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Cristine Koehler Zanella
The road taken: the institutionalization of
economic sanctions as an instrument at service
of international collective security
O caminho tomado: a institucionalização das
sanções econômicas como um instrumento a serviço
da segurança coletiva internacional
DOI: 10.21530/ci.v11n2.2016.483
Cristine Koehler Zanella
This paper addresses the institutionalization of multilateral economic sanctions from a
historical perspective, aiming at explaining when, why and how economic sanctions became
an instrument of deterrence and coercion in the toolbox of collective security. First, it is
shown that a new concern emerged in the Hague Conferences, in which states began to
institutionalize international arbitration as a pacific mean to solve international disputes:
how to enforce arbitral sentences in an anarchic international system? Economic sanctions
were then envisioned as an eventual remedy to pressure recalcitrant states into complying
with the terms of the sentences. Second, the paper describes the process that resulted in
economic sanctions becoming autonomous deterrence and coercion tool in the Covenant of
the League of Nations, showing the liberal-idealist framework that shaped it, the expectations
surrounding economic sanctions and the cases in which they have been applied. Finally, it
describes the realist ideas that influenced the creation of the United Nations, whose Charter
lists economic sanctions as an instrument to be used in the collective security framework
but at that time less prominently than the use of force.
Keywords: economic sanctions; collective security; the Hague Conferences; League of
Nations; United Nations.
1 Lecturer in International Relations at Federal University of Uberlândia (Brazil) and Research associate in the
Faculty of Law and Social Communication, Department of Public Law at Universidad Bernardo OHiggins (Chile).
Doctor in Political Sciences (Ghent University – Belgium) and Doctor in International Strategic Studies (Federal
University of Rio Grande do Sul – Brazil).
Artigo recebido em 30/05/2016 e aprovado em 02/08/2016.
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The road taken: the institutionalization of economic sanctions [...]
Este artigo traça a institucionalização das sanções econômicas multilaterais a partir de uma
perspectiva histórica, com o objetivo de explicar quando, por que e como as sanções econômicas
se tornaram um instrumento de dissuasão e coerção a serviço da segurança coletiva. Para
tanto, primeiro demonstra-se que uma nova preocupação emergiu das Conferências de
Haia, quando os Estados começaram a institucionalizar a arbitragem internacional: como
executar essas sentenças em um sistema internacional anárquico? É neste momento que
as sanções econômicas passam a ser vistas como um eventual remédio para pressionar o
Estado recalcitrante em cumprir com os termos de uma sentença desfavorável. Em seguida
descreve-se o processo que resultou na institucionalização das sanções econômicas como
uma ferramenta de dissuasão e coerção autônoma no Pacto da Liga das Nações. Apresenta-
se como o referencial liberal-idealista moldou esse processo, as expectativas que existiam
por trás das sanções econômicas e os casos em que sanções econômicas foram aplicadas.
Por fim, o artigo descreve as ideias realistas que influenciaram a criação das Nações Unidas,
cuja Carta constitutiva previu as sanções econômicas como um instrumento de segurança
coletiva, mas àquele tempo lhes conferia papel menos proeminente que o uso da força.
Palavras-chave: sanções econômicas, segurança coletiva, Conferências de Haia, Liga das
Nações, Nações Unidas.
In a world were governments and people buy and sell things, and invest and
transfer money beyond national borders, it is crucial for states to maintain the
international commercial and financial channels open. Closing these channels
harms states’ economic health. That is why economic sanctions are a painful
instrument in the toolbox of international organizations, used to threat or coerce
states to change their course of action.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has imposed more than
twenty mandatory economic sanctions
in name of collective security. This
represents a substantial increase comparing to only two mandatory economic
sanctions imposed from 1945 to 1989. The content of economic sanctions is also
quickly changing. Present day sanctions are becoming increasingly targeted, in
contrast to the mostly comprehensive sanctions imposed in the beginning of the
2 Mandatory economic sanctions are the ones imposed by the Security Council and that all states are constrained
to obey.
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Cristine Koehler Zanella
But when, why, and how economic sanctions became an instrument of
deterrence and coercion in the toolbox of collective security? To answer these
questions this article is divided in three parts.
First, it is shown how the Hague Conferences, in which states began to
institutionalize international arbitration as a pacific mean to solve international
disputes, created a concern over how to enforce arbitral sentences in an anarchic
international system. Economic sanctions were foreseen, at least theoretically,
as an effective remedy to pressure recalcitrant states, defeated in international
arbitration, to comply with the terms of the sentence.
Second, the article explores the process of inserting economic sanctions in
the Covenant of the League of Nations as an autonomous tool of deterrence and
coercion to be used against states that have threaten or broken peace. It is shown
how the liberal-idealist framework shaped this process, the existing expectative
behind it, and the cases in which economic sanctions were applied as well as the
outcomes reached.
Finally, the article describes the realist ideas that influenced the creation
of the United Nations (UN). In the UN’s institutional framework, use of force
gained prominence over economic sanctions, which was perceived as a naïve
and liberal-inspired tool. Time, however, would prove economic sanctions an
increasingly important tool serving collective security.
