The Cost of Economic Sanctions

Image by ededchechine on Freepik

Why is the definition of a successful sanction based on foreign policy results and not human rights?

By Kate Maccarone

Sanctions are integral to foreign policy, allowing states to achieve economic, security, and political objectives. Economic sanctions are defined as “deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations with a target country in an effort to change that country’s policies” (Jeydel et al., 2013, p.1057). However, human rights violations caused by economic sanctions raise the question of why the success of sanctions is defined solely by foreign policy results and excludes the protection of human rights. This article will define successful sanctions, analyse the history and different types of economic sanctions, compare successful and unsuccessful cases, and explain how they threaten the fundamental human rights of civilians in nations directly or indirectly targeted by sanctions. Then it will examine the United Nations’ (UN) stance on sanctions and explore how it changed over time due to two crises. Finally, this will lead to an analysis of Australia’s position and how the sanctions imposed on Russia and Australia impact the lives of everyday Australians and the global community.

Defining successful sanctions

Scholars, such as Peksen (2019), define successful sanctions by the foreign policy results they achieve; results that are often measured through the degree to which states can negotiate concessions (Peksen, 2019, p. 637). However, recent examples show that sanctions are not always effective and can cause dire, war-like consequences for the civilian populations of targeted countries despite international human rights laws. This article proposes that successful sanctions should be defined by their ability to minimise harm to civilians as well as their foreign policy results.

Overview of economic sanctions

Throughout history, sanctions have been used to apply political and economic pressure, particularly during times of war. Economic sanctions have been traced back to 432 BC Athens when Pericles issued the Megarian import embargo against states who refused to support Athens in the Peloponnesian War (Alexander, 2009, p.8). However, major states did not adopt economic sanctions until the 1920s when the League of Nations allowed sanctions to be used on countries that were committing military offensives against other states (Alexander, 2009, p.9).

The goals of states using sanctions as a political tool have remained the same throughout history: restricting trade, finance, and state aid to achieve national security and foreign policy goals (Alexander, 2009, p.10). They are a coercive method to influence or limit another state, nonstate actors, and third parties’ (Jeydel et al., 2013, p.1057) political, economic, and ideological objectives (Alexander, 2009, p.10).

Economic sanctions can be divided into two main categories: conventional and targeted (Jeydel et al., 2013, p.1057). Conventional sanctions target the nation as a whole (Peksen, 2019, p.639), while targeted sanctions are aimed at individuals (Jeydel et al., 2013, p.1057). Scholars describe conventional sanctions as “insufficiently tailored or targeted and lack[ing in] adequate humanitarian exemptions, [which] could have the cumulative effect of depriving a population, or substantial sections of it, of their means of subsistence” (Jazairy, 2019, p.295). For example, the United States (US) sanctions on Iran have led to a shortage of jobs, food, and medicine, affecting tens of millions of civilians (Jazairy, 2019, p.295).

The UN uses targeted sanctions aimed at key actors and supporters rather than all civilians of targeted states to minimise harm on civilians and economic sectors (Peksen, 2019, p.639). This followed the experience of conventional sanctions in Haiti, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia, which left the civilian populations medically and socially devastated (Peksen, 2019, p.639). However, researchers argue that targeted sanctions are easier to avoid, allowing costs to be shifted onto others (Jazairy, 2019, p.294).

Comparison of ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ sanctions

In some cases, imposed sanctions have achieved foreign policy results and induced targeted countries to negotiate or change their policies. For example, the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and international sanctions imposed by the UN, European Union, and other bodies on Iran strongly impacted Iran’s nuclear program (Caba-Maria & Musetescu, 2020, p.8). The sanctions targeted various sectors: military, strategy, banking, insurance, and finance (Caba-Maria & Musetescu, 2020, p.8). These sanctions forced Iran to agree to a deal with the world powers that limited their nuclear program in 2015 (Caba-Maria & Musetescu, 2020, p.8).

