Sunset for U.N. Sanctions?

How the world came to depend on U.N. punitive measures and why the enforcement system is under threat—the first in an FP series.

Foreign Policy Illustration


For more than 50 years, the United Nations Security Council has turned to the punitive measure of sanctions to solve problems: prodding recalcitrant regimes to yield power, cracking down on terrorism and corruption, and reining in armed groups that threaten peace. U.N. sanctions have never been more widely used than they are today.

Sanctions have never been more popular, but the system for enforcing them at the United Nations is breaking down. In this two-week series, FP looks at why that is and what can still be done to fix it. UP NEXT: How China is using its steadily growing influence at the U.N. to whittle away the power of sanctions regimes.

Foreign Policy illustration


For more than 50 years, the United Nations Security Council has turned to the punitive measure of sanctions to solve problems: prodding recalcitrant regimes to yield power, cracking down on terrorism and corruption, and reining in armed groups that threaten peace. U.N. sanctions have never been more widely used than they are today.

But the U.N. sanctions apparatus is facing a set of challenges that hamper its ability to function effectively. These include rising opposition from China and Russia as well as increasingly brazen efforts from targeted states like South Sudan and North Korea to harass and intimidate experts responsible for detecting sanctions violations.

Over the next two weeks, Foreign Policy will publish a series detailing these obstacles and, in particular, those faced by a cadre of some 60 independent U.N. sanctions specialists who do the dirty work of ensuring sanctions are enforced. These experts endure political interference from powerful states, detention, threats of rape and violence, and in one especially brutal case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, murder. This series is based on interviews with more than 20 current and former U.N. officials and experts as well as access to thousands of pages of internal communications. First, though, a little on how the system was created—and how it has evolved to a near-breaking point.

In December 1966, the U.N. Security Council imposed mandatory economic sanctions on a country for the first time. The initiative—a combination of trade and military sanctions—was crafted to bring down the white-minority rule of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. Smith was a renegade colonial politician who had declared independence from Britain a year earlier. Then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the measure’s chief sponsor, boasted it would be a “matter of weeks, rather than months,” before the regime fell.

In the end, it took more than a decade. The sanctions had little immediate impact on Southern Rhodesia’s economy, as South Africa’s apartheid regime and Mozambique, still under Portuguese colonial rule, continued to trade with the country in defiance of the U.N. measure. Smith remained in power until 1979, when the Prince of Wales formally declared the independence of the nation of Zimbabwe.

But the allure of sanctions—a politically expedient means to apply pressure on a renegade country—has only grown over the years. The U.N. Security Council has established 30 times to impose a range of penalties, from the comprehensive economic embargo that crippled Iraq’s economy in the 1990s to more targeted measures designed to prevent governments, armed rebels, and terrorist groups like North Korea, Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, or al Qaeda from illegally developing nuclear weapons, carrying out terrorist attacks, or thwarting peace efforts.

In the early 1990s, the U.N. Security Council established its most elaborate array of monitoring and inspections to oversee the dismantling of Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs and to administer Iraq’s oil trade, ensuring it paid for the cost of running such operations while paying reparations to Kuwait for the 1990 invasion.

The Iraq sanctions succeeded in defanging then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction but laid waste to the country’s economy, driving a surge in malnutrition, particularly among children. International support for the Iraq sanctions was further eroded amid concerns over oil sale corruption. That drove the Security Council toward more targeted sanctions designed to hit political elites or armed groups that thwarted peace efforts while sparing the general population from comprehensive economic embargoes.

It also paved the way for the establishment of a new generation of U.N. specialists with the skills to ensure U.N. arms embargoes and financial sanctions were enforced. In 1995, the U.N. Security Council instructed then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to set up a commission of inquiry, the first of its kind, to enforce an arms embargo on Rwandan extremists responsible for the country’s 1994 genocide.

In May 1999, the U.N. Security Council, acting on a recommendation from then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Canada’s then-U.N. ambassador, Robert Fowler, established a panel of experts to investigate and report on possible violations of a spate of U.N. financial, military, and diplomatic sanctions against forces loyal to Jonas Savimbi, leader of insurgent Angolan armed group the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. The so-called Fowler Report, issued in 2000, named and shamed a host of African and European companies and governments that violated the sanctions regime. The Angola panels became a blueprint for a new generation of U.N. sanctions.

Today, the Security Council has 14 sanctions regimes in place. Each sanctions regime is administered by a committee comprising representatives of all 15 Security Council members and 10 monitoring groups or expert panels responsible for detecting sanction violations.

Most of the panels are made up of independent experts recruited by the U.N. Secretariat on arms trafficking, financial crimes, or politics. But the North Korea panel includes panelists selected by the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council—including the United States, Russia, and China—with varying degrees of independence. For instance, the Chinese panel members are viewed as largely responding to dictates from the Chinese foreign ministry.

“In my time, it was clear our young Chinese colleague was always bleary-eyed and tired because after a hard day of work on the panel, he was back on the phone at night with the Chinese authorities getting instructions,” said George Lopez, an U.S. expert who served on the North Korea panel in 2010 and 2011. “This was less the case with the Russians I knew, who were more senior and didn’t have to clear things as closely as the Chinese.”

