Lessons learned – The UN’s sanctions policy on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 and its implications for the future

Seminar Paper, 2008

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory of sanctions
2.1 The logic behind sanctions
2.2 Problems of past sanction regimes
2.3 The concept of targeted sanctions

3. Case study on Iraq
3.1 The second Gulf War
3.2 The impact of UN sanctions on post war Iraq
3.3 The humanitarian crisis and the Oil-for-Food program

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

After the end of the Cold War it was largely believed that the UN Security Council could finally start to work the way it was supposed to in the beginning of the United Nations. The east-west conflict was almost overcome and the two superpowers could start to concentrate on real work rather than just blocking each others attempts to influence the work of the UN.

The Golf-Crisis in August 1990 was the first test for the newly strengthened UN. The resolutions of this time are all formulated very clear. It seemed that the international community spoke with one voice on the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and that the UN could finally work as guarantor of the international peace.

But soon after the US-led military operation “Desert Storm” that pushed the Iraqi army back into their territory the first euphoria started to crumble. In the Security Council Resolution of April 1991 it became clear that there was more to the Iraq-Case than just the aggression against Kuwait. In the formulation of resolution 687 it was obvious that the US wanted to bring the downfall of Saddam Hussein about.

The sanctions which were imposed on Iraq with resolution 661 in August 1990 were redefined and linked to the absolute disarmament of the Iraqi programme for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). These sanctions were supposed to increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply with the demands made by the resolutions. Focusing on this the Security Council almost completely ignored the humanitarian aspects of the sanctions. By cutting Iraq off the international trading market and freezing all of its banking accounts it was just a matter of time until Iraq would run out of money and the people would suffer from famine.

First attempts to solve the developing humanitarian crisis of the Iraqi people were made in resolutions 706(1991) and 712(1991) which allowed Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to meet the people’s needs.

The government of Iraq rejected these resolutions because the sale of petroleum and its products was linked to other demands which were considered to be not acceptable. So it took four more years until the “Oil-for-Food” programme (OFF) in 1995 made a new attempt to handle the increasingly disastrous humanitarian situation in Iraq.

Today the mismanagement of the OFF is one of the darkest chapters of UN history. In the ongoing debate about reforming the UN one of the major topics is the debate about “smart” or “targeted sanctions”. These are sanctions which first of all hit the ones who are supposed to be hit. In case of Iraq this would have been the government around the dictator Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately the sanctions from 1991 can be considered as “dumb” sanctions because the Iraqi people were the ones to suffer the most from their restrictions.

In this paper I will explain the logic behind sanctions and show the problems which past sanctions regimes had to face when it came to implementation and enforcement of embargoes and bans. In the ongoing UN reform debate some major contributions in the field of targeted sanctions were made by experts under the leadership of Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. In chapter 2.3 I will describe the efforts that were made in the Interlaken, Bonn-Berlin and Stockholm Process to improve the instrument of smart sanctions.

After a brief description of the second Gulf War I will discuss the problems and failures of the UN sanctions policy on Iraq from the Golf-Crisis in 1991 to the outbreak of the current war in 2003 that still haunts the country and compare them to the concept of targeted sanctions. In the end it will be possible to draw some conclusions of what can be learned for the future from the failures that have been made in Iraq.

2. Theory of sanctions

“[T]here is a widespread consensus that, when confronting major transgressions of international law, the international community needs some instrument of suasion that lies between diplomatic censure, on the one hand, and war, on the other. For this purpose, there is no real alternative to sanctions.”

Strategic Planning Unit

Executive Office of the Secretary-General

United Nations, 1999

As the above quote shows, there is a widespread consensus that sanctions are an appropriate means of getting an uncooperative state back onto the course of the international community. Unfortunately this consensus evaporates when it comes to formulating and implementing these sanctions. In the following chapter I will discuss the logic behind sanctions and especially behind the sanctions which are imposed by the Security Council’s resolutions. I will clarify what the factors are when it comes to define success and failure of sanctions against states.

In the second part I will show some of the problems which the international community faces while enforcing the restrictions against a targeted country. Following on I will draw an image of the rather new concept of targeted sanctions which is lively debated in the UN reform process.

2.1 The logic behind sanctions

Where does the authorization of the UN come from to interfere with sovereign rights of member states?

In a situation in which the Security Council “determine[s] the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” (UNO 1945: p.12) Article 41 of the UN Charter provides the opportunity to impose sanctions and in a second step the use of force against any state that threatens international peace. These measures may be taken when the Security Council unsuccessfully has called upon the parties to a conflict to settle their dispute by peaceful means. If such attempts to settle a conflict in a diplomatic way fail, the Security Council may impose sanctions as an instrument to alter the parties’ way of action. It is important to understand sanctions not as an instrument of punishing a state for its policy but to change it. They are supposed to be a means of interfering in such a way as to restore international peace and security. Kühn remarks that it is important to have a dynamic understanding of sanctions. Compliance can not be understood in binary categories like “compliance” and “no compliance” but rather in dynamic ones like “stick & carrot”. “Sanktionen dürfen dann nicht mehr als Paketlösungen betrachtet, sondern müssen als kleinteilige Verhandlungsmasse und Gegenwert für die Erfüllung ebenso kleinteiliger Resolutionsobligationen verstanden werden.“ (Kühn 2003: p.6). It means that partial compliance should be rewarded with partial lifting of sanctions or at least with their relaxation.

