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Watson panel evaluates U.N. sanctions

The consortium analyzed sanctions based on ability to effect policy outcomes

One-third of United Nations sanctions in the last 20 years have been successful in influencing their targets, according to research presented in a panel Tuesday at the Watson Institute for International Studies.

The panel of three members of the Targeted Sanctions Consortium spoke to a small audience in the Joukowsky Forum, discussing preliminary research on the effectiveness of targeted sanctions against specific countries or individuals.

Panelists Sue Eckert, senior fellow at the Watson Institute, and Thomas Biersteker, adjunct professor and former director of the Watson Institute, collaborated on the research project for nearly 15 years. They formed the Targeted Sanctions Consortium in 2009, bringing together approximately 50 other researchers, scholars and policy practitioners. Biersteker currently serves as director of the Programme for the Study of International Governance at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

Eckert began the discussion by defining a targeted sanction and outlining the goals of the research project. The consortium examined data beginning in 1992 — when the first targeted sanction was put in place — and continuing through the present day. A targeted sanction is different from the better-known comprehensive sanction in that it “is not comprehensive in terms of all of a nation’s economy,” Eckert said. She added that targeted sanctions focus on specific individuals, political entities, sectors or commodities, and are instruments of collective security and global governance.

Data were collected by 16 research teams composed of members of the consortium, Biersteker said. The teams were placed in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, and data were collected in comprehensive quantitative and qualitative databases.

“Instead of looking at a country, we looked at changes and purposes in the types of sanctions imposed there,” Biersteker said. “We used these ‘episodes’ as our unit analysis.”

The research team identified 56 case episodes and analyzed each episode based on two levels of a coding system. The first level quantitatively measured policy outcomes and how sanctions contributed to them, utilizing three different criteria to measure whether the target was “coerced,” “constrained” or “signaled,” Biersteker said in the panel. Coercion, the rarest result in the research findings, meant the target changed its policy or behavior in response to the sanction. Constraining was an attempt to limit the target’s economic or natural resources. Signaling was a symbolic gesture used to stigmatize the target or present a clear stance the U.N. was taking. For each category, the research team ranked how affected the target was on a scale of one to five, from situations when the target was unaffected completely to those when the target fully complied with the U.N. Security Council resolution, Biersteker said.

Through this methodology, the research team concluded that one-third of the targeted sanctions put in place in the last 20 years was effective, and constraining and signaling had the greatest success, Biersteker said. The team also found that arms embargoes, though common, were ineffective when applied in isolation, but commodity sanctions appeared highly effective.

The project is funded largely by the governments of Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Eckert said she hoped the findings would eventually influence and provide insight to benefit policymakers and the public. The consortium is working on a scholarly book of its research and an app for U.N. officials and other members of the academic community to consult past sanctions.

Eckert said most people have misconceptions about the uses of targeted sanctions, and she hopes this research will debunk many of the myths.

“The scholarly public debate has been largely unchanged for 20 years,” Eckert told The Herald. “People believe (targeted sanctions) are largely ineffective when it comes to policy change, but in reality their broader purposes, to constrain or to signal something symbolic, are more successful.”


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