Washington, D.C. – The Charity & Security Network (C&SN) hosted leading sanctions researchers Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Francisco Rodriguez, and Hana Attia in the first of a three-part Ask an Expert webinar series on Oct. 25, 2023. During the panel they discussed the complex and devastating impacts sanctions have on economies, civil society, and human rights, as well as the underexplored topic of sanctions termination. 

Below are some highlights from the discussion. For the full session, watch the YouTube video.

Overview and State of Play

“One of the most significant challenges that humanitarian, peacebuilding and human rights organizations face in seeking to implement their work are the obstacles that result from the broad use of sanctions,” said Paul Carroll, director of C&SN. 

Yet, nearly one-third of the global economy is under active U.S., EU, or UN-issued sanctions, according to Rodriguez.

Initially, sanctions typically targeted entire government regimes – as exemplified by the embargo placed on Iraq during the 1990s – but the trend has turned to sanctioning specific people or entities in an effort to be more strategic with restrictions, explained Rodriguez. Today, the Biden administration adds over 1,000 specific entities or individuals each year to the sanctions list, a pattern which looks set to grow. 

However, the impacts of targeted sanctions have largely been the same as broad-based ones. “You can say ‘Oh well, we are just specific entities, and specific people – the wrongdoers. But if you take an oil exporting economy, like Venezuela or Iran, and you include the state-owned oil company on the specially designated list, you are effectively declaring an oil embargo on the country,” said Rodriquez.

Disrupting the Enabling Environment for Civil Society

Batmaghelidj explained how sanctions disrupt the enabling environment for civil society. Lack of access to public goods and extra financial pressure severely hampers the middle class – a population that is crucial for providing community services. This enables elite groups who are capable of subverting sanctions to solidify their power, while disempowering sectors that provide public goods. These socio-economic conditions undermine many of the preconditions required for a thriving civil society sector.

“It is very hard to rebuild civil society once it’s been destroyed,” said Batmaghelidj. 

Broad Impacts of Sanctions Should be Expected by Policymakers

Although policy makers largely admit that there are “unintended consequences” of economic sanctions on civilians and civil society, Batmaghelidj questioned whether the broad impacts are not considered by implementing authorities.

“If a significant sanctions campaign is basically shrinking an economy by about a quarter in a matter of a few years, it’s difficult to imagine that a lot of the negative effects that would follow from that are unintended,” Batmaghelidj said. 

The challenge, according to Batmaghelidj, is to engage policymakers on whether the effects would be better classified as “unexpected”, rather than “unintended”. If policy makers can “own” the full impacts of the sanctions regimes they impose, it may result in much needed changes to sanctions, such as impact assessments and mitigation mechanisms that factor in civil society and civilians.

Sanctions Do Not Have an On/Off Button

Though the bulk of sanctions research and policy discussions typically center on the impacts of currently active sanctions regimes on targeted contexts, the impacts of sanctions last long after their termination, hampering and reshaping societies and economies.

“The expectation is that sanctions are like a button that you can push on and off. Once you push it off the economy will recover and everything will be fine. However we know from real world cases and research this is rarely the case,” Attia said. Instead, imports into formerly targeted countries can continue to decline years even after the sanctions have ceased. 

Sanctions also reshape the socio-economic landscape. Informal economies grow, empowering illicit groups that control these sectors while simultaneously impairing citizens who suffer from inflated prices that result from the backchannel trade. “These distributional effects persist after sanctions have been removed, which have a social, economic, and political adverse effect when it comes to ordinary citizens,” said Attia.

Policy makers rarely consider the exit strategy for sanctions regimes, which is a major problem according to Attia. “We need to think of termination before imposing sanctions. We need to have an exit strategy in mind,” she said. 

C&SN advocates for the protection of civil society from the adverse impacts of sanctions, which most often compound crises and deprive services for the people living in crisis zones. Tune in to C&SN’s next Ask an Expert webinar on November 16, where sanctions attorneys will unpack the complex and confusing nuances of navigating sanctions licensing and regulations.