"Protect Human Rights" page of UN says

The UN Security Council, at times, deals with grave human rights violations, often in conflict areas. [...] the Security Council can opt for enforcement measures, such as economic sanctions, arms embargos, financial penalties and restrictions, travel bans, the severance of diplomatic relations, a blockade, or even collective military action.

Suppose the UN declares economic sanctions on a state violating human rights. Such measures would primarily affect the citizens of that country, not the ruling class. And since human rights are violated to the level that the UN steps in, it's naive to expect that the lawmakers care about the well-being of the people.

What are the realistic ways in which economic sanctions could force a country to stop violating human rights?

Are there any documented cases of successful interventions via this method?

  • Is your Question about UN sanctions? Maybe you could edit the title to avoid confusing some people, or put the last paragraph in boldface if that is your Question. Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 4:46
  • @KeithMcClary I did mean the UN. However it was my fault for not putting "UN" in the title. Since, I don't want to invalidate JMS's extensive answer, I extended the scope of the questions at the end.
    – Jakub
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 11:44

2 Answers 2



What effect do economic sanctions for human rights violations have?

Short Answer:

Sanctions can be devastating, even seemingly benign sanctions, It depends upon who supports them and how they are implemented. Take the August 7th U.S. sanctions on the 11 Chinese officials deemed responsible for the Hong Kong crackdown which are playing out now. Originally they were being laughed off by chinese officials, like the reciprocal Chinese Sanctions were laughed off by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and other US Congressional leaders.

China sanctions 11 US politicians, including Cruz and Rubio, and heads of pro-democracy organizations

Now it appears the personal sanctions on 11 Chinese officials could have significant consequences for Hong Kong and China's economies.

Detailed Answer:

The UN has no standing army, nor any ability to take action removed from its member states, most importantly it's security council states each of which can veto any UN action. Thus the UN's ability to pass sanctions specifically for human rights violations is exceedingly limited due to disagreements on prioritization of human rights with regards to state rights of the security council members.

Having said that if we take the Sanctions the United States imposed August 7th upon 11 Hong Kong officials including chief executive Carrie Lam the current and former police chiefs and several mainland chinese security officials responsible for the Communist's crackdown on Hong Kong. As the Sanctions say: "Undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong.", these sanctions have some serious teeth.

They have the potential to have a huge effect on Hong Kong's economy and even significantly affect mainland China's economy, as well as the wealth of Chinese communist party officials.

Initially the Sanctions on the specific individuals, include.

  • Banned from traveling to the US
  • Banned from owning assets in the US
  • Banned from doing business with US individuals or companies

A few of the 11 sanctioned individuals have laughed off the sanctions,

Liaison office director Luo ridicules Trump over latest sanctions "I don't have any assets abroad. Isn't it a waste of effort to impose sanctions? Of course, I could send $100 to Mr. Trump for him to freeze," said Luo Huining, director of the central government's liaison office in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), in a humorous response on Saturday to US' sanctions imposed on 11 officials from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

U.S. Sanctions Chinese Officials Over Hong Kong Policy—Including Carrie Lam I have no assets in the U.S. , and I don't particularly like going to the U.S. Mrs. Lam told Hong Kong Open T.V."

Then 10 days later....

Hong Kong Leader Carrie Lam Has Credit Card Trouble After U.S. Sanctions

And then.....

Hong Kong’s financial institutions gripped by anxiety over United States sanctions

That's because the sanctions don't just require US firms stop doing business with the 11 targeted officials. They require all companies who do business or use US services to stop doing business with the 11 targeted officials or face sanctions themselves. That means any bank doing business with the 11 targeted officials risks being cut off from the U.S monetary infrastructure.

The US bipartisan Hong Kong Autonomy Act gives the Trump Administration 60 days to identify any foreign financial institution that knowingly conducts a significant transaction with the 11 officials.

Within One year of such a disclosure, the US President by law has to impose 5 of 10 actions on the offending bank. Within two years all of these penalties must be imposed.

  • banned from getting loans from US banks
  • banned from being primary dealers in US treasuries
  • banned from depositing US government funds
  • banned from foreign exchange transactions within US jurisdictions
  • banned from transfers or payments with other banks in the US jurisdictions
  • banned from buying, selling, or holding any assets within the US
  • banned from importing US technology or software
  • banned from selling stocks or bonds to US residents
  • Bank officers banned from entering the US
  • bank offices subject to first eight sanctions

That's up to 2 years. Under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act the Trump administration had 3 months to name the officials and 1 year to sanction them. The Trump administration named and sanctioned the officials in 3 weeks.

