Sanctions as a weapon targeting development

By Justin Podur

The United Nations is currently sanctioning groups in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Libya, Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali. Sanctions in Non-African countries include Iraq, Yemen, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lebanon, and North Korea. The Security Council states that “since 1966, the Security Council has established 30 sanctions regimes, in Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, the former Yugoslavia (2), Haiti, Iraq (2), Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Liberia (3), DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Lebanon, DPRK, Iran, Libya (2), Guinea-Bissau, CAR, Yemen, South Sudan and Mali, as well as against ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida and the Taliban.” None of the sanctioned countries are developed countries to begin with – sanctions devastate their capacities for future development.

The UN says that “sanctions measures, under Article 41, encompass a broad range of enforcement options that do not involve the use of armed force.” The deadliness of UN sanctions, however, cannot be disputed. The sanctions regime imposed on Iraq after the US bombing of the country in 1990/1 was acknowledged to have killed 500,000 children by 1996, when Madeline Albright famously told 60 Minutes that she thought the price was worth it. Guttman et al. (2019) found that a UN sanctions episode lowered a country’s average life expectancy by 1.2-1.4 years, reduced the targeted countries GDP by 25%, increasing poverty and income inequality. The main mechanisms for this reduction: child mortality, cholera deaths, and decreased resources for public health spending. These aggregate statistics disguise. 

The list of countries under unilateral sanction by the US (or the US plus any coalition it can build for the purpose of punishing a regime) is much longer than the UN list – which countries the US sanctions as well. In addition, the US Treasury site lists financial sanctions details for the Balkans, Belarus, Burundi, the Chinese military, Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria, and Zimbabwe. Up until 2012, when Guttman et al. (2019) study period ended, unilateral US sanctions were less deadly than UN sanctions (shortening life expectancy in the targeted country by an average of 0.4-0.5). The deadlier sanctions are UN sanctions. 

It is one of many paradoxes of today’s world order that the United Nations, the body responsible (through its Security Council) for the deadliest sanctions also produces the most eloquent reports (through its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on the ill effects of proliferating unilateral sanctions. The Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Economic Measures, Idriss Jazairy, has produced five reports on the matter to date. The latest (a report to the General Assembly presented July 5, 2019) specifies violations of human rights stemming from these sanctions regimes:

  • US sanctions against Iran violate UN Security Council resolutions, deprive Iranians of relief, have been complied with “unduly” by the European Union such trade has virtually collapsed between Europe and Iran. Sanctions have devastated Iran’s food security (Hejazi and Emamgholipur 2020), its health system and ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic (Takian et al. 2020), even its long-term scientific capacity (Butler 2019). 
  • US sanctions against Cuba have “shattered” the normalizing relations that began in 2017, violate agreements between the US and Europe, and “exert a massive toll on the Cuban economy.”
  • US sanctions against Venezuela have played, in the colorful UN prose, “a non-negligible role in crippling the economy.” The rapporteur cites Weisbrot and Sachs (2019), who showed that tens of thousands of Venezuelans have died as a result of these sanctions, and millions have been displaced. 
  • US sanctions against Russia, the rapporteur complains, “have unintended effects, including boosting the domestic (indigenous) capabilities of Russian industries and the agricultural sector to the detriment of Europe.” And also, sanctions have caused price increases that hurt workers.
  • Israel’s blockade against Gaza “constitutes collective punishment of the people of Gaza, contrary to article 33 of the Geneva Convention.” 
  • The US and EU sanctions against Syria, openly proclaimed as being part of a strategy of “isolating the Assad regime”, “is a crude admission of disregard for the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, human rights and humanitarian law.” They have a “catastrophic impact on the Syrian economy and population.” 
  • The US-UK-Saudi blockade on Yemen has the rapporteur noting “with concern that the flow of essential foodstuffs and other commodities into Yemen continues to be restricted de facto, even though the naval blockade was lifted after the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen was set up.” This is a particularly euphemistic, given the genocidal nature of the assault on Yemen (e.g. Bachman 2019). 

Sanctions against Russia and China are part of a broader US strategy: with these sanctions, the US hopes to isolate targeted countries from potential sources of military aid (e.g., Russia’s aid to Syria) or investment (e.g., China’s investments in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, or various targeted African countries). These sorts of US strategies can never be isolated from questions of international development. Sanctions regimes represent the most profound weaponization of development: targeted economic isolation to punish populations by inflicting mass mortality through starvation and preventable disease, all the while destroying future economic prospects. 

Justin Podur is an Associate Professor at York University, Canada. He is the author of Extraordinary Threat: The U.S. Empire, the Media, and Twenty Years of Coup Attempts in Venezuela (Monthly Review Press, 2021), America’s Wars on democracy in Rwanda and the DR Congo (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), Siegebreakers (Roseway Publishing, 2019), and Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, the Earthquake and the UN (Pluto Press, 2012).


Bachman, J. S. (2019). A ‘synchronised attack’ on life: The Saudi-led coalition’s ‘hidden and holistic’ genocide in Yemen and the shared responsibility of the US and UK. Third World Quarterly, 40(2), 298–316.

Butler, D. (2019). How US sanctions are crippling science in Iran. Nature, 574(7776), 13–15.

Gutmann, J., Neuenkirch, M., & Neumeier, F. (2020). Sanctioned to Death? The Impact of Economic Sanctions on Life Expectancy and its Gender Gap. The Journal of Development Studies, 0(0), 1–24.

Hejazi, J., & Emamgholipour, S. (2020). The Effects of the Re-imposition of US Sanctions on Food Security in Iran. International Journal of Health Policy and Management, 0.

OHCHR | Reports. (n.d.-a). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Takian, A., Raoofi, A., & Kazempour-Ardebili, S. (2020). COVID-19 battle during the toughest sanctions against Iran. Lancet (London, England), 395(10229), 1035–1036.

Weisbrot, M., & Sachs, J. (2019). Punishing Civilians: U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela. Challenge, 62(5), 299–321.