The Hague Conferences and the question on arbitration
decisions’ enforcement
The first Hague Conference was proposed by Tsar Nicholas II. In 1898, he
invited the major powers to jointly discuss mechanisms of arms control and
peaceful means of conflict resolution.
The late XIX century and the beginning of XX century were the apex of the
system of complex alliances between European countries. This system has a
date and place of birth: the 1815 Congress of Vienna, held after the end of the
3 Comprehensive sanctions have also been called collective sanctions and their aim is to “hit the nation as a
whole, including individuals and groups that are not particularly responsible [for the situation that triggered
the sanction]” (GALTUNG, 1967, p. 381). Targeted sanctions, by their turn, are imposed on individuals or
non-state entities. The high humanitarian costs of comprehensive economic sanctions imposed on Iraq and Haiti
(GARFIELD, 1999) and the rise of international individual accountability made UNSC rely mainly on targeted
sanctions since the mid-1990s (GIUMELLI, 2011, p. 11-12).
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Napoleonic wars: “at the end of the nineteenth century the traditional system
of empires, built on the basis of power relations, mainly military or economic,
reached its maturity”
(DI NOLFO, 2002, p. vii). Therefore, it’s not surprising that
the Tsar’s invitation to discuss arms control and peaceful settlement of disputes
caused astonishment and produced little expectation in most European capitals
(EYFFINGER, 1999, p. 16).
Despite incredulity, all major powers attended the conference in 1899
According to Abler, two reasons can explain their attendance: (i) even without
believing in the potential of achieving effective results, no one wanted to be
responsible for the failure of the conference; and (ii) most importantly, the
Tsar’s letter of invitation and the carefully drafted agenda limited some more
controversial issues. For example, on the agenda for discussion was a proposal
for international arbitration which was less threatening to the invitees than the
issue of arms control (ABLER, 2008, p. 15-16).
Between May and July 1899 the twenty-six states represented at the Conference
issued six voeux, three declarations and three conventions
: (i) Convention for
the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, (ii) Convention with respect to
the Laws and Customs of War on Land, and (iii) Convention for the Adaptation
to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention of 22 August
1864. The First Convention is considered the greatest advance on multilateral
instruments available to states to deal with peace and security issues made
by the two Hague conferences. In fact, the Second Hague Conference, held in
1907, failed to establish a system of compulsory arbitration for the resolution
4 In the original: “alla fine del secolo XIX il sistema degli imperi tradizionali, costruiti sulla base di rapporti di
forza prevalentemente militari o economici, raggiunse la sua maturità”.
5 Sovereigns and heads of state represented at the first Hague Conference: “His Majesty the German Emperor,
King of Prussia; His Majesty the Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, etc., and Apostolic King of Hungary;
His Majesty the King of the Belgians; His Majesty the Emperor of China; His Majesty the King of Denmark; His
Majesty the King of Spain, and in his name Her Majesty the Queen-Regent of the Kingdom; the President of the
United States of America; the President of the United States of Mexico; the President of the French Republic;
Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India; His Majesty the
King of the Hellenes; His Majesty the King of Italy; His Majesty the Emperor of Japan; His Royal Highness the
Grand Duke of Luxemburg, Duke of Nassau; His Highness the Prince of Montenegro; Her Majesty the Queen of
the Netherlands; His Imperial Majesty the Shah of Persia; His Majesty the King of Portugal and the Algarves;
His. Majesty the King of Rumania; His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias; His Majesty the King of Serbia;
His Majesty the King of Siam; His Majesty the King of Sweden and Norway; The Swiss Federal Council; His
Majesty the Emperor of the Ottomans; and his Royal Highness the Prince of Bulgaria. (SCOTT, 1920, p. 161)
6 Conventions and Declarations are non-binding to the signatory states. Voeux are wishes and, as such, express
expectations on how discussions can evolve. They indicate general guidelines for further discussions on issues
in which the delegates failed to reach an agreement. Voeux are not binding. (BAKER, 2011)
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of disputes between states. Thus, despite the limits of the voluntary system of
conflict resolution, which was anchored in good offices, mediation, conciliation
and international arbitration, it is remarkable that the states also agreed on creating
the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the first permanent international institution
created to arbitrate international conflicts in a “system of empires” era. The preface
of “The Proceedings of the Hague Peace Conferences” stated:
The Peace Conferences held at The Hague were the first truly international
assemblies meeting in time of peace for the purpose of preserving peace, not
of concluding a war then in progress. They marked an epoch in the history
of international relations. They showed on a large scale that international
cooperation was possible, and they created institutions—imperfect it may
be, as is the work of human hands,— which, when improved in the light of
experience, will both by themselves and by the force of their example promote
the administration of justice and the betterment of mankind (SCOTT, 1920).
Following the progressive institutionalization of international arbitration,
a new question emerged: how to enforce arbitral sentences. The international
community had not at that time deliberated on tools to pressure a state that had
voluntarily participated in the international arbitration to comply with the sentence.
