Who Imposes Sanctions?

Posted in Sanctions Compliance on January 16, 2024
Who Imposes Sanctions?

Who imposes sanctions? who legally imposes sanctions, and we will discuss some key definitions and characteristics.  So essentially, governments and intergovernmental organizations impose, which means creating sanctions through the passing of laws and regulations. The primary states and organizations imposing sanctions are United Nations, which imposes multilateral sanctions; the United States, which imposes unilateral sanctions; and the European Union, which also imposes multilateral sanctions.

Who Imposes Sanctions?

Who Imposes Sanctions?

So, these laws and regulations through which sanctions are imposed may also be called “resolutions” in the case of the UN and “restrictive measures” in the case of the EU. No matter what they are called, they are sanctions. However, at this stage, these sanctions are merely embodied in paper and still need to be enforced.

While intergovernmental organizations impose sanctions, they are not often the enforcers of sanctions. By these means, the enforcement is usually done by the function that monitors and ensures compliance with sanctions. The intergovernmental organizations leave it to member nations and organizations to further adopt and create methods to enforce these sanctions domestically.


Governments that impose their own sanctions may have one government body pass the legislation and another government body monitor or enforce the legislation. This is the case in the US, where the legislative body, Congress, may impose sanctions through the passage of a sanctions bill, and then those sanctions are enforced through various agencies, federal regulators, and even through the enlistment of state regulators. Moreover, the obligation to enforce sanctions may cascade down to non-government actors, as is the case with financial institutions.

Often governments that adopt sanctions will establish a regulatory body, such as a bank examiner, to visit and examine banks in order to determine whether they are taking necessary steps to ensure they are not engaging in sanctioned activities. These bank examiners may, in turn, discover sanctioned activities that lead to fines and penalties.

Developing States

More often than not, sanctions are imposed by larger, wealthier states against smaller, developing states. Sanctions have also been found to be more effective when carried out by countries that are geographically and economically close to the target but that have a GDP at least 10 times larger than that of the target. In other words, larger, more powerful countries “win” when it comes to sanctions.

The effectiveness of sanctions is often determined by the number of participating countries. This is especially true due to globalization. Globalization weakens sanctions because a globalized market makes it easier to replace and reroute trade channels. Because of the expanding market, countries acting on their own without international support have become much less effective, especially as the global economic power of those countries diminishes. If a country’s trade is cut off in one way, the country will find another way to get what it wants.

One way to stop these leaks is for countries to work together as a group in order to cut off the target from every side. It should be noted that because sanctions are a matter of foreign policy, nations may vary in their level of commitment to sanctions enforcement.

Autonomous Sanctions

Included within this framework are autonomous sanctions. Autonomous sanctions occur when a single entity, whether a government, such as Australia, or a coalition of governments, such as the EU, acts to enforce a sanctions regime. Because multilateral sanctions require a broader consensus among nations that may have different interests, for example, among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, most countries have their own version of autonomous, unilateral sanctions.

European Union

However, the EU, which is a collection of nations, also has its autonomous sanctions. These occur when its Council decides to impose sanctions on its own initiative. While most countries in the EU do not rely on autonomous sanctions, choosing instead to rely on the EU framework, EU member countries, in turn, can have their own autonomous sanctions, such as when Latvia passed a version of the US’s Magnitsky Act in 2018, imposing travel restrictions on 49 Russian citizens.16

While countries can choose to pursue sanctions on their own, history has shown that multilateral sanctions are more effective. Recognizing the greater effectiveness of multilateral sanctions, countries have come together to form intergovernmental organizations. However, the United States continues to pursue unilateral sanctions.

International Sanctions

Sanctions are currently imposed by three main bodies: the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The legal basis for the imposition of coercive measures within the United Nations is found in Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. The Security Council is the body with the authority to take non-military measures with the ultimate goal of maintaining or restoring international peace and security. Sanctions regimes aimed at non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, counter-terrorism, conflict resolution, and support for democratic regimes are the most common.

Final Thoughts

In today’s international relations, international sanctions have become a critical component. They are coercive measures taken against states, non-state entities, or individuals who threaten international peace and security. The goals are to change an agent’s behavior, reduce its maneuverability or weaken its position, and publicly denounce those agents who pose a threat to international peace and security. Sanctions should be proportionate and primarily preventive. They are used as a substitute for using armed force.