What are Sanctions and Why Are They Used?

Sanctions sign
Sanctions sign

Sanctions are punishments imposed on one country or countries over another. They can target a country as a whole or only a part of the country’s economy. Sanctions may also target particular figureheads like politicians and business leaders. An example of a sanction that targeted specific world leaders was the U.S. and European Union-led sanctions in 2014 that affected every one of Russian President Putin’s allies. In most cases, sanctions attract retaliatory actions from target countries that result in negative regional and even worldwide effects.

Types of Sanctions

Sanctions may take the form of tariffs, Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs), embargoes, assets freeze, and quotas. Tariffs are taxes imposed on exports or imports to countries. On the other hand, NTBs refer to restrictions, other than tariffs, that are borne by countries importing goods to other nations. Examples of NTBs include regulations regarding product standards, packaging, and licensing requirements. Embargoes involve restricting a country from trading with another state. Another type of sanctions are assets freezes or seizures which refer to the prevention of movement or sale of assets owned by a country or a person that has been sanctioned. The last kind of sanction is quotas which are limits placed on the imports or exports sent to or from a country.

Categories of Sanctions

There are two broad categories of sanctions namely the unilateral versus bilateral sanctions and the export versus import sanctions. Unilateral sanctions are those imposed by a single country to another whereas bilateral sanctions refer to the restrictions enacted by a block of countries against another country or countries. Unilateral sanctions are considered riskier than bilateral sanctions to the country imposing them. Export sanctions, as the name suggests, are sanctions that hinder goods from flowing into a country while the import sanctions affect goods flowing out of a country. An example is the sanctions enacted by the U.S. on Iran. The sanction blocked the country from exporting oil abroad and forced Iran to cease its nuclear weapons program. A sanction like this results has been seen to cripple the economy of a country, thereby forcing the government of the target nation to comply with the demands of the sanction.

Why Are Sanctions Used?

The first reason why sanctions are used is for retaliatory purposes. In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OAPEC) issued an embargo on oil shipments to the U.S. as a form of punishment for re-supplying Israel with arms. Secondly, sanctions are used as a way of ensuring countries adhere to the international human rights agenda. It is a soft tool compared to the military intervention alternative which is quite costly both in terms of lives lost and property damages. Thirdly, sanctions are applied as part of wider diplomatic efforts. Countries use sanctions as a diplomatic action aimed at protecting national or international interests. In most cases, such efforts are in defense of peace and protection against threats to domestic citizens.


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