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Economic Sanctions and International Law

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Economic Sanctions and International Law

“Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges of towns … Twenty-first century sanctions attempt to bring not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees.”

Prof. Dr. Alfred de Zayas

(American lawyer, writer, historian, and Former special UN Rapporteur)

Shahzad Husain

With the success of comprehensive financial sanctions against Iran over nuclear proliferation during the Obama administration, policymakers in Washington have grown more confident that economic sanctions are potent instruments for inducing concessions from hostile countries. The growing belief in the effectiveness of coercive economic instruments has increased the prevalence of sanctions and made them the primary instrument for the Trump administration. Whether in Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea or one of the 20 countries under the boot of US sanctions, the Trump administration is using its economic weight to try to exact regime change or major policy changes in countries around the globe.

Military might may be the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the United States, however, sanctions have once again – after a brief lull following the politically-disastrous grain embargo and pipeline sanctions in the early 1980s – become the weapon of choice to enforce a myriad of US foreign policy goals, from countering terrorism to battling drug trafficking. President Donald Trump has based his foreign policy on a series of harsh economic sanctions, each designed to frighten, coerce and even starve the target country into submitting to American demands. The US Treasury identifies 30 active sanctions programmes that include, according to one estimate, 7,967 operating sanctions. While the practice is less violent than a military attack, the consequences are often dire for civilian populations. As such, economic sanctions by the United States should be scrutinized by the United Nations Security Council under international law and the UN Charter.

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