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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Backgrounder: UN Sanctions: A Mixed Record

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor
November 17, 2006


The UN’s checkered history with sanctions includes the organization’s worst scandal—linked to the Iraq oil-for-food program—as well as numerous poorly enforced measures aimed at blocking the flow of weapons to Africa’s civil war combatants during the 1990s. But the UN Security Council continues to make extensive use of sanctions and leading states such as the United States regularly promote sanctions to try to rein in behavior they regard as threatening to peace and security. Most recently, the Council imposed sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons test, and is considering sanctions against the Iranian government for its lack of transparency about its nuclear program. The nature of UN sanctions has changed in the past decade away from comprehensive measures levied against states to targeted sanctions aimed at individuals and small groups or entities. Some experts say this shift, when combined with other levers outside the United Nations, can make sanctions more effective. Others say UN sanctions have had only limited impact in changing the behavior of dangerous regimes or individuals.

Where are UN sanctions currently in effect?

The UN Security Council currently maintains thirteen sets of sanctions. Overseeing them are nine committees, the largest number of UN sanctions committees ever, says George A. Lopez, a leading sanctions expert and senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. More than half of the sanctions are against African states, some connected to conflicts dating back to the 1990s. Here is a look at some of the most recent:

  • North Korea. In October 2006 the Council approved a resolution prohibiting nuclear technology, heavy arms, and luxury goods from entering North Korea. The measure also called upon states to cooperate in inspecting cargo in and out of the country.

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Copyright 2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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