History and Evolution of Sanctions

The history and evolution of sanctions and the broader national security challenges that are faced by the world are important to understand. As necessary and useful measures in situations where states adopt policies that violate their international obligations and endanger community values, international sanctions have been the subject of intermittent public and scholarly debate for over 60 years. 

The History and Evolution of Sanctions

The League of Nations Covenant, and the United Nations Charter directed sanctions at the unlawful use of force. United Nations context sanctions have also been linked to the defense of human rights, but until 1979 few instances of the use of sanctions were on the record. The short list included League of Nations sanctions against Italy from 1935-36, UN sanctions against Zimbabwe from the year 1966 to 1979, and an arms embargo against South Africa, since the year 1977. 

In the past three years, western governments have imposed penalties against Iran, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Argentina. These cases provided a wealth of new material to analyze the efficacy of economic sanctions in achieving their goals. They also raised questions about trends, and patterns particularly the extent to which these measures can be said to have an authoritative status, and support community values.

After the incident of September 11, 2001, sanctions including economic and financial sanctions became a tool of first resort to address a range of threats to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the US. 

This tool rests on the formidable strength of, and trust in, the U.S. financial system and currency. Sanctions allow U.S. policymakers to impose a material cost on adversaries to deter behavior that undermines US national security and signal a clear policy stance. Work on sanctions is conducted in close partnership with other parts of the Executive Branch, in particular, the Department of State and the National Security Council (NSC), which lead the formulation of the foreign policy and strategic goals that sanctions serve, as well as the Department of Justice. 

Over 20 years, different sanctions are successfully employed, to address various national security challenges, such as: 

Preventing Iran from using the international financial system, and commercial markets to generate revenue through oil sales and other activities that support its nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation and support for terrorist activities. These sanctions pushed Iran to the negotiating table on its nuclear program in 2015. Protecting tens of billions of dollars in Libyan assets from misappropriation by former government officials following civil unrest and the fall of the Qadhafi regime in the year 2011. Designating over 1,600 terrorist individuals and entities since the 9/11 incident, targeting, exposing, and undermining the group of terrorists. 

Final Thoughts

The methods used to enforce sanctions have evolved significantly over the past couple of decades, but the nature of sanctions has remained fundamentally the same. One of the first recorded instances of sanctions dates back to the fifth century before Christ. With the Megarian Decree in 432 BC, the Athenians levied economic sanctions, banning citizens of Megara from accessing markets in the Athenian empire. There were a few reports that Megarian citizens suffered starvation, and some believe these sanctions led to the outbreak of the Second Peloponnesian War.

For most of history, sanctions involved governments choosing tto block or embargo trade intended for another nation physically. Sanctions began to evolve to their current state near the end of the 19th century. Within Europe, peace societies began to discuss the evils of war and pacifist alternatives. Sanctions were considered an alternative to war.

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