions are effective. However, when these are not followed and imposed locally, there is a conflict in policy, and sanctions lose their potency. If a country has a trade embargo imposed upon it but its neighbors don’t respect that and continue to trade with it, then the sanction imposed is rendered ineffective.

It is up to regional bodies to set their sanctions policy as they see fit but ultimately this is, or should be, in addition to UN sanctions. Often countries will go further than what the UN Security Council imposes to align with their own political and risk agendas.

4. Reward compliance with sanctions

There is a fine line between bribery and encouragement, and when it comes to sanctions it is important to be on the right side. Often sanctions will have the best effect if they are coupled with direct benefits—being allowed to trade in the desired way again, for instance—and indirect benefits. A stronger economy will bring financial gains for a nation’s population. When imposing sanctions, it is important for the issuing body to show the positives of amending behavior and complying with sanctions.

Change in Myanmar was brought about in this way. When faced with heavy sanctions that were stifling the economy (and the desire of a few within it for change), its behavior changed, which resulted in sanctions being relaxed and eventually removed. Democracy returned to the country in 2015 with the first openly contested elections for 25 years. The victory of the National League for Democracy raised hopes for a successful political transition from military rule to a free democratic system. This newfound democracy led to the removal of many sanctions and an opening up for trade.

Since 2013 there has been an increase in trade from all over the world, most notably Coca-Cola pumping $200 million into the country with a new bottling plant and the promise of creating 2,500 jobs. Recent controversies in the country have sullied Myanmar’s reputation, and the United States and European Union have imposed financial sanctions for human rights abuses, but the transition to democracy would have been impossible without sanctions.


Sanctions, implemented properly, are a very useful tool in global politics, economics, and trade. To be totally successful, issuing bodies need to consider what they are trying to achieve and focus on that rather than taking a broad approach. When used in a targeted manner and with the support of other countries and bodies, they can be a positive tool enacting change across the world. Sanctions are not an end in themselves: They need to be supported with thought-out, coherent, and coordinated policy to prevent or peacefully resolve conflicts.

The International Compliance Association is a sister company to Compliance Week. Both organizations are under the umbrella of Wilmington plc.