Sanctions were then proposed as tools to pressure recalcitrant states to comply
with the terms of the sentence. Jacques Dumas, a French jurist, noted in a seminal
1911 study that the success of the most elaborate instrument to peacefully settle
international disputes, created in the Hague Conferences – arbitration – depended
on finding a solution to arbitral sentences enforcement:
It has always been urged, both by skeptics and by believers, that the test
of the practicability of international arbitration stands on the question of
sanctions (DUMAS, 1911, p. 934).
Dumas (1911) categorized sanctions as political, legal, criminal, and economic,
according to their “moral” substance. After presenting data and highlighting
interconnections on the world economy he sustained that, in such an international
context, political economy could provide various instruments for the enforcement
of arbitral sentences. He noted that one of the most effective economic tools would
be cutting foreign currency transfers that could be used to finance war.
Interestingly, Dumas considered economic sanctions focused on trade dangerous
to senders, precisely because of economic interdependence. He underlined that
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these sanctions could effectively damage the target state’s economy, but would
also harm the sender because (i) the sender state would be deprived of imports,
what could compromise its economy and (ii) if the sender state wants to sell in
international trade, it needs to buy, since imports are paid with exports:
Too many people believe, as soon as political economy is concerned, that no
better sanction could be thought of than boycotting the produce, and, as a
general rule, all exportations of the unwilling state. Such a sanction may be
practicable sometimes when the foreign trade of that state is of such a kind
that the other nations can stop commercial intercourse with it without any
inconvenience to themselves. But the increasing international character of
trade and industry will more and more render boycotting impossible. The
placing of an embargo upon the purchase of needed products amounts to two-
fold self-punishment, first because we would remain deprived of necessary
articles, even perhaps of raw material, without which our own industry
could not thrive, and, secondly, because importations are always paid for
with exportations and our unwillingness to buy results in an impossibility to
sell (DUMAS, 1911, p. 948).
History would prove Dumas´s predictions wrong. The imposition of economic
sanctions by international community increased. Their intense use by the United
Nations Security Council since 1990 seems less conditioned to how interconnected
the global economy is and more aligned to the structure of political and economic
interests of the most powerful states. These interests are frequently promoted
through international institutions and take advantage of their enforcement
mechanisms in single states.
However, at these earlier stages, a concern on the sanctions effects on the
population was raised. Dumas stated that making individuals pay for a state’s
transgressions inevitably works against the development of international law and,
lastly, against peace. In this rationale lies the key to the evolution of economic
sanctions in UNSC from comprehensive sanctions to smart sanctions in the 1990s
Effects on the civilian population became a critical issue for the international
community after the severe effects that followed the economic sanctions imposed
on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 and on Haiti from 1993 to 1994.
Dumas did not fail to recognize that trade sanctions might be feasible when
international trade could be stopped without major inconveniences to the senders.
7 “In a time when the progress of international law consists in limiting all conflicts to governmental concerns,
and putting the individual out of their sphere, boycotting would be all the more inconsistent with modern
doctrine, since it is intended to make the individual pay for the faults of the state” (DUMAS, 1911, p. 949).
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So, whether commercial or financial, whether their effects on civilians were
acceptable or not, the first steps were already given to the acceptance of economic
sanctions as an enforcement mechanism. They would be instruments to remedy
the lack of a legitimate international force to enforce arbitral sentences. Economic
sanctions could, thus, be a safeguard to peace and international security.
The League of Nations:
economic sanctions to promote collective security
In spite of the good intentions and normative progresses of the Hague
Conferences, it took a conflict involving the death of more than 4 million Russian,
French, British and American people to awaken states to the necessity of building
an international political system guided by principles different from those emerging
from the balance of power
. Woodrow Wilson sponsored a new way of organizing
the international system. On 22 January 1917 the President of the United States
held before the US Senate the world need for an organized peace:
The terms of the immediate peace agreed upon will determine whether it is a
peace for which such a guarantee can be secured. The question upon which
the whole future peace and policy of the world depends is this: Is the present
war a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new balance of
power? If it be only a struggle for a new balance of power, who will guarantee,
who can guarantee, the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement? Only a
tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. There must be, not a balance of
power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized
common peace (WILSON, 1917). [emphasis added].
Believing in the power of deterrence that a joint international response would
have against states that threatened or breached peace, Wilson proposed a totally
new conformation to international society: the community of power.
What Wilson meant by ‘community of power’ was an entirely new concept
that later became known as ‘collective security’ (KISSINGER, 1994, p. 51).
8 Balance of power is a core concept to classical realist and neorealist theories of international relations. “The
concept of a balance of power implies an equilibrium of force as between the States or groups of States, within
the system in question. Such a balance, it is asserted, works for peace since no State is in a position to seek
hegemony. The balance may be conceived of as a status maintained by self-correcting natural forces or as the
product of deliberate human intervention” (VAGTS, 2011).
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In this new conformation, peace would be considered indivisible. It meant that
a state’s aggression would be considered a breach of the entire peace system and,
when that happened, all non-aggressor states would unite to halt the belligerent.