So while the sanctions on the individual officials are politically important. The real pain and ultimate target of the sanctions will be the Chinese banks.

Now the Hong Kong banks have tried to reassure their customers:

Hong Kong regulators see limited sanctions impact as banks weigh action The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the banking regulator, said in a circular that 'unilateral sanctions' had no legal status in Hong Kong, and unlike United Nation sanctions, banks in Hong Kong were under no obligation to comply with them."

However the banks are caught in the middle.

If they continue doing business with the sanctioned officials they themselves will face sanctions. If they don't do business with the officials they will run afoul of the new national security laws from Communist China with outlaws them from participating in any foreign sanctions on hong kong or mainland china officials.

If the bank decide to close up shop and leave Hong Kong to avoid US sanctions and face being cut off from the international financial infrastructure it could devastate Hong Kong's Economy.

Chinese banks prepare contingency plans over threat of U.S. sanctions, sources say
In worst case scenarios... the lenders are looking at the possibility of being cut off from the U.S. dollars or losing access to the U.S. dollar settlements"..... The dollar is the dominant global currency for international payments and central bank reserves......

The world’s money transfer system is China’s Achilles heel in its sanctions battle against the US
Since the bulk of dollar transactions are cleared through American banks, the US can argue that those transactions pass through US soil, thereby giving the US legal jurisdiction over them.

Also Hong Kong's currency is pegged to the US dollar. The dollar is what allows Hong Kong to be an international financial center.

US Autonomy Act unlikely to undermine Hong Kong dollar peg in short-run, but poses long-term risk, analysts say
the freely convertible and stable hong kong dollar is especially important to china for attracting foreign investment and in turn allowing Chinese companies to easily raise hard currency in the city.

Hong Kong is the primary place where Mainland Chinese businesses can obtain U.S Dollars. Threatening that is a big deal because; China's banks are running out of dollars.

China’s Banks Are Running Out of Dollars
The major Chinese commercial banks once had more dollar assets than liabilities. No longer.

And they need dollars to conduct business overseas.... for example...

China’s Banks Are Running Out of Dollars "Belt and Road projects are overwhelmingly financed in U.S. currency"

And these sanctions also dramatically effect the wealth of Chinese Communist officials which are tied to Hong Kong.

Luxury Homes Tie Chinese Communist Elite to Hong Kong’s Fate Three top leaders of China’s Communist Party have relatives who own assets in Hong Kong, including more than $51 million in luxury real estate, a New York Times investigation shows..... “Members of the Red aristocracy in China, including the princelings, have made huge investments in Hong Kong,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of China studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If Hong Kong suddenly loses its financial status, they cannot park their money here.”

  • 1
    Isn't the question about UN sanctions? If you want to discuss unilateral US sanctions you could also discuss how effective are US sanctions on Saudi Arabia. Not much, I think. Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 4:13
  • @KeithMcClary The question I answered is written at the top of my answer, and dealt with economic sanctions for human rights violations. This question did not mention the UN. I did discuss the UN briefly as it was in his synopsis.
    – user20338
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 4:32
  • 1
    @JMS Thank you for your long answer. Is the case of China not just a speculation? It can't be counted yet as a successful intervention, as there has been no change in China's approach to Hong Kong. In fact, it looks like the threat is mostly to Chinese economy, not to Chinese officials. This is one of the reasons why I asked the question. I can see how sanctions can be used to achieve strategic targets, but I fail to see their use in human rights enforcement.
    – Jakub
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 12:34
  • 1
    @jakup yes speculation as the sanctions are still evolving, but I wanted to highlight these new kinds of sanctions like president bush used against Russia, Obama used against Iran and president trump is now using aFaints China have real teeth and can really impact nations even while sounding benign. They are new kinds of sanctions.
    – user20338
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 14:15
  • But are these sanctions against individuals really effective? If the targeted individuals transfer assets and use credit cards/bank accounts of their spouses or relatives? Or if they get a second secret identity (or even more identities), which should be no problem in an undemocratic country like China, those sanctions against individuals would not work as intended. Maybe eyescans could still identify the individuals, but how often get Chinese business men eyescanned at international or US airports?
    – xeeka
    Commented Apr 30 at 8:12

And since human rights are violated to the level that the UN steps in, it's naïve to expect that the lawmakers care about the well-being of the people.

I'd say it's naïve to think sanctions can solve all problems. I think JMS's answer shows that it can put up a lot of hurdles, it can cause inconvenience, but I'll argue it's no silver bullet to big problems.