Lopez said the Obama administration was stingy with sensitive intelligence that could help the panel make its case. He was told by Victoria Holt, then deputy assistant secretary of state for international security, “we want you guys to be independent. You’re a smart guy. You can handle this. If we give the panel intelligence, it will be all over the New York Times the next day.”

Holt, who now serves as director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, said she doesnt recall addressing concerns over U.S. intelligence. But she said the administration sought to encourage the panel’s independence. “We were not trying to have the American on the panel be a bullhorn for the American government because we thought that would undercut their credibility,” she said.

Still, the United States has ultimately proven to be a critical source of intelligence by detailing sanctions violations, declassifying satellite imagery, and documenting illicit trade.

For U.S. policymakers, U.N. sanctions add international legitimacy to their own efforts to squeeze the United States adversaries and compel rogue regimes to adhere to international standards. For example, investigations by the U.N. panel of experts in Yemen helped reinforce U.S. and Saudi claims that Iran was supplying armed drones and sophisticated missile technology to Shiite Houthi insurgents, who used them against Saudi Arabia. Even the more politicized panels on Iran and North Korea, which give the U.N.’s big powers an opportunity to sanitize their findings, deliver valuable insights into sanctions violations.

“These panels have really delivered over the years, even with the politicization,” said a senior official from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. “They generate enormous public information about sanctions compliance; we get detailed information on illicit shipments and other violations that even the United States would be hard-pressed to gather.”

“You expose the facts and get them in the public domain,” the official added. “We see great value in this.”

China joins other U.N. Security Council members to vote in favor of the resolution for sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations in New York on Oct. 14, 2006.

China joins other U.N. Security Council members to vote in favor of the resolution for sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations in New York on Oct. 14, 2006. Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Over the past two decades, various U.N. expert panels have had other impressive wins, such as unraveling schemes by Iran and North Korea to disguise their illegal arms exports and acquire banned missile and nuclear technology. In Africa, the panels targeted the exploitation of diamonds and other natural resources that fuel conflict from Angola to Sierra Leone. And in the Middle East, they drew attention to arms trafficking and corruption at the highest levels of Yemen’s government.

But their successes have often placed them in the crosshairs of powerful government and business elites, including key members of the Security Council, the U.N. body that created them. Current and past experts have complained they have received limited support from the U.N. Secretariat. The U.N. branch that oversees their work, they say, often displays greater interest in managing member state sensitivities than supporting a team of free-wheeling investigators who routinely expose wrongdoing by member states.

The very nature of their employment reveals the ambivalence with which they’re viewed from above. They lack many of the privileges held by U.N. staffers, including health care, family leave, medical evacuation insurance, and an official U.N. passport.

For much of the world, sanctions have often been viewed as a crude instrument of pressure by Western capitals. Russia, for instance, has recently escalated a long-standing pressure campaign against a U.N. panel of experts responsible for enforcing sanctions. It has held up the appointment or replacement of specialists overseeing U.N. sanctions compliance in five countries: the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan.

Russia points to the fact that the majority of inspectors are recruited from Western countries, including the United States and Britain, and many of those hired from the global south hold dual citizenship in Western countries or studied at European universities. “Unfortunately, we are still faced with the situation when the proposed composition of such panels is not geographically balanced,” Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told Reuters.

But many experts and diplomats believe Russia is seeking to stack the panels with Russian nationals in an effort to diminish scrutiny of Russia’s growing role in Africa. Russian military trainers and mercenaries have come under U.N. investigation spotlights in the Central African Republic and Libya—and now have plans to enter Mali.

China, meanwhile, has been working behind the scenes to sanitize a U.N. report that shed light on Beijing’s lax enforcement of sanctions, particularly on North Korea. China has also joined forces with Russia to limit resources for the expert panels, using its political leverage in U.N. budget committees to limit experts’ abilities to travel or secure access to trade databases or satellite imagery.

The Russian campaign appears aimed at securing greater political oversight of the panel’s work, particularly in countries where they have significant interests. This includes the Central African Republic and Libya, where expert panels have delivered increasingly critical accounts of sanctions violations by Russian trainers and mercenaries, such as members of Russian mercenary outfit the Wagner Group.

“It looks like Moscow wants to paralyze sanctions and panels of experts to divert attention from what Wagner is up to in Africa,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group. “So in some cases, it is simply a way of covering up some nefarious business.”

But Gowan said Russia and China see other political benefits to stifling expert panel efforts that routinely uncover revelations of wrongdoing by U.N. governments—particularly in regions like Africa, where they are both making inroads.

And according to current and former experts, China and Russia’s efforts are gradually chipping away at the panels independence as well as threatening its long-term capacity to investigate and expose violations. The United States, Britain, and France continue to fend off some of the most egregious attempts by China and Russia to clip the panels’ wings. But those efforts have been selective, paying more attention to North Korea than to reinforcing sanctions in less strategic countries in Africa.

“I think the Chinese and Russians also think they’ve got a winning theme here as it is easy to paint sanctions as a malign Western tool,” Gowan said.

“The entire system of sanctions is collapsing in a way that has never happened before,” added Dino Mahtani, a former U.N. panel member on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia’s panels who now works for the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think this has really sunk in with member states.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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