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Article Version

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Publication Date

Fall 2011


Targeted sanctions—often referred to as “smart sanctions”—began in large measure as a response to the UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 and 1991, after its invasion of Kuwait. By 1991 it was clear that the sanctions on Iraq, initially welcomed by antiwar activists as a peaceful alternative to military action, were different from any sanctions seen before. Combined with the destruction from the bombing campaign of the Gulf War, they were devastating to the Iraq economy and infrastructure, resulting in widespread malnutrition, epidemics of water-borne diseases, and the collapse of every system necessary to ensure human well-being in a modern society. As the sanctions seemed to have no end in sight, there was considerable “sanctions fatigue” within the United Nations, as well as a growing body of literature that questioned whether sanctions were effective at obtaining compliance by the target state, even when there was considerable impact on its economy.

In the wake of these concerns, there were efforts in many venues to design sanctions that would not have the humanitarian impact of broad trade sanctions, and that would also be more effective by putting direct pressure on individual national policy-makers. These targeted sanctions included arms embargoes, financial sanctions on the assets of individuals and companies, travel restrictions on the leaders of a sanctioned state, and trade sanctions on particular goods. Many viewed targeted sanctions as an especially promising tool for foreign policy and international governance, and many still see targeted sanctions as a natural and obvious solution to a broad array of difficult situations. But there are considerable difficulties with each type of targeted sanction, with regard to implementation, humanitarian impact, and, in some cases, due process rights. Some of these difficulties may be resolved as these measures continue to be refined. Others are rooted in fundamental conflicts between competing interests or intractable logistical challenges.


Copyright 2011 Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

Publication Title

Ethics and International Affairs

Published Citation

Gordon, J. "Smart Sanctions Revisited,” Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall 2011, p.315-335.



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