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Should We Stop Using Sanctions Against Human Rights Violators?

In 2019, the Dutch government came up with the idea of introducing EU sanctions specifically designed to tackle human rights violations. This new type of sanctions regime was officially adopted with an EU Council regulation in December 2020. This is good news. The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime confirmed the block’s commitment to promoting human rights around the globe. The European Union already had the power to impose sanctions in fulfillment of the specific objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy set out in the Treaty of the EU, namely promoting international peace and security, preventing conflicts, supporting democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and defending the principles of international law. Recently, however, a debate has been started among EU-watchers, mainly around the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny: are sanctions effective and should they be used at all?

It would not be easy to draw a black-and-white conclusion on the numerous types of sanctions imposed by the EU, as the block’s sanctions, in fact, vary in type and effectiveness. Sanctions can be imposed on entire countries in the face of their governments, as well as on non-state actors, including legal entities. It can be strongly argued that individual sanctions are to be preferred over state sanctions. After World War II, several international organizations started implementing sanctions against states. These sanctions most regularly took the shape of trade restrictions and arms embargoes. Their effectiveness and fairness can be challenged, as they are aimed at governments, but primarily punish the citizens of the sanctioned countries. In the early twenty-first century, the European Union also began imposing individual sanctions, mainly linked to terrorist acts.

By looking into the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, a series of human rights violations, caused by the implementation of EU sanctions, must be noted. This occurred in the case of Bosphorus Airways, where a company’s ownership rights were disproportionately derogated for the sake of the sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia, and PMOI, where the Council of the EU included an organization in the Union’s blacklist without sufficient proof, as stated by the Court of Justice. This is part of the paradox of EU sanctions - they themselves sometimes infringe on the human rights of innocent bystanders in the countries they are imposed, the same citizens whom the EU is supposedly trying to protect. This is why the European Union needs to carefully assess the importance of including a credible process of adding, reviewing and removing individuals from the list of offenders, as the Dutch government explicitly stated in relation to the proposed human rights sanctions regime.

This paradox, however, does not always arise. Economic sanctions have been proven to work in certain cases – both those imposed by the EU, and those imposed by our democratic partners from across the Atlantic. Taking a look across the ocean, into a continent which is often overlooked by European leaders, but is in fact a very natural ally to Europe – Latin American countries have been the subject of numerous economic sanctions by the US, which have proven to have brought positive policy changes in the field of human rights – sometimes even in neighboring countries of the region which were not sanctioned at the time. Sanctions turned out to not only have a transformational, but also a preventative, inspirational effect.

The EU has not failed in delivering positive changes through its sanctions as well. After the 2010 Belarusian presidential elections, Andrei Sannikov, oppositional runner in the race, was arrested during a protest, beaten up by police and imprisoned with a 5-year sentence. The international community reacted swiftly. The European Union imposed individual sanctions against a dozen officials and businesspeople close to the regime in the form of travel bans and asset freezes. Surely seeking to minimize public attention, Lukashenko was persuaded to act, after all 27 EU Member States, at that time, recalled their ambassadors from Belarus. Sannikov and all other political prisoners, arrested at the demonstration in 2010, were pardoned and released by Alexander Lukashenko. In Sannikov’s own words: “I am the living proof of the effectiveness of sanctions because I was released only due to the fact that the European Union introduced economic sanctions against the businessmen that were close to Lukashenko and supportive of the regime. Only this made them release me”.

Yet, more than ten years later, the political landscape in Belarus remains unchanged, with Alexander Lukashenko still in power, ruling over Belarus for over 26 years now. The brutal crackdown by security forces on the peaceful protestors after 2020 Belarusian elections shows that while the measures of 2011 may have helped individual victims at that time, they have not been able to shift general policy direction and prevent further human rights violations. The EU has again introduced several measures, targeting natural and legal persons.

The question of “Are sanctions really effective against human right violations?” remains complicated. Human rights violations can make matters worse in some countries close to the EU, a political crisis is still dawning over Belarus, and Uyghurs’ rights are continuously being violated in China. Despite past shortcomings, EU sanctions are evolving into a more flexible and smarter instrument. One thing is clear - while sanctions may not be the be all end all, the European Union, and its partners of the democratic world, need to continue purposefully imposing (preferably) individual sanctions on those close to restrictive regimes, as that puts pressure on those regimes and ensures its actions do not go unnoticed. EU sanctions remain, above all, an important instrument of solidarity and one of the EU’s most powerful soft levers, which it should continue using.


Written by Iliyana Kondareva


Iliyana Kondareva is the Sofia Office Assistant at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


Photograph: CherryX |Wikimedia.org