Wilson’s activism and the – mainly economic —power that the United
States accumulated at the end of the First World War advocated in favor of the
institutionalization of collective security. The new form of international politics
would be operationalized by an international organization: the League of Nations –
the first universal political international organization. In the League’s architecture,
for the first time international security became a collective responsibility, based
on the acceptance that peace is indivisible and that all states have an interest in
curbing aggression wherever and whenever it arises. If this threat of collective
reaction failed, it would be necessary to adopt measures in response.
At that time, European countries, especially France, were apprehensive to
predict effective mechanisms and measures to prevent violent conflict between
nations. The demand was that the coming rules “must provide the sanctions
necessary to insure their execution, and so prevent a false security from serving
simply to facilitate new aggressions” (BERTRAM, 1932, p. 140).
More than a century after the industrial revolution had consolidated the
ideas of classic economic liberalism between Western governments, it was not
strange that measures which were intended to weaken the economic sector were
perceived as a great tool of deterrence initially, or coercion if necessary. With the
progressive interconnection of international trade and the possibility of collective
action, they seemed to be potentially effective.
The British General Jan Christiaan Smuts was largely responsible for the central
role that economic sanctions assumed in the League of Nations toolbox. He suggested,
in a pamphlet of great influence released on the eve of the Paris Conference, the
power of economic sanctions —both commercial and financial —and credited it a
central role in the effectiveness of a broad League of Nations sanctions’ mechanism
(BERTRAM,1932, 141). The measures that the League of Nations could effectively
9 Anton Bertram describes the context in which General Smuts’ pamphlet comes to public attention and the
influence it had on President Woodrow Wilson. Considering the terms of the pamphlet Bertram also stretches
General’s recommendations to the use of economic boycott as a powerful weapon: “I therefore recommend [...]
(19) That the Peace Treaty shall provide that if any Member of the League break its covenant under paragraph
(18) it shall ipso facto become at war with all the other Members of the League, which shall subject it to complete
economic and financial boycott, including the severance of all trade and financial relations, and the prohibition of
all intercourse between their subjects and the subjects of the Covenant-breaking State, and the prevention as far
as possible of the subjects of the Covenant-breaking State from having any commercial or financial intercourse
with the subjects of any other State, whether a Member of the League or not” (BERTRAM, 1932)
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take to restore peace when moral persuasion was not enough were finally put
forward in article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson
drafted this article incorporating economic sanctions as suggested by Smuts:
Article 16. Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its
covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have
committed an act of war against all other Members of the League, which hereby
undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial
relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the
nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial,
commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-
breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a Member of the
League or not. (LEAGUE OF NATIONS, 1919) [emphasis added].
Article 16 was considered “League’s heart of collective security system”
(BARACUHY, 2005, p. 39). In it, the economic sanctions were legally codified and
elevated to an autonomous deterrence and coercion mechanism, outside the war
efforts, admitted to ensure collective security. To put it another way, economic
sanctions were seen as a mechanism to prevent the use of force. This emerged from
the recognition that the pressure that economic sanctions could exert conferred
on them an irresistible power of persuasion:
A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this
economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force.
It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but
brings a pressure upon the nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation
could resist (PADOVER apud HUFBAUER et al. 2007, p. 1).
It is the most complete boycott ever conceived in a public document, and I want
to say with confident prediction that there will be no more fighting after that.
There is not a nation that can stand that for six months (Bertram 1932, 144).
The rationality of states as well as some idealism, especially Woodrow Wilson’s,
who believed it was possible to transcend power politics and the endemic character
of war
, strongly echoed in the rules of collective security that were put in place.
The logic inherent in the economic sanctions’ mechanism assumed the growing
economic interdependence in international society and the rationality of states:
10 In the original: “coração do sistema de segurança coletiva da Liga”.
11 The basic idea behind the liberal tradition is the assumption of rationality as a basic characteristic of humanity.
It is the rationality that enables the transformation of social relations and leads to overcome the power politics
and the endemic character of the war. (HERZ, HOFFMANN, 2004, p. 51).
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The road taken: the institutionalization of economic sanctions [...]
The theory was that the complexities of modern commerce had rendered
no nation self-supporting and therefore capable of resisting a general
economic boycott. A nation threatened with such a siege would not think it
worthwhile to persist in a course of action liable to lead to that result. The
League was thus based on optimistic assumption about the rationality of
states and the effectiveness of economic pressures on them (RENWICK apud
ABLER, 2008, p. 23).
When the League of Nations started working, questions soon emerged about
the content and procedural rules that should be applied to economic sanctions.
