International Arms Embargoes

Kenneth Epps

Kenneth Epps

Working Paper 02-4

This paper explores whether mandatory international arms embargoes, carefully designed, effectively implemented, and assiduously enforced, are, or can become, compelling, early multilateral tools for pressuring states and groups into accepted standards of behaviour.


The prolonged humanitarian crisis in Iraq has had a profound impact on the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of multilateral sanctions. Economic sanctions have been severely discredited by the Iraqi experience. For more than a decade, broad economic sanctions have inflicted much more damage on the mainstream civilian population of Iraq than on the regime that is the intended target. Under such circumstances it is persuasively argued that economic sanctions are not a non-violent alternative to military action to discipline a regime, but instead perpetrate a vicious violence against those least able to protect themselves.

Even so, human rights advocates regularly and appropriately argue that the international community must have access to, and use, non-military means of disciplining regimes and groups which are perpetually and severely out of step with human rights and other global norms. It is obviously not appropriate for the international community to treat outlaw regimes in a business-as-usual manner. At the very least, arms control and disarmament advocates argue, such regimes must be denied access to the weapons that facilitate and exacerbate repression and human rights violations. Furthermore, on a planet that perpetually hosts some three dozen shooting wars, there is an urgent need to develop effective means of preventing the shipment of weapons of war to regions of ongoing political tension and existing or imminent armed conflict.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the utility of mandatory international arms embargoes as a means of enforcing compliance with international laws and standards and of preventing war. To what extent can arms embargoes be further developed as “targeted” or “smart” sanctions to focus pressure on recalcitrant regimes without harming civilian populations? The paper surveys current analysis in United Nations, NGO, and academic sources, and draws in particular on the recent ‘Bonn-Berlin Process’ organized by the Bonn International Center for Conversion which, in consultation with the UN Secretariat, sought to improve UN arms embargoes and travel-related sanctions as a means of producing ‘smart’ sanctions.

The paper also examines the extent to which existing Canadian export control guidelines and procedures ensure that transfers of Canadian military goods do not breach international arms embargoes. What loopholes exist and how might they be closed?

International peace and security depend on the willingness of states to operate in a rules-based international environment in which the rights and well being of people are honoured and in which the peaceful settlement of political disputes is practised. And when states show themselves to be unwilling to function according to such norms and standards, the international community needs effective and lawful means of compelling compliance. Arms embargoes are a necessary element of any compliance mechanism and we are pleased to offer this paper to advance public policy discussion in support of developing arms embargoes toward that end.

Ernie Regehr, Director, Project Ploughshares

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