[Ethics: Mains] Morality of Economic Sanctions : International Ethics


Economic sanctions are particular type of tools in the statecraft to advance foreign policy goals of states. They are preferable to more coercive tools such as war. However, though they are useful instrument of statecraft but still their role and impact are morally ambiguous.

Usually they involve –

  1. Positive incentive ie. carrot , designed to induce or reward desirable behaviour. Reward might be in the form of increase in foreign aid, loans at concessional rates, preferential treatment, etc.
  2. Negative sanctions ie. stick , designed to punish state for undesirable behaviour. It could be in the form of reduction in aid, selected, quotas, curtailing or halting foreign investment ,ban on technology transfer, etc.


Why economic sanctions ?

Traditionally, states have used economic sanctions for variety of reasons, such as,

  1. Compliance : forcing a State to alter its behaviour
  2. Subversion : attempting to remove particular political leader or overthrow regime
  3. Deterrence : discouraging a State from carrying out unacceptable behaviour
  4. International symbolism : sending message to international community
  5. Domestic symbolism : seeking domestic support by harnessing popular sentiments


When they are effective ?

Are sanctions an effective foreign policy tool? Do they achieve desired behavioural outcomes? Many scholars and foreign policy experts doubt their effectiveness.

Scholars have found several factors that affect the economic impact of sanctions –

  1. Economic hardship is more likely to be achieved when sanctions are imposed multilaterally. Because most economic goods and services are highly fungible (i.e., can be replaced or substituted), broad participation, especially from the major powers, is normally a prerequisite for imposing the desired hardship on the target state.

For example

  • The importance of collective action was illustrated in 1990-1991 during the Persian Gulf crisis, when the United Nations imposed comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq. Because nearly every country honoured the embargo, Iraq’s gross national product (GNP) declined by nearly 50 percent.
  • By contrast, the U.S. led economic embargo against Cuba has been ineffective because it was supported by few major states only.


  1. A second factor that affects economic success is the participation by non-governmental actors. Given the increasing influence of global corporations and significant NGOs, non-state actors can greatly reinforce and intensify sanctions.


For example,

In response to growing U.S. domestic opposition to South African apartheid, private actors encouraged private divestment and directly pressured American banks and corporations to dilute disinvestment programs.


  1. Domestic and bilateral factors can also greatly influence the impact. However , to have the greatest harm few conditions need to meet ,such as ,
  • Target state must be economically weak and politically unstable.
  • High level of economic interdependence
  • Imposition of sanctions quickly and decisively
  1. They are regarded as more useful tools when less demanding expectations are imposed.
  2. They are regarded as successful when they are used as punishment.

For example – economic sanctions against Haiti in 1991 ; Serbia in 1992 ; Darfur

  1. They are regarded as successful when they inhibit or delay the use of force. Because war is more destructive than economic sanctions , they are generally morally preferable moral tool of foreign policy to military conflict.


Are they really effective ?

The fundamental assumption of economic sanctions is that hardship will discourage unacceptable policies and encourage behavioural reform.

  • Although economic “sticks” can no doubt affect the behaviour of foreign actors, economic coercion alone is not decisive.
  • For one thing, foreign policy decision making is a multidimensional process that is subject to numerous domestic and international factors.
  • Inducing behavioural change is far more difficult against autocratic regimes—the governments most likely to be subjected to sanctions. Although highly punitive economic sanctions were being imposed on Iran in 2012, there was little evidence that its autocratic government was likely to alter its nuclear enrichment program.
  • According to one comprehensive study, economic sanctions during the 1914—1990 period were successful in bringing about desired reforms in about one-third of the cases. However, another scholar, using the same data, argues that the success rate is less than 5 percent!
  • Regardless of whether one accepts the optimistic or pessimistic measures of political success, it is clear that economic hardship does not often achieve the desired political outcomes.

But perhaps sanctions should be viewed as part of a state’s overall repertoire for communicating interests and exercising international influence.


Morality of sanctions 

  • According to some thinkers sanctions are indeed a form of violence.
  • Many thinkers says that they are morally dubious.
  • One of the most influential anti-apartheid activist highlighted the morally problematic nature of economic sanctions because they imposed great hardship on poor blacks.
  • For assessing the morality of economic sanctions some ethicist have suggested certain criteria on the basis of we can evaluate their moral standards, such as , ( just sanctions theory )


  1. Just cause
  • Promoting peace
  • Protecting human rights and human dignity
  1. Right intention
  • They are not justified to increase national power and extend economic influence
  1. Limited objective
  • Targeting only those behaviour and institutions which are unjust
  1. Last resort
  • Only when peaceful negotiation have been exhausted
  1. Probability of success
  2. Discrimination
  • They must not target innocent people
  • Must target government and those who are supporting
  • It is the most important yet most morally challenging principle because most of the sanctions were unable to fulfill this criteria. When comprehensive sanctions were imposed the hardship typically falls disproportionately on poor people.


For example – when comprehensive sanctions were imposed on Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990, great suffering fell on innocent people. It is estimated that these sanctions over 12 years had caused the death of at half a million children , though UN in 1996 UN had instituted an Oil-for-Food Program to relieve Iraq’s humanitarian crisis.

  1. Proportionality
  • The good intended from sanctions must be proportional to the harm inflicted on the target state.
  • Thus above mentioned criteria are useful in assessing whether any economic sanctions imposed by State is morally right or questionable.
  • Economic tools in the form of sanctions continue to be important tool in the foreign policy. Their importance is further enhanced by the fact that they are preferable to war because war is more destructive.
  • But still they are morally problematic not only because they rarely achieve desired political results but also they impose great hardships on innocent civilians.


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By Mitra Sir

Director @Mitra's IAS | Philosophy (Optional) & Ethics (GS IV)

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