Article 16 listed measures that should be taken independently by individual
states on the involvement of the League’s Council. In 1921 “the Assembly of
the League adopted guidelines stipulating that the Council could recommend
to the member states an appropriate plan of action and secure the assistance of
a technical commission” (KRISCH, 2012). In 1929, the International Blockade
Committee was created. Its conclusions and recommendations, formally accepted
by the General Assembly in the first report submitted, served to guide discussions
about the implementation of economic sanctions by the League of Nations. In the
“operation’s scheme” to put in place economic sanctions, the Committee’s first
item was dedicated to clarify that economic sanctions should not be used as an
act of war, but as a form of peaceful pressure. In addition, the Committee stressed
that there should be a simultaneous and complete coordination mechanism; that
economic disruptions should be gradually strengthened, preserving humanitarian
relations; that the ban on food should be adopted only as an extreme measure;
and finally, if – and only if – necessary in a situation unsolved by sanctions
enforcement, the reactions of the League should develop into a state of war.
Since then, the League of Nations’ economic sanctions were treated as a form
of peaceful pressure to use against a state which decided on war or aggression
in breaching Articles 12 to 15 of the League´s Covenant
. The Liberal-idealist
framework, considering the growing interdependence of states and believing in
the rationality of relations between them, could not consider economic sanctions
as anything other than an “irresistible pressure to which no nation could resist”.
12 Articles 12 to 15 echoed the adoption, at League Covenant, of conciliation and arbitration procedures designed in
the Hague Conferences. Moreover, art. 14 provided for the creation, as proposed by the Council, of a Permanent
Court of International Justice [PCIJ]. The PCIJ worked from 1922 to 1940 and during this period dealt with 29
contentious cases and emitted 27 advisory opinions. (BIBLIOTECA VIRTUAL DE DIREITOS HUMANOS, 2013).
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As mentioned before, although peace was conceived as indivisible – a
responsibility all and every state – states were responsible to assert, individually,
if the obligation to enforce sanctions had effectively arisen. It was believed states
would behave in good faith so there was not only an individual obligation to
verify the need for sanctions but also a moral (not lawful) obligation to punish
the emerging aggressor:
Wilson’s view prevailed as the Covenant ultimately provided for a voluntary
approach for member states to decide, based on a unanimous recommendation
of the League Council, whether they want to take military or economic
measures against a member that had committed aggression (ALEXANDER,
2009, p. 21).
Hans Kelsen pointed out a structural deficiency in the “‘League’s heart of
collective security system”. He said there was a failure in Article 16 because despite
prescribing immediate application of sanctions for those who violated Articles 12
to 15 (regarding disrespect of the obligation to submit the dispute to international
jurisdiction), it was not clear who would declare that a state had violated the rules
and would be therefore subject to sanctions
. All things considered, it would
behoove each state to say whether or not the violation existed and, consequently,
only in this case would emerge the obligation to apply sanctions (KELSEN, 1951).
Finally, the decision-making system of the League´s organs, based on
unanimity, topped the list of normative difficulties at the institutional level for the
application of sanctions. If considered the decision would be taken collectively,
with the organization bodies in their entire composition, a member state should
literally vote against itself in order to enforce the League’s mechanism of sanctions.
The following table shows cases in which the system of economic sanctions under
the League of Nations has been invoked. It is possible to notice initial successes, in
the 1920s, when the Council’s threats to use economic sanctions had some effect.
In the 1930s, with the war winds approaching, the legal limits to adopt a sanction
recommendation and the rising Germans threats buried the liberal expectations that
with sanctions in place there would be no more military aggressions. Article 16 was
effectively applied only in the conflict between Italy and Ethiopia.
13 The Assembly of the League “adopted a number of amendments to the Covenant, which, for example, granted
the Council the authority ‘to give an opinion whether or not a breach of the Covenant has taken place’. The
Council was also to recommend to the member States the appropriate moment for the application of economic
enforcement measures. However, these amendments were never ratified and retained the character of non-
binding guidelines” (KRISCH, 2012).
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Box 1 – Economic sanctions applied or threatened by the League of Nations
Year and
Cause Outcome
Polish general seized Vilnius,
Lithuania’s capital
Poland abandoned Vilnius before Council’s
decision on the Lithuanian request for imposition
of sanctions
Yugoslavia Invasion of Albania
League threatened Yugoslavia with sanctions and
the troops were withdrawn before the sanctions
were applied.
Conflict between Greece
and Bulgaria with friction in
the border area and Greek
occupation of territory
Greece agreed to a cessation of hostilities and
avoided sanctions.
to impose
Japan invaded China
(Manchuria). Both states
were League’s members.
As Japan was member of the League, it held veto
power over the issue. This situation led to the
absurd – but legitimate – conclusion that League of
Nations (LoN) could only act with the accordance
of the aggressor state.
Bolivia and
Chaco War between Bolivia
and Paraguay. Both states
were League’s members.
Sanctions recommended in the form of arms
embargo, but neighbor states refused to stop
sending weapons. In 1934, the LoN suggested
to lift the embargo imposed on Bolivia but to
maintain it on Paraguay. Paraguay then withdrew
from the organization.
Italy Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
Sanctions imposed in 1935 (except on oil, coal and
steel) and lifted in 1936, when Italy consolidated
its position in Ethiopia. It was considered a big
failure of LoN economic sanctions mechanism.