However, the success rate of sanctions as a foreign policy tool varies. UN data shows that targeted sanctions are only successful 10% of the time when used coercively, 27% of the time when used to constrain and signal (Peksen, 2019, p.639). One example is North Korea which has been subject to financial, trade, and travel restrictions by UN-led coalitions (Peksen, 2019, p. 636). The harsh economic sanctions on North Korea have failed to destabilise the regime or produce any changes in the regime’s policies (Peksen, 2019, p. 636).

Why has it become a problem?

While sanctions predominantly target the political, social, and military elite, often there are devastating humanitarian effects on civilians. Direct consequences to affected countries included a shortage of medicine and petrol, and indirect consequences included the government diverting public resources to evade sanctions (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.386). Over the last decade, UN humanitarian organisations and other humanitarian agencies have raised several concerns about the impact of sanctions on their ability to provide humanitarian aid (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.389). For example, the three primary sanctions used in counter-terrorism – travel restrictions, asset freezes, and trade bans – have been linked through studies to preventing humanitarian action (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.389).

Sanctions also set off a chain reaction that affects all human rights in the targeted country (OHCHR, 2022). Vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the elderly, and those with disabilities or chronic diseases, often experience the greatest impact (OHCHR, 2022). Without sufficient water and electricity supplies, schools, workplaces, and hospitals cannot function (OHCHR, 2022). As well as being detrimental to the right to education and life, it prevents people from providing for their families (OHCHR, 2022). As a result, it becomes challenging for the government to safeguard the quality of life for all of its citizens and impedes the country’s development (OHCHR, 2022). Sanctions that restrict a country’s access to resources required to construct roads, bridges, and transport systems prevent essential goods from being transported to vulnerable civilians (OHCHR, 2022).

The humanitarian impact of sanctions in Iran is extreme. The intricate unilateral sanctions against Iran and the secondary sanctions against third parties have exacerbated the already present humanitarian and economic issues, especially among the vulnerable population (OHCHR, 2022). Alena Douhan, the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures (UCMs) on the enjoyment of human rights, has raised concerns about the life-threatening consequences of restrictions on medicines and medical equipment in Iran (OHCHR, 2022). Sanctions imposed on Iran’s economic sectors and national companies have also had a detrimental impact on the country’s economy, inflation, poverty rates, and resources that guarantee fundamental human rights (OHCHR, 2022). This has made it difficult for the government to expand social support programs to address the rising cost of living and support the growing refugee population from Afghanistan (OHCHR, 2022). Furthermore, restrictions on new technologies diminish environmental security, and travel bans limit Iran’s engagement with international organisations (OHCHR, 2022).

UN’s stance

The UN supports sanctions and has opted to use them in previous conflicts. While the UN has not provided an outright definition of economic sanctions, Article 41 refers to sanctions as “measures not involving the use of armed force…including a complete or partial interruption of economic relations” (DFAT, 2022). Since 1966, the UN Security Council has implemented more than 30 sanction regimes in countries such as Rwanda, Iran, and Yemen (UN, 2022). Currently, there are 14 ongoing regimes monitored by the UN (Peksen, 2019, p.635). Each sanction regime is overseen by a sanctions committee, a body of the Security Council, requiring the UN member states to implement a range of measures (Brewer, 2016). These measures include targeting individuals through arms, travel, and financial restrictions (UN, 2022) and are based on Article 25 of the UN Charter, which legally requires member states to carry out Council decisions (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.387). The main goals of the sanction regimes are to encourage peaceful government transitions, protect human rights, block the creation and usage of nuclear weapons, discourage non-constitutional changes, and prevent terrorism (UN, 2022).