Article 25 of the UN Charter stresses the binding character of the UN Security Council’s resolutions: “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.” (UNO 1945: p.9). In addition to that the resolutions by the Security Council (and sanctions have to be imposed by the Security Council’s resolutions) are legal documents which constitute international law. Because of their character as legal documents, resolutions have to be formulated in accordance with other statutes of international law such as the human rights.

Unfortunately the sanctions imposed by the UN are not the only ones that are practiced in international relations. Some countries like the United States of America deem unilateral sanctions legitimate instruments in their relations with other countries. Such sanctions are not equal in relevance to the sanctions imposed by the Security Council. Unlike UN sanctions which are based on the UN Charter unilateral sanctions are not legally binding under international law. Regularly the US sanctions policy leads to additional tensions because other countries don’t always feel committed to such embargoes which are not authorised by the Security Council.

But some critics claim that UN sanctions are ineffective as well. Because of their veto the permanent members of the Security Council can block any form of sanction or embargo targeted against them. Critics take this weakness as an argument to completely dispose of the instrument of UN sanctions. But in giving the UN the possibility to impose pressure on trouble makers without the use of military force, the authors of the Charter thought about closing the gap between diplomacy and military action. By this the international community was thought to be better equipped to face conflict situations by choosing between measures of different impact.

The major task concerning sanctions is to assess their success in altering the policy of a trouble maker. But to do so, there needs to be a goal. Because of the most often conflictive opinions in the UN Security Council it is hard to formulate explicit goals which should be achieved. That results in ample misinterpretations due to vague objectives. Unfortunately those misinterpretations are often intended to fit national interests. Nonetheless thanks to these adversities a resolution that imposes sanctions always has to be considered a success in itself furthermore because it shows the Security Council’s sincerity in working on the problem and thereby may discourage potential trouble makers.

But should a resolution that was drafted under such adverse circumstances not be implemented one-to-one? This is the core problem in estimating the success which was already mentioned above. While sanctions are written down and hence static, negotiations and actual politics are not. Not only the policy of the sanctioned country may change; so do the interests of the Security Council’s members. Therefore resolutions should have to undergo constant evaluation to adjust the goals to changed political realities.

In addition to that the chance for success will decrease if the target’s complexity increases. The goal of getting the obstreperous government back to negotiations is more likely to achieve than the overthrow of the political leadership[1]. Finally one sanction must not be compared to another one. Understanding sanctions as tools which can be used in any given situation is a dangerous mistake that can easily lead to severe results. They always have to be well considered and designed to a unique situation. I will deal with this fatal misunderstanding of sanctions later.

But although the UN sanctions are legally binding to all member countries there are ample problems which they face in implementing these. In the next chapter I will outline some of the major ones.

2.2 Problems of past sanction regimes

Not all member countries of the UN possess the same instruments of implementing sanctions “on the ground”. That means that there are several problems which they face when it comes to enforcing embargoes and bans effectively.

Brzoska calls the mid-1990s the “double crisis” of sanctions. “Die Mischung aus mangelhafter ex-ante Analyse möglicher Wirkungen von Sanktionen und ihrer unterschiedlich intensiven Umsetzung führte rasch zu einer doppelten Krise der Sanktionspraxis und in der Folge auch der Sanktionspolitik der VN.” (Brzoska 2003: p.241). This was the result of missing analyses and evaluation of past sanction regimes on the one hand and of their inadequate implementation on the other. There was unanimity that sanctions are the right way to face international crises. But unfortunately in addition to this there was a lack of knowledge. Only few countries had experienced enforcing sanctions like economic embargoes or no-fly-zones which were imposed on Libya or Iraq. The UN was condemned to “learning by doing”.

But even in cases when there is consensus about imposing sanctions on a targeted country, there are still problems that reduce their success. Lots of countries have to suffer under their own share of domestic problems. To them monitoring their borderlines is a task much harder to achieve than for most of the wealthier countries of the world – especially the ones of the well organized European Union or large developed countries like he USA. Most African countries also lack the capacities to enforce strict monitoring of air space. This fact makes trade embargoes very porous and ineffective. Arms embargoes against UNITA in Angola couldn’t be applied as effective as it should have been because of those adversities.

In the past these problems were often accompanied by those that directly resulted from the sanctions. Like Brzoska says, this is a result of poor evaluation and often wrong assumptions concerning the goals of sanctions. The logic behind sanctions was to impose pressure on political leaders by hitting the country’s people. The people were supposed to change the leadership’s policy by increasing domestic pressure on the government. “Sanctions must alter the cost-benefit calculus […] and convince the targeted elites to change direction.” (Cortright/ Lopez 2001: p.20).


[1] Of course the overthrow of any political leadership cannot be the aim of UN resolutions due to the Charter as the legal basis for them. According to Articles 1.2 and 2.1 of the UN Charter the “relations among nations [are] based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples […and] on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members. (UNO 1945: p.3).

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Lessons learned – The UN’s sanctions policy on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 and its implications for the future
University of Marburg  (Zentrum für Konfliktforschung)
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ISBN (Book)
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Iraq, Lessons learned, UN, Sanctions, Krieg, Konflikt, Conflict, War, Gulf War, International, Relations, Security, Council, Desert Storm
Quote paper
Politikwissenschaftler B.A. Sebastian Feyock (Author), 2008, Lessons learned – The UN’s sanctions policy on Iraq from 1990 to 2003 and its implications for the future, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/94491


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