UN sanctions: possible changes?

Michele Porcelluzzi - 24th July 2014

In the last 20 years, the UN Security Council has adopted numerous sanctions not involving the use of armed force.

Originally, these sanctions only targeted States and aimed to prevent or punish cross-border attacks, civil wars and terrorism. They have since narrowed to target specific entities or individuals and the rationale for sanctions has expanded to include the protection of civilians and prevention of human rights atrocities, stopping the development of unconventional arms and their delivery systems, and financing conflict through exploitation of natural resources or criminal activities.  For example, the Sudanese sanctions regime,, established by Resolution 1591 (2005), imposed measures including travel bans and asset freezing on individuals designated by the Committee.

Today, there are 15 sanctions committees, supported by 65 experts working on 11 monitoring teams, groups and panels, at a cost of about $32 million dollars a year.

There are, however, several problems with the existing sanctions regime. First, some sanctions regimes targeting individuals, such as those against terrorists which I described here, do not secure due process and human rights.

Furthermore, in order to assure effectiveness, it is necessary to develop strategic partnerships with other control mechanisms or regulatory systems. At moment the United Nations cooperates with the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization. However, there is a notable absence of collaboration between UN sanctions committees and financial and arms embargo regulatory organs, like those established by the European Union or Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. .

Moreover, new crisis resolution tools dealing with many of these same threats have been developed: these include mediators, international tribunals, and sanctions by entities other than the UN. It would therefore be desirable for UN sanctions to be integrated with these new tools, to become an integral part of a larger strategy.

In June 2013, a High Level sanctions review was initiated, sponsored by the UN Missions of Australia, Finland, Greece and Sweden, in combination with Brown University and the sanctions consulting firm CCI. A similar activity took place in 2006, with the Informal Working Group on General Issues of Sanctions, which resulted in important policy documents for sanctions regimes.

The current sanctions review is being conducted by sanctions practitioners with extensive experience in the service of their Governments, the Secretariat, international organizations, or current and former sanctions monitors. Three Working Groups are addressing different issues.

The first group is dealing with integration and coordination on the implementation of UN sanctions. In particular, it is focusing its attention on opportunities to improve sanctions integration and coordination among the UN entities supporting the Council’s sanctions function, including sanctions committees, expert groups, the Ombudsperson and the Secretariat.

The second Working Group is addressing the possible partnerships and strategies between the UN sanctions regime and other international instruments and institutions dealing with international security, such as international arms control and disarmament mechanisms, international financial and economic regulatory systems, and international criminal justice institutions.

The Third Working Group is focusing its attention on UN sanctions, regional organizations, and emerging challenges. In particular, it is addressing opportunities to optimize UN sanctions as an effective tool in response to serious and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, to enhance coordination with regional sanctions, and to explore new applications to address evolving threats to international peace and security.

This review of UN sanctions is indispensable and may be very useful if it is conducted periodically, for example every five years. However, there are two obstacles which Working Groups may face. First, the operations of the UN sanctions regime and the International Criminal Court often overlap. It may therefore be that more coordination between these bodies is required.

Secondly, the Working Groups need to address the perceived lack of respect for due process rights by the UN sanctions regime. The European Court of Human Rights in Nada and the European Court of Justice in Kadi, as well as some domestic courts, have challenged the regime against terrorists on due process grounds.

Despite these problems, it is hoped that the Working Groups – whose activity will conclude in October 2014 – will nonetheless provide a useful and meaningful review of existing sanctions regimes.

Author profile

Michele M. Porcelluzzi completed his M.Sc. in Law at Bocconi University in 2010. His research interests include International Public Law, International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law and National Security Law.


Michele Porcelluzzi, “UN sanctions: possible changes?,” (OxHRH Blog, 24 July 2014) <http://humanrights.dev3.oneltd.eu/?p=12411> [date of access].

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