Two crises have led to the UN modifying its approach to sanctions. First, following the negative humanitarian consequences caused by the conventional sanctions on civilians in Haiti, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia, the UN undertook reforms between 1998 and 2002 (Jazairy, 2019, p.295). It was found that the conventional sanctions restricted essential goods, including medicine and food, causing disastrous consequences for the civilian population (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.387). As a result, the UN shifted to targeted sanctions to limit the humanitarian impact on civilians (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.387). The second wave of crises arose following the UN’s shift to targeted sanctions (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.387). As sanctions became increasingly targeted, the process of designating individuals was scrutinised (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.387). The impact of the UN’s targeted listings on individual rights to due process was called into question, particularly in the counter-terrorism sphere (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.388). In response, the UN reformed the process of designating an individual on the sanctions list (Brubaker & Huvé, 2021, p.388).

Applicability to Australia

The Australian Sanctions Office (ASO) regulates sanctions for the Australian Government (DFAT, 2022). Under the Explanatory Memorandum to the Autonomous Sanctions Bill 2010, sanctions have three aims: 1) to minimise negative consequences of a situation of international concern; 2) influence those who are inflaming a situation of international concern by motivating them to change their policies; and 3) penalise those responsible for the situation (DFAT, 2022). Due to the obligation to follow international law, Australia implements all UNSC sanction regimes (DFAT, 2022).

Russia is a recent recipient of sanctions from Australia. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, many Western Nations and international groups, such as the US, Australia, European Union (EU) countries, and the UN, imposed sanctions on Russia (Cordesman, 2022). Australian sanctions on Russia include targeted financial sanctions against individuals, regional sanctions for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and import and export sanctions (Baum et al., 2022). The individuals designated by the Australian government include senior government officials, major financial institutions, Russian elites who greatly influence state resources, and major ports and railway owners (Baum et al., 2022).

While the war between Russia and Ukraine is not geographically close to Australia, it still significantly impacts Australian lives and global stability due to the interconnected nature of economies from globalisation. Sanctions in Russia will negatively impact the everyday Australian (Verrender, 2022). Like Australia, Russia is a significant food, energy, and mineral exporter, making it a direct competitor for Australia (Verrender, 2022). While the harsh sanctions on Russia benefit Australian companies, individual Australian citizens are disadvantaged (Verrender, 2022). For example, prices of essential resources, such as petrol and bread, will rise until trade stabilises (Verrender, 2022).

The war has progressed into an economic and political conflict between Russia and Western Nations, which may have a greater long-term impact than the fighting in Ukraine (Cordesman, 2022). The progressively intensifying “war on sanctions” forces Russia to retaliate through political and economic pressure in Europe and physical violence in Ukraine (Cordesman, 2022). Nuclear warfare fears have increased due to the invasion of a democratic nation on the “doorstep of Europe” (Cordesman, 2022). Political tension between the West and Russia may become the new norm, forcing Russia to shift its trade partners from Europe and the West to China and other nations in Asia and Africa, which may change the international order (Cordesman, 2022).

However, not all impacts of economic sanctions are harmful to the average Australian. Following then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 (Fildes, 2022), China implemented eight sanctions on Australia. These sanctions targeted eight commodities: coal, copper ore, beef, wine, rock lobster, barley, cotton, and wood (Adams et al., 2021, p.3). While the short-term effects of these sanctions were negative overall for these industries, there will be long-term benefits. For example, many Australian businesses were forced to diversify trade into other markets, such as India, Japan, and South Korea (Adams et al., 2021, p.3). Diversifying trade will increase market gains due to lower competition in foreign markets, expand the business’s market share, and minimise risks because resources are spread across many markets (Trade Commissioner Service, 2022). Additionally, China’s policies secured Australia the political support from other nations that shared similar views as Australia about China, such as the US (Xue, 2022).