Nevertheless, League’s response to Italian
aggression must be understood within the political
context of a rising aggressive Japan and a resurgent
. It is considered the only economic
sanction effectively applied.
Source: Author’s own elaboration based on Abler, 2008, p. 29-30; Hufbauer et al., 2007; Alexander, 2009, p. 23).
14 Facing the growing impotence of the League of Nations and in a context where collective security was more a
wish than a reality, Britain and France preferred to hardly damage Italy in order to make it not tend to a coalition
with Germany – which recovered its power under the leadership of Hitler – if the war broke out. The Council
of the League recommendation – which avoided the Italian veto by a procedural maneuver to convoke a special
conference to define what sanctions would be applied against Italy – was to impose on Italy an embargo on the
supply of weapons and military goods, a prohibition from financial dealings with Italy, cessation of imports
of Italian commodities and the refusal to sell certain products. These sanctions were considered elastic and
not universal because they did not included oil, coal and steel trade restrictions. The other measures taken,
such as denying passage through the Suez Canal, allowed war materials to continue to be shipped from Italy
to Eritrea. Even without impacting too severely on political leaders and the Italian population, the sanctions
and the cost of the war caused the Lira to be devalued by 25% in November 1935. The country was forced to
sell almost 100 million dollars in gold and both imports and exports fell. British and French concerns about
Ethiopia, which were not great, ceased when Hitler denounced the treaties of Locarno and sent German troops
to the militarized region of Rhenania. Feeling a threat of a German aggression materializing, to push Italy into
the arms of a coalition with Germany was an undesirable risk and made the Ethiopian case a concern of lower
case in Europe. (NYE, 2009, p. 116-117; HUFBAUER et al, 2007, p. 102).
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Cristine Koehler Zanella
Thus, despite the success of economic sanctions’ threats on smaller states
during the 1920s, in the following years they succumbed to the most urgent and
existential needs of the central states. Facing concrete acts of aggression since 1939,
states’ immediate survival could not wait the time that the economic sanction
needed in order to act effectively, nor could states rely on the support to be given
by a collective security system unrepresentative of international society, on which
neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were willing to contribute to the
enforcement of measures adopted. Economic sanctions shown to be not a real
option in the states’ toolbox for ensuring and articulating the collective security
required in order to prevent war. Instead, states would be impelled to appeal
directly to weapons.
The United Nations: economic sanctions initially distrusted – but
still there
In the same year that the Second World War broke out, Edward Hallett Carr
published “Twenty years of crisis: 1919-1939”. His scathing criticism of idealistic
postulates intended to remind the world of the prominence of power in world
politics. Carr’s goal was
not merely to remind his readers about the importance of power in world
politics, but, rather, to show that the crisis of which he wrote in 1939 was in
large part the result of what he viewed as a serious mismatch between the
depth of the world’s disorders and the liberal solutions many thought might
solve these after World War I (apud Cox, 2010, p. 1).
The liberal idea of equality, for instance, and its reception at the League of
Nations through the formal recognition of a legal equality, which is reflected in an
equality of power between states in the decision making instances, demonstrated
an inadequacy for the dynamics of power at the time. The most powerful states
would not join such an international organization scheme, unless the institution
recently created reflected the distribution of power in the international system.
Accepting this perspective, “the League of Nations could only be effective to the
extent that it was an instrument of national policy of its most powerful members”
(CARR, 2001, p.182).
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If, on the one hand, the construction of an equal system, even formally,
between the states to ensure world peace was discredited, on the other, the concern
with collective security was more alive than ever. Unsurprisingly, already in 1941
the Atlantic Charter, signed between the leader of the British government, Winston
Churchill, and the US President, Franklin Roosevelt, enunciated the need to create
an extensive and permanent general security system. In 1943, in Quebec, the two
leaders agreed that the initiative to create an international organization for peace
and security maintenance belonged to the states who led the fight against the
Axis – the Big Four (US, Soviet Union, Britain and China).
The pillars of the new political international organization were designed at
the Dumbarton Oaks meetings, in 1944. The terms accorded were also discussed
at Yalta and at the San Francisco Conferences, where the UN Charter was finally
adopted. The pillars discussed at Dumbarton Oaks were kept virtually unchanged:
(i) the Security Council would have the primary responsibility and authority to
maintain peace and security by non-military and military means; (ii) member
states agree to adhere to the mandate of the Council and (iii) France and the
four major leaders which resisted the Axis would be permanent members of the
Security Council, each one holding veto power (ABLER, 2008, p. 32-37).
Box 2 – Main institutional differences between the League of Nations
and the United Nations
League of Nations United Nations
Voting on non-
Unanimity criteria both in the
Council and in the Assembly.
General Assembly: required affirmative vote of
2/3 of those present and voting; Security Council:
required affirmative vote of 9 of the 15 members
and the absence of the use of veto power by any
of the five permanent members.
Nature of
All resolutions, from the Council or
the Assembly, had no mandatory
General Assembly resolutions: recommendations
nature only, with no binding character; Security
Council resolutions: with non-binding or binding
nature, depending on the will of the Council.