If you can't travel West, go East

The first problem with placing sanctions is enforcement. As the other answer discussed how the UN rarely agrees on sanctions, I will also focus on sanctions from the West against Russia or China.

The most you can achieve in terms of sanctions in this way is to get all of the West behind them, so they enforce them wherever they have authority. As a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the West, you can still live a pretty lavish life in Russian and China. After all, those who warrant sanctioning are often very wealthy and connected to power.

Our affairs, their affairs

Of course there is always the threat of extending the sanctions to anyone who helps those who are sanctioned, but that's not something those larger countries are going to accept. They'll simply argue that it's not for the West to tell them how to run their affairs.

And it's not so much a matter of our affairs versus their affairs, the world is too connected for that. For example, Europe is to some extent dependent on Russia for energy and the whole world is dependent on China for manufacturing.

The European dependency on Russian energy caused friction is US-EU relations in 2017 when the US placed sanctions on the Russian energy sector:

Russia and the European Union condemned the USA on Wednesday after the US House of representatives on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to impose new sanctions against Russia.

The EU also warned it was ready “to act to protect European interests” if the sanctions legislation damaged the blocs dealings with the Russian energy sector. Brussels is concerned that the new sanctions will adversely affect European firms as well as oil and gas projects on which the EU states rely.

France’s foreign ministry declared the sanctions appear to be illegal under international law while a German foreign ministry spokesman accused Washington of carrying out industrial policy under the guise of sanctions – something Berlin “could not accept”.

A similar argument holds for SWIFT example mentioned by JMS. While that may seem like a good threat, it will also hurt the US and its allies. As an article by the Atlantic council noted:

Take Russia, for instance. At the height of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, there were calls from Congress to de-SWIFT Russia as a way to sound tough on Moscow. What they wanted was to cut off the world’s (then) eighth largest economy from the United States and EU. Simply preventing SWIFT from providing services to Russian banks would not have prevented those banks from continuing to transact with their US and EU counterparts in ongoing trade and settlements. There would have been too much economic activity at stake for those banks to not fall back to other methods, albeit less desirable ones than SWIFT. To actually cut Russia off, a ban on the actual transactions, not the messages, with the jurisdiction would have been necessary.

Which brings us back to China. Beijing knows that the United States will almost certainly not impose sanctions that cut off an economy vastly more important to the United States and to a teetering global economy than Russia was in 2014-2015. It knows that a SWIFT cutoff is not going to happen, as such a thing would require some combination of US primary and secondary sanctions and EU sanctions of a similar scale on China. Instead, Beijing wants to promote its own internally-developed messaging system for domestic transactions to benefit a Chinese company at the expense of SWIFT, similar to Russia using US sanctions on Bank Rossiya in 2014 as pretext to replace US credit card companies operating its domestic credit card settlement network with a Russian system.

So as you can see, it's hard to get everyone on the same page, because there are all sorts of relations between different players. There's no clear line between the West's affairs and the affairs of other countries. If you place sanctions to hurt one of those other countries, you also end up hurting yourself or your own allies.

But even if you do get everyone in the West on the same page and you get to sanction powerful people and institutions (banks) in those countries, they'll create their own systems. Indeed, back in 2015 China did just that with the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as QZ wrote:

Russia, the Netherlands, and Australia announced over the weekend that they will be joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), whose membership has become something of a test of diplomatic clout between China and the United States. The development bank is seen as a challenger to existing institutions like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank.

While these alternatives may not have much significance now, they would benefit from a more isolationist world in which more countries were blocked from systems in the West, like SWIFT.

As an example, you already see some loans through the AIIB avoiding the US dollar altogether, according to the South China Morning Post:

The Beijing-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will soon conduct financing activity in local currencies, in response to significant demand from member countries amid an escalating trade war between China and the United States and related uncertainties, it said on Monday.

“From the second half of this year, we are going to start piloting local currency financing, in currencies such as the Indian rupee and the Indonesian rupiah, for example,” Danny Alexander, the bank’s vice-president and former chief secretary of the UK Treasury, said in Hong Kong.

The trade war has raised concerns about currency fluctuations and related risks because of exposure to US dollar-denominated loans.

“This is a reasonable move for AIIB, carrying significance that is both financial and political,” said Zhou Hao, an economist at Commerzbank.

In answer to your question, I think this shows that sanctions aren't suited to affect great change against larger foreign powers. It may work for a while, but mostly as an inconvenience.

I haven't really covered sanctions against smaller countries and less powerful people, mostly because I don't have a lot of insight there.

  • If tallking about sanctions against smaller countries Cuba can be a good example, as it´s under US sanctions for more then half century.
    – convert
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 23:35

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