Economic Sanctions As An Act of War

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    Jakarta, IO – The outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war in 2022 saw the imposition of one of the most comprehensive international economic sanctions on any country in history. These sanctions were expressly aimed to damage the Russian economy, pressure its population and force its leaders to cease hostilities against Ukraine. These measures caused a run on banks, an economic recession and sky-high inflation in Russia. In response, Russia imposed retaliatory sanctions of its own and, described the Western sanctions as an ‘Act of War’. North Korea had raised a similar contention in 2017 in response to similar sanctions. This author seeks to focus on and examine this claim on its merits and normative value in International Law. 

    I argue that, from an effects-based perspective, comprehensive and longterm economic sanctions should be regarded as an ‘Act of War’. In a globalised world, economic sanctions can have a disproportionate and indiscriminate effect on a nation’s populace, comparable to that of a direct military intervention in the form of a blockade. The decision to impose economic sanctions should thus ideally be regarded as such and be subjected to the same level of scrutiny and qualifications such as what the case for an armed intervention to be legitimate in modern International Law. A calibrated standard to determine a ‘legal’ economic sanction not amounting to an act of war, will allow for proportionate use of sanctions, to minimise their human costs and respect the rights of economically weaker states. 

    Economic Sanctions in International Law 

    The term ‘sanction’ in international law refers to a peaceful action, usually responding to a breach of an international law principle and aiming to economically constrain a target state, entity or individual , imposed by a state or authority with the legal capacity to do so. Sanctions may be comprehensive, such as completely prohibiting commercial activity with an entire country, or they may be targeted, blocking specific types of transactions, with specific entities or individuals. 

    Sanctions act as tools of coercion aimed to cause popular dissatisfaction and create pressure on a country’s leadership to change its foreign policies. Importantly, sanctions imposed by major powers such as the US and EU, include ‘Secondary Sanctions’. Such sanctions extend similar trade restrictions to any other third country which continues to deal in the restricted trade with the target country. Secondary sanctions reduce the alternative trade partners for a target country and magnify the effects of sanctions. 

    The UN Charter itself, in Art. 41, mentions the use of economic sanctions as a measure by the Security Council to give effect to its decisions. It clearly treats it as a separate, less egregious measure then the use of armed force provided for in Art.42. ‘Blockades’ are also mentioned separately as within the scope of use of armed force by the Security Council. 

    The UN framework does not provide the only legal basis for states to impose economic sanctions, as states are relatively free in customary international law to adopt unilateral sanctions against states, entities and individuals. Various regional treaties also allow for use of collective economic sanctions. 

    It is also important to acknowledge a long-running movement in the UN to delegitimatize use of unilateral economic measures as a method of coercion, recognising that such measures significantly disadvantage developing countries in particular. This movement has manifested itself in form of various General Assembly resolutions such as Resolution 2131, ‘Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty’, 1965; Resolution 2625 (XXV), ‘Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations’, 1970; 

    However, such resolutions are non-binding in nature. As it stands, a strict reading of the UN Charter and associated international legal instruments, does not per se allow for regarding economic sanctions as an act of war, as will be elaborated below.