UN sanctions: what they are, how they work, and who uses them

In recent months the Security Council has discussed sanctions regarding Yemen, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Somalia and Libya; has adopted a resolution imposing sanctions on South Sudan; and reviewed the sanctions related to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Speaking to the Security Council in November 2014, Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman said that support to the Council and its sanctions committees is a central component of the Department of Political Affairs’ work. “UN sanctions, in short, work,” he added. But how do they work?  As part of our in-depth look at different aspects of DPA’s work, we put that question to Movses Abelian, Director of the Security Council Affairs Division (SCAD), and his deputy, Kelvin Ong, Chief of the Security Council Subsidiary Organs Branch, which supports the work of 16 United Nations sanctions regimes.

“Sanctions,” Mr. Abelian said, “are an enforcement measure, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which deals with threats to international peace and security”.  However, he added, UN sanctions are preventive and protective measures, not punitive.  Mr. Abelian stressed that the Security Council has been categorical in making the point that “sanctions are a last resort, and are not meant to cripple states, but to help them overcome instability, address massive human rights violations, curb illegal smuggling and counter terrorism.”

Mr. Abelian said more needs to be done to raise awareness among Member States about UN sanctions.  But he is also seeing changes in the way sanctions are perceived, with many Member States coming to see them as a way to support peace processes, elections, security sector reforms or the demobilization of armed groups.

Mr. Ong noted that the mission of the Security Council Subsidiary Organs Branch is to assist the Security Council design, implement and evaluate UN sanctions.  His team  plays  a proactive role in supporting the Council; sanctions committees; sanctions monitoring groups, teams and panels (expert panels); the wider UN system and Member States.

“Within the UN system, we are at the start of a process of better integrating the sanctions instrument with the other Charter-based peace and security instruments”, Mr. Ong said. To this end, DPA initiated an interagency working group on sanctions in 2014 to promote system-wide understanding of UN sanctions and to ensure that all relevant UN entities interact and support Security Council-mandated sanctions appropriately.

Using the ‘threat’ of sanctions
A sanction’s life-cycle often starts with the Council taking up a situation of concern.  The Council or the UN Secretary-General and his representatives will usually employ peaceful means to prevent the escalation, or outbreak of, conflict.  At this stage, even the hint of Security Council sanctions may have a dampening effect on a rapidly evolving conflict situation and may encourage conflict parties to enter into dialogue.  This is sometimes what the Council means, for example, when it signals that it will “consider all measures at the Council’s disposal, including the use of enforcement measures”.

Imposing sanctions – choosing what, who and how
Sometimes, however, the threat of sanctions does not work, and it is up to the Council to decide to impose sanctions on individuals, entities or States who bear responsibility for conflict.  At this stage, the Security Council adopts a resolution establishing a new sanctions regime, where it determines the precise sanctions measure – such as arms embargoes, assets freezes or travel bans, for example – that it is imposing on the situation. In some cases, the Council decides to also identify the individuals or entities that are subject to these ‘targeted’ sanctions measures. In other cases, it is the sanctions committee, established as part of a sanctions resolution, that does so.


If the Security Council or the relevant sanctions committee decides to list an individual or entity, that name is added to the committee-specific sanctions list. In the case of Yemen, for example, the Security Council initially agreed to apply an asset freeze and travel ban, but did not designate anyone to be sanctioned. The sanctions committee subsequently received three persons and decided to ‘list’ those names on the 2140 (Yemen) Sanctions List.  To assist Member States in implementing UN sanctions, Mr. Abelian explained that, in October 2014, at the request of the Security Council, SCAD harmonized the format of all UN sanctions lists and established the United Nations Security Council Consolidated Sanctions Lists.  As of mid-March 2015, 1,043 individuals and entities are subject to UN Security Council sanctions measures.


Implementing sanctions
Sanctions committees are composed of all 15 members of the Council.  Their role is to implement, monitor and provide recommendations to the Council on particular sanctions regimes. They meet regularly to consider reports from expert panels and to hold meetings with Member States, UN actors and international organizations.

In some cases, an expert panel is created to assist the sanctions committee.  An expert panel monitors the implementation of the sanctions measures and reports its findings to the committee, or in some cases directly to the Council. Expert panels are usually composed of between five to eight technical experts, one of whom assumes the additional function of Coordinator.  All experts are appointed by the Secretary-General.  Expertise in these panels depends on the sanctions imposed, but may include arms, natural resources or human rights/humanitarian experts.

Of central concern to the Council is that sanctions are implemented with due regard for human rights.  For this reason, the Council in resolution 1904 (2009) established the Office of the Ombudsperson for the Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee to deal with delisting request from individuals listed on the Al Qaeda Sanctions List.  Delisting requests from the other sanctions committee are managed by the Focal Point for Delisting. The post of Focal Point, which was established by resolution 1730 (2006), is based in SCAD.

Ending a sanctions regime
The Security Council can remove UN sanctions once a conflict situation improves. UN sanctions have been lifted in different ways. In some cases, benchmarks contained in sanctions resolutions have been achieved; in others, peace processes have achieved the desired outcome.