Sanctions are integral to foreign policy; however, they have also had severe consequences for civilians and have destabilised the global community. The definition of a successful sanction needs to broaden to include minimal harm on civilians. While countries and the UN have changed their sanctions from conventional to targeted, the civilian population living under targeted regimes still suffer. Sanctions in countries such as Iran have exacerbated the already present humanitarian and economic issues, especially among the vulnerable population. Despite Australia not being geographically tied to Europe, the impact of sanctions on Russia is widespread. The cost of living in Australia is rising due to disrupted trade; and rising nuclear warfare fears and political tension between the West and Russia may shift the global community order. However, China’s sanctions on Australia have had positive impacts long-term because it has forced businesses to diversify trading partners.




Adams, M., Brown, N., & Wickes, R. (2021). Economic coercion by China: The impact on Australia’s merchandise exports’. Institute for International Trade Working Paper, 4

Alexander, K. (2009). Economic sanctions. Law and Public Policy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire [England]: Palgrave Macmillan.

Baum, L., Eastwood, V., Kerrigan, C., & McNair, C. (2022). What the wide-ranging sanctions on Russia mean for your organisation. Retrieved November 29, 2022 from

Brewer, J. (2016). Un financial sanctions on iran. The Rusi Journal, 161(4), 22–26.

Brubaker, R., & Huvé, S. (2021). Conflict-related un sanctions regimes and humanitarian action: a policy research overview. International Review of the Red Cross, 103(916-917), 385–402.

Caba-Maria, F., & Muşetescu, R. C. (2020, July). The impact of international economic sanctions on national economies. The Islamic Republic of Iran-a case in point. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Business Excellence (Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 1014-1023).

Cordesman, A. (2022). The Longer-Term Impact of the Ukraine Conflict and the Growing Importance of the Civil Side of War. CSIS. Viewed 12 December 2022 from

DFAT. (2022). Australia and Sanctions. Viewed 13 December 2022 from

DFAT. (2022). Invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Viewed 13 December 2022 from

Fildes, N. (2022). Australia rides out Chinese sanctions as exports boom. Financial Times. Viewed 15 January 2023 from

Jazairy, I. (2019). Unilateral economic sanctions, international law, and human rights. Ethics & International Affairs, 33(3), 291–302.

Jeydel, P., Lentz, A., & Rathbone, M. (2013). Sanctions, sanctions everywhere: forging a path through complex transnational sanctions laws. Georgetown Journal of International Law, 44(3), 1055+.

OHCHR. (2022a). I ran: Unilateral sanctions and overcompliance constitute serious threat to human rights and dignity – UN expert. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Viewed 16 December 2022 from

OHCHR. (2022b). UN experts urge States to consider humanitarian impacts when imposing or implementing sanctions. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Viewed 16 December 2022 from

Peksen, D. (2019). When do imposed economic sanctions work? a critical review of the sanctions effectiveness literature. Defence and Peace Economics, 30(6), 635–647.

Trade Commissioner Service. (2022). Spotlight – Market Diversification. Government of Canada. Viewed 15 January 2023 from
UN. (2022). Sanctions. United Nations Security Council. Viewed 16 December 2022 from

Verrender, I. (2022). How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will impact Australians’ wallets, ABC News. Retrieved November 22, 2022 from
Xue, Y. (2022). Fear and Greed: Mapping the Australian Debate on China’s Economic Sanctions. Pacific Focus, 37(1), 5-35.


About the Author

Kate Maccarone is a Griffith third-year student, studying a double degree in Government and International Relations and Asian Studies, majoring in Japanese and public policy. She chose this degree because she immensely enjoys learning about politics, social justice and the Japanese language, culture and society. She is also interested in social policy and its potential to help the community.

Kate joined the YMCA Youth Parliament in 2017 as the Member for Bulimba in the Multi-Cultural and Indigenous Affairs group and volunteered at events in the Bulimba electorate. She won the Griffith University Policy Competition where she argued for stronger policies that support victims of domestic violence. Now Kate is an active member of the United Nations Association of Australia Queensland Division. Thank you to Mariel Verroya, Kate’s supervisor, for editing this article.