What are sanctions – and do they even work?

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You may have seen the word « sanctions » popping up a lot more in the headlines lately. But do you know what the penalties are? How do they work? Or if they are effective?

We are here to answer some of your basic sanctions questions.

What are penalties?

Simply put: sanctions are a way for governments to pressure foreign governments to get what they want from the state.

Kristy Ironside, an assistant professor of Russian history at McGill University, says it’s « a way to seek behavioral change from another government you’re in conflict with. »

Generally, a sanction is executed by imposing some economic limitation.

“Economic sanctions, as they are generally understood, are really the implementation of a policy by a government to impose restrictions on the target state,” said Craig Martin, professor of law at the Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and first Principal Investigator at the Rideau Institute.

There are three strands to the normal range of economic sanctions – trade restrictions, financial restrictions and travel restrictions, Martin explained.

According to Government of Canadasanctions vary in their measures, but often include “the restriction or prohibition of trade, financial transactions or other economic activities between Canada and the targeted state; or the seizure or freezing of property located in Canada”.

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Who has Canada sanctioned and why?

Currently, Canada has imposed sanctions on 22 countries, including Iran, Russia and Haiti. They also have sanctions against specific individuals and entities.

The government says it has sanctioned individuals who are « responsible for or complicit in extrajudicial executions, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights » or who are « responsible or complicit in ordering, controlling or otherwise directing significant acts of corruption”.

It also lists any association with terrorist entities as a reason why someone could be sanctioned.

Sanctions against Russia related to its invasion of Ukraine have been a frequent topic in the news over the past year, but actually date back to 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.

These were imposed under the law on special economic measures « in order to respond to the seriousness of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and serious violations of human rights. the man that were committed in Russia, » the government’s website notes.

A man visits with soldiers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the joint headquarters of troops involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine at an unknown location on December 17. Canada has been imposing sanctions on Russia related to violations against Ukraine since 2014. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin/The Associated Press)

How do penalties work?

In Canada, sanctions can be implemented in one of three ways — either under the United Nations Actthe Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA), or the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (JVCFOA), also known as the Sergei Magnitsky Law.

The difference lies largely in who orders the sanction.

If the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorizes a sanction, Canada generally has an obligation under international law to also impose that sanction because it is a member state, Martin said. This falls under the United Nations Act.

The Canadian government also has its own power to impose sanctions on a country, entity or individual. This is separate from the UNSC and would only be between Canada and the party sanctioned by Canada — in other words, “unilateral or stand-alone sanctions,” Martin said.

That would fall under SEMA or the most recent Sergei Magnitsky Law (JVCFOA), which was introduced in 2017 to extend permissible sanctions to « foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights ».

How long do they last?

They are normally assessed on a case-by-case basis.

A sanction authorized by the UNSC lasts until the board decides to lift it. However, Canada has the flexibility to extend the expiration of the sanctions for as long as it wishes, Martin said.

If the Canadian government decides to continue to impose the sanction, then the implementation becomes a matter of Canadian law and it is up to the government to decide when it should be lifted.

In December, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mélanie Joly, announced new sanctions against Russia, Iran and Myanmar for alleged human rights abuses by their governments. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Are the sanctions even effective?

This question is the subject of much debate among experts.

« It’s very difficult for anyone to show conclusively that, yes, the sanctions policy has achieved its goal, » Martin said.

Ironside echoed a similar sentiment.

The irony is that the sanctions themselves harm human rights– Craig Martin, professor at Washburn University

« The historical record is not that encouraging, to be honest, » she said.

Much of the effectiveness of a sanction relies on the relationship that previously existed between the two parties. If the two sides had close economic ties, then the sanctions would be felt more harshly. If economic relations were not so integrated, the ripple would be less.

As for Russia, trade relations between Ottawa and Moscow were already strained.

« They’ve already been sanctioned since 2014 on a number of different fronts, » Ironside said. « So the levers the Canadian government can act on now are limited compared to what they were before 2014. »

Instead, the effect of the sanctions is felt more by the average person in Russia, as opposed to the government it aims to target.

« I think it’s impacting the standard of living for ordinary people, » Ironside explained.

This impact on the ordinary person in sanctioned countries results in “serious humanitarian impacts,” Martin said.

“The reason we impose sanctions is because countries are violating human rights,” Martin said. « But the irony is that the sanctions themselves cause harm to human rights…and are potentially in violation of human rights. »


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