On Oct. 4, 2022, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing co-chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), entitled Considerations on Economic Sanctions, to address the “collateral effects of economic sanctions programs, including their impacts on humanitarian assistance, human rights and peacebuilding.” Witnesses testifying during the hearing included:

  • Dr. Bruce W. Jentleson, William Preston Few Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Political Science, Duke University, and Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars;
  • Dr. Erica Moret, Senior Researcher, International Sanctions, Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies;
  • Delaney Simon, Senior Analyst, U.S. Program, International Crisis Group;
  • Aslı Ü. Bâli, J.D., Ph.D., Professor of Law, Yale Law School;
  • Dr. Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University;
  • and Gabriel Noronha, Fellow, Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Following opening statements by the co-chairs, Dr. Bruce Jentleson spoke to the issue of sanctions backfiring, or being counterproductive to their intended policy goals, and to the issue of misfiring, in which sanctions impact a population instead of a regime. Indeed these challenges are not mutually exclusive, and are often mutually reinforcing. He then offered recommendations, which included moving away from sanctions as a default foreign policy tool, implementing impact assessments that examine the political, economic, and humanitarian consequences of sanctions, abandoning the assumption that greater economic impact equates to greater effectiveness, and ensuring sanctions are used as a tool of diplomacy rather than in place of diplomacy.

Dr. Erica Moret argued that sectoral and energy sanctions have had some of the greatest impacts on civilians, fueling unemployment, limiting remittances, and limiting incomes while increasing prices of food and fuel. She also warned that financial sector de-risking is worsening around the world, with some countries now suffering from partial or total financial exclusion, in which there is no way to use formal banking channels to get money in and out of the country. She highlighted de-risking as a driver of new conflicts, extremism, gender inequality, and human rights abuses. Dr. Moret also looked at impacts on nonprofits, citing confusion over permissible activities, difficulty navigating multiple sanctions regimes, the diversion of humanitarian funds from those most in need, widespread consensus in the NPO community that current licensing practices are not enough, the fact that this forces NPOs to make use of less regulated channels for financing operations, and the resulting decrease in humanitarian financing. Her recommendations included safeguarding humanitarian banking channels, engaging in public interventions that utilize regional financial institutions, providing political and financial support to explore alternative finance mechanisms, enhancing compliance guidance, engaging in dialogue and capacity building across sectors, creating incentives against de-risking, creating automatic exemptions from broad-based sanctions, making sanctions temporary and reversible, improving monitoring of multi-layered sanctions regimes to assess the cumulative costs of sanctions, and rethinking the widespread use of sanctions in general.

Delaney Simon focused on the impact of sanctions on peacebuilding, pointing to the FARC’s inclusion on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list as an impediment to the implementation of a 2016 peace deal in Colombia as an example. She warned that sanctions block critical peacebuilding functions, limit peacebuilding groups’ access to financial services, and prevent engagement. She argued that new and existing sanctions programs should require clear statements of intent, and regular reviews submitted to Congress on the achievement of these goals and the impact of sanctions on peacebuilding. She also noted that carve outs for civil society are often not enough to protect peacebuilding activities, and advocated for a global general license, implemented in close coordination with civil society, to protect these activities in all sanctioned contexts.

Aslı Ü. Bâli opened by noting that sanctions are often presented as an alternative to war – but that this is paradoxical, because in practice, like war, comprehensive sanctions regimes cause severe harm to civilians and imperil the human rights of vulnerable populations. Focusing on international human rights law, Bâli argued that unilateral comprehensive sanctions often violate human rights law by contributing to starvation, which is not limited to death, but is a process that sanctions can directly contribute to. She noted that humanitarian waivers and general licenses do not exempt the U.S. from its obligations to international human rights law, and that if sanctions are contributing to starvation, they are unlawful no matter what other steps were taken to avoid this. Her recommendations included implementing both initial and ongoing impact assessments of sanctions, narrowly tailoring sanctions to avoid human rights impacts (both for comprehensive and targeted sanctions), incorporating automatic suspension clauses into broad-based sanctions programs to allow for better emergency responses to natural disasters like hurricanes and global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, and implementing sunset provisions to require sanctions to be reauthorized after a period of time.

Dr. Daniel Drezner called for a more measured approach to sanctions, arguing that U.S. policymakers often overestimate the efficacy of sanctions, and underestimate their collateral impacts. He observed that sanctions regimes that make unrealistic demands of their targets are generally harmful and ineffective. He also noted that even targeted sanctions, which often are layered on top of comprehensive sanctions, can still come with collateral damage, such as over-compliance leading to more de-risking, and economic impacts contributing to humanitarian crises and outward migration flows.

Gabriel Noronha took a different approach to sanctions from the majority of the witnesses, arguing that broad-based sanctions can be effective tools for supporting human rights, and that the U.S. goes to great lengths to prevent the harmful humanitarian impacts of sanctions. He also opposed the implementation of sunset provisions in sanctions, arguing that governments may try to take advantage of them by taking steps to see sanctions lifted and then reversing those steps later. Bâli later took issue with this, arguing that the immense harm sanctions cause necessitates the creation of a mechanism to debate the merits of sanctions, and that concern over the potential for states to reverse course following sanctions relief is not a good enough reason to oppose such a mechanism.

Following their opening remarks, Reps. McGovern and Smith asked some follow up questions. Of particular note, Rep. McGovern asked witnesses to share the one or two most important things Congress can do to reduce the harmful collateral effects of sanctions.

Dr. Moret suggested that Congress should be cognizant of the potential for targeted sanctions to be applied in ways that make their impacts comprehensive.

Noronha reiterated his support for sectoral sanctions, arguing that they can force governments to choose between guns and butter, and advocated for the U.S. government to implement a thoughtful process that asks how they can force governments to care for their citizens, though he conceded, “I don’t have a clear answer to that immediately.”

Simon responded that sanctions have the capacity to be an effective tool for conflict mitigation and prevention, but that Congress should try to tailor sanctions programs to better serve conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution goals.

Dr. Drezner encouraged Members of Congress to be wary of drawing bright lines between targeted and broad-based sanctions, pointing out that targeted sanctions can also have significant impacts on civilians and NGOs. He also argued that Congress should require the State Department or the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to do sanctions impact assessments on a yearly basis after sanctions have been imposed. Lastly, he endorsed Simon’s suggestion of a global licensing regime that can bypass any sanctions put in place and lessen the immediate humanitarian impact of future sanctions.

By and large, the witnesses agreed that sanctions often come with serious collateral impacts on civilian populations and NGOs, and the majority of them endorsed steps to address these impacts, such as sunset provisions, impact assessments, and global licensing mechanisms. The Charity & Security Network applauds the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for hosting this important hearing, and encourages the commission to follow up with additional hearings to explore the issue further and to hear from witnesses who have experienced the collateral impacts of U.S. sanctions themselves.

Watch the full hearing here.