Art of US Sanctions on the Ground. Comments of a Local NGO

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Publish Date : 11/25/2018 18:39
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The core idea of Richard Nephew’s book “The Art of Sanctions ” is that sanctions are designed to target the well-being, happiness and satisfaction of all citizens in the target country rather than aiming to improve human rights.

The core idea of Richard Nephew’s book “The Art of Sanctions”(1) is that sanctions are designed to target the well-being, happiness and satisfaction of all citizens in the target country rather than aiming to improve human rights. What is even worse is that on-the-ground they even jeopardize the life and health of all ordinary people especially the vulnerable groups including children, women, patients, people with disabilities and the poor. Here are some points mentioned in the book.


1. The book uses the word pain 233 times. Inflicting intolerable pain on people especially the most vulnerable is mentioned as the aim of sanctions. What the book refers to as “escalating pain and diminishing resolve” is translated as violation of almost all human rights of the people in the target country, including all fundamental rights and freedoms:
- “But at the root of their efforts is the desire to inflict some measure of pain in order to change policy, as well as an inclination to match pain levels with the desired outcome”. p.11

2. Sanctions limit employment opportunities because unemployment leads to dissatisfaction of citizens with the government and revolt:
“Employed citizens tend to be happier citizens, more satisfied with their government and its performance, and less inclined to revolt (in whatever fashion is feasible depending the nature of the host government system and local culture or society). Unemployed citizens are, by extension, probably less happy citizens, less satisfied with their lot in life and the performance of their government”. p.51


3. Inflation hurts people by increasing the cost of living:
“Sanctions that aim to increase inflation de facto aim to increase costs to average citizens”. p.143


4. Sanctions are designed to be destructive as war but in a less visible way, negatively affecting the most vulnerable groups of the target society:
“But on a strategic level, the imposition of pain via sanctions is intended to register the same impulses in an adversary as those imposed via military force: to face a choice between capitulation and resistance, between the comparatively easy path of compromise and the sterner path of confrontation. And just because the damage wrought by sanctions may be less visible (at least, with some sanctions regimes), it need not be less destructive, particularly for economically vulnerable populations that may be affected”. p.11


5. In order to leave more destructive influences on the target country, sanctions are designed to focus on the vulnerabilities of that country. The less developed the country is, the better target it will be for the sanctions; and once again it contradicts the international norms promoted by the United Nations to improve the economic livelihood in the developing countries (clear violation of the right to development):
“Is the country an advanced economy, integrated into the rest of the international system? These distinctions matter greatly, as they speak to the degree to which an economy is itself vulnerable to international forces. Economic inequality is another related factor that ought to be contained in the assessment”. p.55


6. The sanctions are claimed to be aiming at the political leaders to change their policies and protect human rights. Notwithstanding, the author confesses that authoritative political systems are more resistant to sanctions than democracies and it can be concluded that sanctions push the countries toward more authoritarian systems shrinking the space for human rights activism (clear violation of the right to freedom of expression and violating the democratic values):
“For Kim (North Korea), it is arguable that almost no level of economic pressure would be sufficient to topple him, at least given current views of the consolidated nature of his regime”. “In contrast, fully functional democracies are highly vulnerable to domestic political pressure created by sanctions”. p.96


7. The aim of sanctions, as defined in the book, is to increase pain of the people as well as preventing any solution to relief the pain, so that the target country is forced to start negotiations. In other words, in the sanction systems intolerable pain and suffering of the people is the avenue for bridging negotiations:
“This book aims to help development of sanctions strategies that identify the intersection of escalating pain and diminishing resolve, at which a diplomatic negotiation can be most effective”. p.3


8. It seems as if, those who design sanctions, have no concerns for the number of lives that would be lost due to lack of access to vital items including food and medicine, among all the hardship they will have to tolerate, before the target country reaches the point when it submits to the sanctions pressure – if it will ever reach the point.


9. Various aspects of pain including the necessity of finding vulnerable sectors of the target society and making sure that pain will be felt are discussed in the book:
“The sanctioning state must understand as much as possible the nature of the target, including its vulnerabilities, interests and commitment to whatever it did to prompt sanctions, and readiness to absorb pain”. p.4
“…develop a strategy to carefully, methodically, and efficiently increase pain on those areas that are vulnerabilities while avoiding those that are not”. p.4
“Sanctions are intended to create hardship—or to be blunt, “pain”—that is sufficiently onerous that the sanctions target changes its Behavior”. p.9

10. The book suggests that in order for the sanctions to be successful, they need to continuously make sure that the target country will not find any solution to the problems created by sanctions:
“Continuously recalibrate its initial assumptions of target state resolve, the efficacy of the pain applied in shattering that resolve (they perfectly know that people are dying because of lack of access to medicine.)p.4
“In fact, the type of pain and its severity may be modulated, but the intention of sanctions is always to make the new status quo uncomfortable and unpleasant for the target”. p.4


11. The book reiterates that the severity of the pain should not be reduced:
“Moreover, the irony of all this is that sanctions are ultimately intended to cause pain and change policy: denying some of that pain may make for better public relations for a sanctions program, but it also undermines the contention that sanctions work and may even interfere with their effectiveness on a practical level if a sanctioner adjusts the regime to address a humanitarian problem and, in doing so, reduces the very pain the sanctions are intended to create”. p.12


12. The first part of the following extract of the book can be considered as the on-the-ground reality of sanctions, since they impose excruciating pain to the targeted people:
“The application of pain against a sanctions target is sheer sadism unless it is connected to an expectation about what that pain will achieve and is matched with a readiness to stop inflicting pain when the sanctioning state’s objectives are met”. p.48
“It should be made sure that the pain is felt sever enough”. p.53


13. Maybe the most ironic claim of the book is presented where it defines the aim of the sanctions as pushing the country to take “meaningful steps to address concerns regarding the human rights of the Iranian population, including religious minorities and other at-risk populations.”p.147

The contradictory nature of the aforementioned argument is that the sanctioning country claim to be concerned about “human rights of the Iranian people”. It seems as if that the USA reduces Iranian’s Human Rights to the minorities’ right to freedom of religion (which should be protected) and ignores the systematic widespread violations of people’s human rights as a direct result of sanctions.


The direct quotations cited from the book shed light on the real aim of sanctions of forcing the target state comply with the political will of the sanctioning state. The excuse of improvement of human rights situation in the target country seems to be a propaganda to help justifying the unilateral act. The logic behind sanctions explained in the book clarifies that the measures are used as a means of economic bullying against the target country, to put the people under severe pressure and to keep increasing the level of hardship in the society in order to make them revolt against the government and destabilize the political situation to an extent that the officials make a decision to come to the negotiation table and accept the conditions set by the sanctioning country.

From a human rights law perspective, however, both the sanctions and the unilateralism exercised in imposing the measures are considered to be unlawful. They violate almost all human rights of the target population including the right to life and the right to health. According to the author of the book (p. 11) and the UN special Rapporteur on the Unilateral Coercive Measures(2) “UCMs can be considered as act of war” in which there are no protections for civilians who are deemed to the “silent death”.



(1) Nephew, Richard. (2018). The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field. New York: Columbia University Press

(2)For example: A/HRC/39/54, pages, 7, 8, 11; The Special Rapporteur’s statement on 22 August 2018 available at: Here


“ Art of US Sanctions on the Ground. Comments of a Local NGO ”