Not previewed. Previewed (Chapter VII).
Source: Author’s own elaboration.
As the composition of the different bodies and the voting powers of states
echoed in the new institutional structure (Table 2), there was a real incentive to
the major powers to engage in the nascent organization. The solution equated a
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Cristine Koehler Zanella
series of disjunctions which existed among the discredited idealists’ claims and
the actual distribution of power between the states, resulting in a possible model
of international collective security.
The new institutional framework pulled away doubts on critical points that
emerged from the use of economic sanctions in the League of Nations. This was
made possible by four changes. First, by changing the unanimity rule in the voting
processes, which ended up giving too much power to small states or leading to
the unusual situation of a member having to agree with its own punishment in the
League of Nations. Second, by overcoming the voluntarism in deciding whether
there had been a threat or a breach of the peace, and also which penalties states
should apply and how. Decisions would ultimately be under the UNSC’s control,
which would have the power to issue binding decisions for all members. Third,
by predicting the use of military force to enforce collective security if necessary.
Finally, by granting veto to great powers, which could paralyze the organization
if faced with the possibility of seeing it turning against them.
The gap which existed in the League of Nations regarding, on the one hand,
the concern for collective security, and on the other, the distance between formal
equality and the real power among the states, was repaired. The key was the
structure, rules, and working mechanisms of the Security Council: “[t]he Security
Council can be seen as a nineteenth century concept of balance of power integrated
in the UN collective security framework” (NYE, 2009, p. 213). In these terms, it
was in the interests of the most powerful nations to be part of an international
organization that sought to ensure collective security.
Within this framework it was natural that the UN sanction’s mechanisms
were impregnated with realism. Inside the toolbox to enable collective security,
economic sanctions were listed but less prominently than the use of force.
The acceptance of military mobilization provided specifically to an organization
which would not be inert because of the unwillingness of less expressive countries
could be explained by the general feeling that the League of Nations lacked
materials and effective means of coercion. Within the realistic orientation that
prevailed in the academy and among statesmen, this was necessary to avoid both
the tragedy of a new world war and the ineffectiveness of the United Nations
against conflicts of significant proportions:
The planners of the United Nations were at odds on many questions, but they
were in agreement from the outset that the new organization must have the
power to maintain the future peace of the world through the use of international
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force. (…) These views reflected a preoccupation with force which was inevitable
in the midst of war and, also, a general feeling that the League of Nations had
failed in its task of keeping the world’s peace because it had been insufficiently
endowed with physical means of coercion (KIRK, 1946, p. 1081).
This concern, moreover, was not new in the political arena. Carr, criticizing
the “League of Nations’ affairs” stated that “the elimination of assumption of force
in politics could only be the result of a completely uncritical attitude to political
problems” (CARR, 2001, p. 137).
Everything was prepared to the acceptance of the vetoing right of the five
permanent members of the Security Council
, the prominence of this organ in
matters related to peace and security
, the mandatory character conferred on its
, and the concrete provision of the use of force as a collective security
After World War II, the structures and dynamics of the new organization
should meet the general expectation of speed and efficiency:
Sweeping statement were made concerning the coercive powers which any new
organization must have, and the public was led to believe that this time there
was to be created an agency which would be able to deal with international
breaches of the peace almost as swiftly and effectively as law enforcement
officers deal with an individual criminal within the state (KIRK, 1946, p. 1081).
15 Article 27 of the Charter provides voting rules and the privilege of veto granted to the five permanent members
in the Security Council: “Article 27 – 1. Each member of the Security Council shall have one vote; 2. Decisions of
the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members; 3. Decisions
of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the
concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI, and under paragraph
3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting” (UNITED NATIONS, 1945)
16 The prominence of the Security Council was agreed by the Article 12 of the Charter: “Article 12 – 1. While the
Security Council is exercising in respect of any dispute or situation the functions assigned to it in the present
Charter, the General Assembly shall not make any recommendation with regard to that dispute or situation
unless the Security Council so requests; 2. The Secretary-General, with the consent of the Security Council, shall
notify the General Assembly at each session of any matters relative to the maintenance of international peace
and security which are being dealt with by the Security Council and similarly notify the General Assembly, or
the Members of the United Nations if the General Assembly is not in session, immediately the Security Council
ceases to deal with such matters” (UNITED NATIONS, 1945)
17 Binding nature of Security Council decisions: “Article 25. The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and
carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter” (UNITED NATIONS, 1945)
18 Real possibility for the use of force: “Article 42. Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in
Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as
may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations,
blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations” (UNITED NATIONS,
1945) The operationalization of the use of force was regulated under Articles 43 to 47 of UN’s Charter.
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Cristine Koehler Zanella
In the context of agility and efficiency aimed for the new organization, any
idealistic aspiration should be contextualized within the power of the states.
Economic sanctions – once the most celebrated of the League of Nations’ tools –
although referred to in the UN Charter, were re-signified in terms of importance. They
survived as an instrument less important than the use of force; one that could not
claim anymore the former importance received in the League of Nations Covenant.
