In the "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: March 2014


The Ethics of Sanctions

“It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings pressure upon the nation that, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1919

“To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid. Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.”

Nelson Mandela, 1990

Championed as a humane diplomatic tool by some and accused of coercive harm of genocidal proportions by others, the ethics and efficacy of sanctions remain fiercely debated.

Sanctions have been held responsible for killing thousands of innocent children and for ending apartheid. Regardless of their controversial nature, for decades the United States has employed sanctions to advance national interests and enforce international norms.

As this Ethical Inquiry is being posted, the United States and other nations are contemplating implementing sanctions against Russia in response to developments in Ukraine.

Recent developments in Iranian nuclear negotiations following harsh international sanctions may provide advocates with evidence of success, but the causality of crippling sanctions and high-level negotiations remains questioned.

In this Ethical Inquiry we explore the ethics of sanctions, focusing on economic sanctions imposed by governments, with a focus on the actions of the United States. Are sanctions a tried and true tool or simply an empty gesture to give the semblance of control within the anarchy of the global sphere?

How & Who

The Office of Foreign Assets Control enforces U.S. sanctions on foreign governments, entities, individuals and certain practices. Comprehensive sanctions prohibit all imports and exports, trade brokering or financing against most goods, technology and services. 

The U.S. currently maintains comprehensive sanctions against Burma, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Whereas selective sanctions are imposed on a particular good or individual, including Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Somalia. Sanctions dominate American diplomacy and therefore deserve serious consideration.

Best Option?

Advocates argue economic sanctions are a humane and effective means to target a government.


Proponents argue sanctions cause comparatively less harm than military intervention by avoiding the negative externalities of conflict such as collateral damage. Military intervention has historically proven to consume lives, time, and political capital. Policy makers enthusiastically support measures that fall before military action on the spectrum of intervention. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spanning the past decade contribute to an almost insurmountable political barrier for further military intervention.

Britain’s former ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, articulated this mentality when he said, "military action is increasingly unpopular and in many ways ineffective in a modern legitimacy-oriented world, and words don't work with hard regimes. So something in between these is necessary. What else is there?"


First, sanctions are said to decrease a regime’s tangible resources, such as weapons, and therefore their ability to enact internationally condemned practices and policies. For example, sanctions against the apartheid South African government were supported by both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are are widely believed to be an influential factor in the anti-apartheid movement. At most, many contend, sanctions deprived an oppressive regime of vital resources while at least they demonstrated international condemnation of apartheid.

Second, politicians and experts argue that sanctions decrease political capital and increase the cost of acting out condemned behavior. For example, some observers claim that the Iranian middle class hold their regime accountable for harsh sanctions and therefore increasingly support democratization. As a result, the election of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rohani and an apparent change of heart regarding nuclear negotiations are being heralded as a testament to the efficacy of sanctions. 


Opponents argue equally fervently that economic sanctions are ineffective and inhumane/morally wrong.


Reed Wood, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that sanctions exacerbate internal repression. His research suggests that regimes increase oppression to ensure stability when decreased government resources threaten to embolden the opposition. Additionally, sanctions have the potential to create a “rally around the flag” effect if a targeted nation successfully shifts blame towards the U.S. A 2013 report by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation states that economic sanctions harm pro-Western middle class Iranians the greatest and therefore increases anti-American sentiment.

This is supported by a 2013 Gallup poll, which found that 47% of Iranians blamed the U.S. for sanctions against Iran.  

Further, belief in the efficacy of sanctions is shaken when, for example, luxury ski equipment appears in North Korea and Iranian businessmen master trade loopholes.

Scholars continue to highlight the resilience of regimes to influence public opinion and avoid financial stress. Iranian politicians even claimed sanctions actually strengthened domestic industry. Additionally in Iran, sanctioned goods shift to the black market while the general public is increasingly denied medical and food supplies.

Inhumane/Morally Wrong

Independent of the coercive ability of economic sanctions some argue that sanctions immorally impose the greatest harm on the general population. Reed Wood explains that regimes in control of state institutions are able to allocate costs to the most vulnerable sections of society. Shifting the burden cripples public and private revenue leading to unemployment, declining GNP, capital flight, lost foreign investment, and deteriorating public health standards.

For example, Iranian sanctions have increased the price of essential goods such as food and oil while policy-controlling elite remains largely untouched. Sanctions have even been attributed to a life-threatening shortage of drugs for Iranian cancer patients as well. U.S. sanctions have also impacted Iranian airline quality and some contend may have contributed to high rates of crashes. 

Scholars and journalists also point to Cuba, which has demonstrated no interest in democratizing in the last 50 years, despite being the receiving country of the longest imposed sanctions in modern history. Journalists and scholars even argue sanctions against Cuba harm the United States economically and diplomatically.

The cases of Iran and Cuba beg the question; can sanctions affecting the lives of citizens under autocratic governments be morally justified even if they effectively influence a regime’s behavior?

Sanctions also have the potential for unintended consequences, including causing harm to third parties such as neighbors or major trading partners of the targeted state. 

Another Response: “Smart Sanctions”

In response to the moral ambiguity of comprehensive sanctions, “smart sanctions” that aim to punish elite rather than the general public are increasingly popular.

Targeted or “smart” sanctions seek to make leaders uncomfortable by freezing international assets and imposing travel bans. Sanctions against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad following his regime’s increasing civilian brutality serve as an example. ‘Smart sanctions’ seek to counteract the perspective that comprehensive economic sanctions are both ineffective and immoral by instead burdening the politically powerful elite.

Another Purpose: Sanctions as Deterrent

One interesting perspective to consider is Kim Richard Nossal's argument that sanctions provide a tool for international punishment regardless of tangible efficacy. He advances that sanctions fulfill a combination of compellence, deterrence, and retribution and therefore remain an attractive policy as they rise from a desire to punish. Therefore, sanctions could still be considered “effective” under a standard of retribution even if they do not influence the actions of the receiving state.

Joy Gordon, author of “Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions,” states that sanctions should be held to the same international legal standards as the use of force, as articulated in the Geneva Convention. She claims that sanctions are justified when there exists a reasonable probability of success, a just cause, and discrimination between combatants and noncombatants. However, the question remains whether sanctions can still be meaningfully coercive if held to these standards.

Looking Beyond the United States

Are sanctions more ethical when imposed by international organizations or do their failures continue to outweigh international approval? The United Nations and European Union have also employed sanctions with mixed results. Most recently, the EU has imposed sanctions against Ukrainian officials in the face of violent suppression of pro-democracy protestors. Additionally, the imposition of sanctions by nongovernmental organizations deserves consideration as well.

Final Thoughts

Simultaneously controversial and widely used, economic sanctions are one of the few options in the limited toolbox of international diplomacy. Recent developments have seen a shift from broad to targeted economic sanctions in an attempt to address their faults. The future evolution of international sanctions is tied to that of international diplomacy. Therefore, continued debate of the practical and ethical implications of sanctions is more than warranted.

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Amelia Katan ’15, a member of the Fall 2013/Spring 2014 Ethics Center Leadership Council.

Additional Links:

A chart of U.S. sanctions and what they mean

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