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

The Security Council unanimously adopts a resolution imposing additional sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in response to that country’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme. UN Photo/Mark Garten
The Security Council unanimously adopts a resolution imposing additional sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in response to that country’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme. UN Photo/Mark Garten
4 May 2016 – Counter-terrorism and non-proliferation are on the agenda today at the Security Council, where at least seven sanctions committees will brief the main United Nations body responsible for maintaining international peace and security. We’ve prepared a quick snapshot covering the basics of UN sanctions and how Sanctions Committees work.
Using the ‘threat’ of sanctions

A sanction’s life-cycle often starts with the Security 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 be enough to encourage conflict parties to enter into dialogue. This is sometimes what the Council means when it signals that it will “consider all measures at the Council’s disposal, including the use of enforcement measures.”

Sanctions are meant to be a last resort when it comes to addressing massive human rights violations, curbing illegal smuggling or stopping extremism groups. Increasingly, sanctions are also being used to support peace efforts, to ensure that elections are held, or to demobilize armed groups.

This ability stems from the UN Charter. Under Article 41 of Chapter VII, the Council can use enforcement measures not including weapons, such as “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”

The first sanctions regime (or set of measures) was imposed in 1966 on Southern Rhodesia, today known as Zimbabwe.

Imposing sanctions – the what, who and how

Sometimes the threat of sanctions does not work, and it is up to the Security 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, the relevant Sanctions Committee, established as part of a sanctions resolution, will do so.

The individuals or entities sanctioned can change – with new names being added or removed from the list.

Implementing sanctions

Sanctions Committees are subsidiary organs of the Council and are composed of all 15 of the Council’s members. 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 comprised of between five to eight technical experts, all of whom 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.

De-listing requests from the other sanctions committee are managed by the Focal Point for De-Listing. The post of Focal Point, which was established by resolution 1730 (2006), is based in the UN Department of Political Affairs.

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.

Adapted from UN DPA’s Politically Speaking



Secretary-General appoints 12 new members to UN University Council

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Cia Pak (file)
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Cia Pak (file)
28 April 2016 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Director-General Irina Bokova of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) appointed 12 new members to the governing UN University (UNU) Council.

The new appointees, who will take office as of 3 May, replace the retiring 2010-2016 cohort of UNU Council members and will serve for terms of either three or six years.

The main functions of the Council are to formulate the principles and policies of the UNU, govern its operations, and consider and approve its biennial budget and work programme.

Appointed members of the UNU Council serve in their individual capacity – not as representatives of their country’s Government – and are selected with the aim of achieving a geographic and gender balance, with due regard for major academic, scientific, educational and cultural trends, as well as each member’s fields of expertise.

The new members of the UNU Council are:

  • Ernest Aryeetey (Ghana), Vice-Chancellor, University of Ghana
  • Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz (Brazil), Scientific Director, Săo Paulo Research Foundation, and Professor, Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute, State University of Campinas
  • Simon Chesterman (Australia), Dean, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore
  • Elizabeth Cousens (USA), Deputy Chief Executive Officer, United Nations Foundation
  • Isabel Guerrero Pulgar (Chile), Director, IMAGO Global Grassroots, and lecturer at Harvard and MIT
  • Angela Kane (Germany), Senior Fellow, Vienna Centre for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and Professor, SciencesPo, Paris
  • Segenet Kelemu (Ethiopia), Director General and CEO, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology
  • Bassma Kodmani (Syria), Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative
  • Radha Kumar (India), Director General, Delhi Policy Group
  • Irena Lipowicz (Poland), Professor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (Warsaw)
  • Tsuneo Nishida (Japan), Director, Institute for Peace Science, Hiroshima University, and Director, Toho Zinc Co., Ltd.
  • Lan Xue (China), Dean, School of Public Policy and Management, Tsinghua University, and Director, China Institute for S&T Policy