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  • The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions

    Over the past six decades, there has been significant growth in the use of economic #sanctions by Western powers and international organizations. Less than 4 percent of countries were subject to sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, or United Nations in the early 1960s; today, that share has risen to 27 percent. The magnitudes are similar when we consider their impact on the global economy: the share of world GDP produced in sanctioned countries rose from less than 4 percent to 29 percent in the same period. In other words, more than one fourth of countries and nearly a third of the world economy is now subject to sanctions by the UN or Western nations.

    There is also a clear rising trend in individual or entity-specific sanctions. During the first Obama administration, there was an average of 544 new designations to the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs). That number rose to 975 per year in the Trump administration and has continued rising so far (to 1151 per year) in the Biden administration.

    Recent years have seen increasing concern about the continuing humanitarian effects of sanctions. In 2014, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted a resolution stating it was “deeply disturbed by the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures” and “alarmed by the disproportionate and indiscriminate human costs of unilateral sanctions and their negative effects on the civilian population.

    Nevertheless, it appears clear that some of the economic and humanitarian impact of sanctions on target populations is intended. For example, a statement issued by the UK government after freezing Russian central bank assets in February 2022 stated unambiguously that “sanctions will devastate Russia’s economy.” In February 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in response to a question about the effects of sanctions on Iran, “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we are convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” Pompeo made similar statements about US sanctions in Venezuela the following month.


    The evidence surveyed in this paper shows that economic sanctions are associated with declines in living standards and severely impact the most vulnerable groups in target countries. It is hard to think of other cases of policy interventions that continue to be pursued despite the accumulation of a similar array of evidence of their adverse effects on vulnerable populations. This is perhaps even more surprising in light of the extremely spotty record of economic sanctions in terms of achieving their intended objectives of inducing changes in the conduct of targeted states.