Arms Embargoes: Making Sanctions Smarter

Tasneem Jamal

Laura Norris

The Ploughshares Monitor March 2000 Volume 21 Issue 1

Laura Norris completed a six-month internship in the national office of Project Ploughshares in February 2000.

Sanctions are a way for a country or a group of countries to signal disapproval of action taken by a state (or a group within a state) considered to pose a threat to international peace and security. Traditionally sanctions have been applied in a comprehensive manner, but recent efforts have been made to target sanctions more narrowly and avoid causing humanitarian harm often associated with comprehensive sanctions. This is the thinking behind “smart sanctions,” a theory which involves targeting sanctions on individuals or governing elites responsible for violating international norms without creating adverse social consequences for the general population. The inability of thousands of Iraqi civilians to obtain basic medical and food supplies provides just one example of the collateral damage caused by comprehensive sanctions.

Arms embargoes are a type of smart sanction (others include financial and travel sanctions) increasingly used in the post-Cold War era by the international community in responding to threats to peace and security. By restricting or banning arms and/or arms-related material, including hardware, military advice, and training, arms embargoes seek to deny violators of international humanitarian law the tools with which such abuses are committed. Such a measure is viewed as an alternative to military action in condemning the activity of individuals or groups within states while sending a clear political message on behalf of the international community. Last April, for instance, Nobel Peace laureate José Ramos-Horta called for the imposition of an arms and financial embargo on Indonesia as an alternative to a NATO bombing campaign (Reuters 25 April 1999, “Ramos-Horta Urges Arms Embargo Against Indonesia”).

Since 1990, the UN has imposed a total of nine mandatory arms embargoes in response to external aggression against a sovereign state, civil war, breaches of peace accords, humanitarian emergencies, human rights violations, coups, or acts of terrorism.1 Although arms embargoes are usually directed at governments, they have also been imposed against non-state actors, such as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the rebel faction in Angola.

Controversy surrounding embargoes

Considerable disagreement exists over when and how arms embargoes and other sanctions should be imposed. There is also some debate about the effectiveness of embargoes in realizing their ultimate objective, which is to prevent a state or group within a state from accessing weapons and related material used to violate international law. Some observers believe arms embargoes have had little effect in decreasing the level of violence in countries engaged in armed conflict (Hagelin et al 1999, p. 438). For instance, while under six years of arms embargo (Haq 1999), UNITA was able to fully equip 300,000 soldiers and resume fighting the Angolan government in a war that has claimed more than 500,000 lives since it began in 1975 (Project Ploughshares 1999, p. 11). Despite these criticisms, many observers believe arms embargoes offer a preferable alternative to comprehensive sanctions in response to violations of international law.

Working to improve arms embargoes

Participants at a recent expert seminar in Bonn, Germany are among those who feel that arms embargoes, if properly monitored and implemented, are preferable to comprehensive sanctions. They acknowledge, however, that much work is needed to improve the effectiveness of arms embargoes. The seminar initiated a process to determine practical suggestions for the improvement of future UN arms embargoes and travel sanctions. Over 60 experts from 21 countries including representatives from member states currently on the UN Security Council, officials from other UN member states, representatives from non-governmental organizations, academic scholars, and private sector representatives met in November 1999 for a three-day conference organized by the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). Problems with monitoring and implementing embargoes were discussed and suggestions for enhancing the impact of arms embargoes were proposed. There was general consensus at the expert seminar that smart sanctions offer a preferable alternative to comprehensive sanctions since they target specific individuals, groups, or regimes, not people, and thus minimize harm to civilians.

Although travel sanctions formed part of the conference agenda, much of the discussion at the seminar focussed on ways to improve the formulation, implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of arms embargoes. When formulating arms embargoes, participants felt that the language used in UN resolutions needs to be more precise and positive incentives should be included to persuade the embargoed party to change its behaviour. Member states, not the UN, are responsible for implementing embargoes and deciding which goods are covered by the embargoes. Unfortunately, many governments lack the legal and administrative mechanisms to ensure appropriate implementation of UN resolutions. With respect to embargo monitoring, it is essential that those monitoring an embargo are neutral. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other members of civil society already play an important role in monitoring embargoes and seminar participants suggested that such a role should be expanded. Seminar participants noted that a better system for reporting violations of embargoes must be put in place. Four working groups were formed at the seminar and will lead follow-up work in developing concrete recommendations for enhancing the formulation, implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of arms embargoes.2 The four working groups will meet in about one year in Berlin to discuss their recommendations.

Several steps have been taken in recent years to improve the effectiveness of embargoes. In 1995, the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda) was launched to investigate arms embargo violations and continues to act as a model for future action in monitoring embargoes. More recently, the UN Security Council identified improving the implementation of arms embargoes as a top priority in a report released last September. Currently Canada is playing an active role in keeping this commitment on the UN’s agenda. Robert Fowler, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, is presently chairing the UN sanctions committee dealing with the UNITA rebels. Ambassador Peggy Mason of the Canadian Council of Peace and Security is chair of the working group “A Common Understanding of Arms Embargoes” formed at the Bonn seminar.

Even the best-designed sanctions will be ineffective if the political will to monitor and enforce them is lacking. The Security Council and national governments have important roles to play in generating this political will to ensure the smartest and most effective sanctions are created.



1 Arms embargoes have been imposed by the UN on UNITA (in Angola), Iraq, Haiti, Liberia, Libya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia. Voluntary UN arms embargoes have been imposed on Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

2 The other working group chairs include Ambassador Hans Dahlgren of Sweden (Improving Travel Sanctions), Ambassador Tono Eitel of Germany (Improving the Effectiveness of Arms Embargoes ‘On the Ground’), and Ambassador António Moneiro of Portugal (Monitoring and Reporting of UN Arms Embargoes).



BICC 1999, Smart Sanctions, The Next Step: Arms Embargoes and Travel Sanctions, 21-23 November.

Hagelin, B., Wezeman, P.D. & Wezeman, S.T. 1999, “Transfers of Major Conventional Weapons,” in SIPRI Yearbook 1999, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Haq, Farhan 1999, “Disarmament Angola: Canada Urges Tighter UN Sanctions,” InterPress Service, 29 July.

Project Ploughshares 1999, Armed Conflicts Report ’99, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Waterloo.

Reuters, 25 April 1999.

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