The “realist” school of international relations emerged after World War II
largely as a reaction to the overly optimistic expectations associated with the
League of Nations. It was the “utopian” ideas associated with the League
that provided grist for the “realists” mill; therefore, it was only natural that
economic sanctions, as the policy instrument most closely identified with
the League in the public mind, should also be denounced. Whereas military
force symbolized hard-headed “realism,” economic sanctions symbolized
fuzzy minded “idealism” and unwillingness to face up to the hard facts of
international life (BALDWIN, 1985, p. 155).
Despite being linked to idealism, the damaging power of economic sanctions
was soon recognized. Differing interests between the US and the UK on the one
hand, and the USSR on the other, made the situation involving the fascist regime
of General Francisco Franco in Spain impossible to be resolved at the Security
. On December 12, 1946, under the live fascist ghost already hovering over
Spain, and in the context of the Cold War, the General Assembly recommended
the severance of diplomatic relations with Spain. The Western bloc considered it
risky to act more emphatically – and this included mandatory economic sanctions
measures against Franco:
[…] in 1946 neither the British nor the Americans could afford the political
instability and even the danger of renewed civil war which might result
from any attempt to oust Franco. Consequently they were not prepared to
intervene with force or support economic sanctions against him (JOHNSON,
2006, p.50).
As regards the possible impact of economic sanctions, Western countries
pondered that disruption of trade ties would compromise the general economic
recovery of the targeted country, eventually contributing to a Spanish inclination
19 US and UK did not want an intervention, but were in the awkward position of supporting Francisco Franco
to avoid the natural path to the revolution, as expected by the USSR with the deteriorating situation in Spain.
(JOHNSON, 2006)
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The road taken: the institutionalization of economic sanctions [...]
toward Soviet influence. Thus, the US held the sale of oil to Spain while the British
considered the importance of this trade for supplies of food, raw materials, and
industrial products.
A British cabinet note, from 6 January 1947, recognized that:
The British were reliant on Spanish fruit and vegetables and Spanish potash
for fertilizer to improve post-war food production. British industry also needed
Spanish raw materials and Spain used its currency earnings to purchase
manufactured goods from Britain and other European states so adding to
general postwar economic recovery (JOHNSON, 2006, p. 59).
The discussions on the adoption of economic sanctions at the United Nations
were starting. However, the dynamics of the Cold War balance of power and the
voting rules of Security Council froze the organization for forty-five years. The
same happened with the imposition of economic sanctions. During the Cold War,
mandatory economic sanctions were adopted only twice: against Southern Rhodesia
and against South Africa, because of the abuse of power by white minorities in
these countries (CORTRIGHT, LOPEZ, 2000). However, the ending of the Cold
War changed the scenario.
During the 1990s, five times as many economic sanctions were imposed
compared to the previous four decades. Rebirthed, economic sanctions entered the
UN policy agenda and, up to these days, are one of the most important instruments
in the international community´s toolbox of measures to enforce international
peace and security.
This article described the path to economic sanctions’ institutionalization as
an instrument to ensure international peace and security.
It started by showing that the Hague Conferences, which progressively
institutionalized international arbitration as a pacific mean to solve international
disputes, lead to the concern on how to enforce the arbitral sentences. Jurist Jacques
Dumas article can be considered the first one to present systematic reflections on
this topic and presented some concerns – as the danger to economic sanctions
senders – still shape the states concerns when deciding to adopt this measure.
The end of the First World War lead to the creation of the League of Nations.
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Cristine Koehler Zanella
In its Covenant, the economic sanctions were formally conceived as an important
tool to achieve world peace and security in the international community toolbox.
For the first time they had been codified internationally as an autonomous
coercive measure to promote collective security, not linked to an arbitral sentence.
Convinced on the economic sanctions’ power to dissuade eventual aggressors,
Woodrow Wilson advocated emphatically in their favor and they were previewed in
article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. From 1920 to 1935, economic
sanctions were adopted and distrusted after the League of Nations failure to avoid
the Second World War (WWII). At the dawn of WWII aggressions, the emerging
realist school of international relations denounced the too ‘idealistic’ ideas enclosed
in this organization. Excessive confidence on the power of economic sanctions
were also criticized.
At the close of WWII the planners of the United Nations (UN) had a shared
comprehension that the use of international force must be an important tool of
the new organization. Without the emphasis that could be observed in the League
of Nations Covenant, economic sanctions were then listed in article 41 of the UN
Charter as one of many coercive measures to maintain peace and security. During
the Cold War, the Security Council approved mandatory economic sanctions
against Southern Rhodesia and against South Africa. In both cases, the reason
for imposing sanctions was the condemnation of racial segregation imposed
by white minorities. At those times, the condemnation of racial discrimination
was one of the few subjects that received the support – or at least the absence
of formalized objection – from international actors with veto power within the
Security Council. In the 1990s, economic sanctions were used intensively and this
measure of coercion remains until now one of the most important instruments in
the Security Council´s toolbox to enforce international peace and security.
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