Sanctions bite but are they effective?

Robert Okot

What you need to know:

  • Whereas sanctions may register success whenever imposed on individuals or non-state actors, they seem to increasingly be counterproductive or less effective whenever they are imposed on states as a whole.

The United Kingdom (UK) government, through its Global Human Rights regime, has joined the US government in imposing sanctions on Uganda’s former police chief, Gen Kale Kayihura, for allegedly superintending over human rights violations, including torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment while he was still at the helm of Uganda Police Force.

Not so long ago, due to their alleged involvement in an international adoption scam involving more than 30 children, the US government levied financial sanctions and travel restrictions on two judges and two lawyers in Uganda.

In 2021, former CMI chief Abel Kandiho was also sanctioned by the US government on allegations of human rights violations.

However, we need to interrogate the effectiveness of sanctions as a response to human rights violations. While the tendency has always been to rubbish the sanctions in public, the sanctions do actually bite.

The idea of human rights protection has always been known to be a domestic matter to be realised by individual states within their domestic law and national institutions. However, the protection and promotion of human rights continues to be one of the most pressing issues for the international community.

The international community developed sanctions as an alternative to military action when faced with the endangerment of international peace and security. The most frequently employed method is imposing sanctions against the offending state or group or individuals. Sanctions can take a variety of forms—economic, diplomatic, individual, military, or cultural.

The concept behind imposing sanctions is that doing so will weaken the government or political elite by hindering their access to resources. In theory, this action should reduce the capacity of the group to keep their power and, therefore, weaken them.

Africa has been far and away the target of more sanctions from the UN, EU and US than any other continent. Most of these sanctions and related restrictions are aimed at resolving conflicts and in recent years, these have been overwhelmingly directed towards individuals or groups responsible for human rights violations.

One of the advantages of international sanctions is that they can be integrated as an element of the entire foreign policy or foreign relations strategy of a country.  Sanctions have been used to advance a range of foreign policy goals or to punish entities or actors who violate international norms, including international human rights obligations. Myanmar is a good example of the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions. Reports of government oppression of political dissidents prompted countries such as the US and the UK to sanction the government in an attempt to influence the domestic policies of the military government. However, despite the negative effects of these sanctions on the economy of Myanmar, its leaders are unmoved. Political oppression remains rampant. The military has cracked down unarmed protests. Human rights abuses are pervasive.

Sanctions are more likely to lead to a deterioration in the lived experience of the vast majority of sanctioned peoples as they run contrary to the spirit of human rights because they explicitly and implicitly expose the ordinary people of the sanctioned country to considerable suffering.  Take a look at countries like Iran, Syria, Russia and North Korea; it is the ordinary people who suffer as many of their human rights are violated, including the rights to health and food.

It should also be noted that sanctions do violate one of the fundamental human rights; the right to a fair hearing as the sanctioned are never given the opportunity to defend themselves.

Therefore, whereas sanctions may register success whenever imposed on individuals or non-state actors, they seem to increasingly be counterproductive or less effective whenever they are imposed on states as a whole.

Mr Robert Okot is a human rights and non-profit law attorney.