I'm not aware of any sanction imposed on countries for legal but barbaric punishments, such as limb amputation in Saudi Arabia, or caning in Malaysia.

By "barbaric punishment" I mean what most people would consider cruel if they witness it personally, regardless of whether they think the recipient deserves it. (This is more or less an objective test. I suspect proponents of the death penalty will concede that it's cruel, even if they think it's justified.)

So my questions are:

  • Have there ever been sanctions for legal but cruel punishments?
  • If not, why are there no such sanctions when there are sanctions for torture? (Example: Magnitsky Act)

Possible reasons for the lack of such sanctions are:

  1. Sanctions would violate a country's sovereignty to set their own laws, even if such laws prescribe barbaric punishments.

  2. Sanctions are not completely effective since there may be ways to evade them

  3. Sanctions are not in the economic or political interests of countries that impose them

I'm not convinced by those reasons because:

  1. Sanctions do not violate national sovereignty, since countries that impose sanctions have the right to regulate trade, freeze assets, etc. within their jurisdiction.

  2. Sanctions have pressured politicians in rogue states into changing their behaviour, at least temporarily (e.g. Iran's 2015 nuclear deal, North Korea's 1994 Agreed Framework). Even if sanctions are not foolproof, surely some impact is still better than nothing?

  3. Countries that impose sanctions on rogue states always sacrifice some economic benefit (e.g. oil, trade) but they hope to gain other benefits (such as security or public approval). Abolishing cruel punishments in all countries is a benefit as it would protect citizens who travel overseas if they inadvertently commit a minor offence that attracts cruel punishment.

This leaves me wondering why countries that care about torture and human rights do not impose such sanctions. Is it just an oversight?

  • 15
    What is barbaric is subjective. Example: death penalty.
    – chirlu
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 9:58
  • 1. In general sanctions do not violate sovereignty; if I do not want to trade with you then I do not have with you. It could go against World Trade Organization's GATT, but even it seems to have exceptions for some political led sanctions (my search refers me to art. XX and Enabling Clause of GATT, but I have not read those in depth). 2) It is worth remembering that NK Agreed Framework had not only the stick (sanctions) but also some carrots (investment to build "non-weaponizable" reactors)...
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 11:40
  • ... 3) If it comes to protecting your travelling citizens, I would say that it is easier to protect only them (having them pardoned and expelled) through diplomatic pressurethan to change the whole penal system. After all, there are less foreign citizen and they are less of a risk since you can just expel him and the problem is gone for good; softening the punishments to the local population can be viewed (by those supporting the punishments) as an invitation to crime ("if we do not execute murderers then people will start murdering left and right because jail time is not enough deterrent").
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 11:45
  • 1
    I'd like to know why somebody downvoted my question
    – farmer
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 17:13
  • 1
    @farmer If you do not have enough leverage to change that country's decission regarding one single person, it stands to reason that you do not have enough leverage to force that same change but affecting all of that country population.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 18:02

2 Answers 2


While there is a consensus among most democratic countries that protecting human rights and making them progress is a good thing, there is no strong will to enforce them strictly. There's certainly a number of reasons, some of which are:

  • International relations are still largely governed by bilateral alliances. Allied countries protect each other, including sometimes against well deserved sanctions.
  • Which human rights violations should be sanctioned? There's no more reason to focus on cruel punishment (btw death penalty is a pretty cruel punishment) than on discriminations (race, gender, sexual orientation...) for example.
  • Very few countries have a perfect record regarding human rights. For instance: imprisoning people outside the justice system (Guantanamo) is a pretty bad violation of human rights; many countries have laws against homosexuality; press freedom is threatened in many places...

Why countries do not impose such sanctions

Sanctions are not easy things to put in place. If they are to be effective, they require the cooperation of the target nation's trading partners or at least a good portion of them. This would require an agreement and that no other nations will take over trading previously done by the sanctioning nations. Even in cases where it is felt that something quite clearly outrageous has happened this can be rather difficult.

Sanctioning a nation over their rules of law (or how they apply them) is in effect an attempt to impose your cultural values on the target nation. This could seriously backfire. In addition there are other ways to spread culture that are likely to be much more effective and more subtle. If this is how things work in a country, you cannot expect to impose sanctions and change them overnight.

A further difficulty with sanctions is what to sanction that will achieve the desired outcome without causing undesired problems. Sanctioning a nation to prevent excessive punishments may seem morally safe, but what if those sanctions caused people to go hungry? When considering this, the question of who within the country the sanctions will have the largest impact on is important to consider as often sanctions harm people of little influence/wealth as much as or more than those making questionable policy decisions that you may want to change.

It should be considered that while a nation may hold some influence over another, that could be used to make some progress in the desired direction, by applying sanctions they risk losing any influence that they may have been able to use. They may also be seen as interfering by other nations and lose geopolitical capital or have punitive sanctions imposed by those other nations.

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