Sanctions: that's a funny little word, isn't it?

In English as in many other languages, many words that are spelt and pronounced the same have completely different meanings. Bear, for instance, means 'to carry' and it also represents members of the family Ursidae. In other words, black bears, brown bears, polar bears and so on.

Very few homonyms, words like 'bear' and 'watch' and a whole host of others, have both positive and negative definitions and apply to roughly the same concepts. This wordsmith can only think of a few: clip (cut off or attach), ravel (to separate or to entangle), and sanction.

"I can't sanction such behaviour in my classroom!" a teacher might say, meaning "I can't permit such behaviour". "The fossil fuel industry operates will full government sanction" means that whatever that industry does, they're doing it in full awareness of and permission from the government.

And then, there are sanctions.

Three major types of sanctions:
1. Financial / commercial sanctions: trade tariffs, investment restrictions/bans, blocking trade or ending trade agreements.
2. Military sanctions: arms embargoes, military incursions, precision strikes, full-scale attacks.
3: Diplomatic sanctions: scaling back diplomatic ties, minimising diplomatic initiatives, expelling diplomats and shuttering embassies.

These sanctions don't give license to do something; they punish for whatever's been done. They're often targeted to a certain sphere of influence - economic, diplomatic or military, as seen in the table above. And they're very effective.

Just like a parent might confiscate their unruly teen's phone for a week or two to encourage better behaviour (yes, that's a sanction!), governments around the world levy sanctions on one another to bring about a desired behaviour or ruling - legal, martial, governmental or economic. They apply sanctions as a form of punishment, too.

So sanctions either permit, persuade or punish. How confusing! We have to investigate further.

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Sanctions in a Nutshell

The verb form of this very curious word is pretty straightforward: it means to give permission or condone an action or belief - as in: "I sanction people's deeply-held religious convictions but I can't abide a cult mentality".

As the verb form is clear in its meaning and usage, we'll focus on the noun, which may be used as a countable noun or in plural form - again, with two different but very similar meanings.

The countable noun represents a drastic action taken to persuade people to obey the law, follow customs and adhere to instructions. Prison is a sanction, for example.

Prisons are individual sanctions.
Prison is a type of individual sanction. Photo by Tom Blackout on Unsplash

By far the word's most common use is in the plural, even if only one measure is taken. For instance, a football team may suffer sanctions but the only action taken against them is being barred from playing in the World Cup. You might say sanctions against that team are unusually harsh.

Economic sanctions are financial and/or commercial punishments or fines levied by one government against another. Oddly enough, they are not imposed only for economic reasons; governments may decide on economic sanctions even if they're offended by a military or political action.

Such sanctions include imposing tariffs, erecting trade barriers and restricting the offending country's financial traffic; often by blocking vital financial transactions.

Military sanctions range from arms embargos (a restriction on sending weapons) to targeted missile strikes. Invasions, occupations and full-on combat are not sanctions, they are attacks.

Diplomatic sanctions entail scaling back diplomatic activity between feuding nations; such sanctions may progress so far as to curtail embassy activity or eject ambassadors and their staff.

And, as we mentioned earlier, sports sanctions punish a country by not allowing its athletes to compete. Elected leaders boycotting Olympic ceremonies is a form of sports sanctions. There is some economic impact caused by sports sanctions but not nearly as much as military, economic or political sanctions.

Note that there is a difference between government sanctions and UN (United Nations) sanctions. In the former case, the actions taken are meant to be punitive but, when the UN applies sanctions, they are usually coercive in nature; they want to persuade the sanctioned country to do something.

Sanctions don't boast a very long history; their first widespread usage was in the run-up to the First World War, mainly in the form of blockades. They were first applied by the League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations. Later, governments decided on their own when and why they would apply sanctions.

Finally, to add to the oddity of this already odd word: it comes to us from Latin - sanctus, meaning 'to make holy'. There must be some sort of irony about putting sanctions on well-connected people such as oligarchs and the idea that that word is rooted in holiness but I can't put my finger on it.

Reasons Sanctions are Applied

Regardless of the type of sanctions - military, diplomatic or economic, all sanctions are politically motivated. Thus, rather than categorize them by type of sanctions, they are inelegantly categorized by their intent.

  • Category One sanctions are levied to spur cooperation with international law.
  • Category Two sanctions intend to contain a threat to peace within a geographical area or boundary.
  • Category Three sanctions are placed by the UN in condemnation of an action or policy taken by a state that is not a member of the United Nations.

Lately, there's been increasing calls for the international community to levy Category One sanctions on Israel to compel that country to ease strikes on the Gaza Strip. Category Three sanctions saw heavy action in apartheid South Africa to bring about a more equal society.

Currently, because of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Putin regime is labouring under some of the most severe and wide-ranging sanctions in history. All three categories of sanctions have been deployed against that country but...

Saddam Hussein's regime earned some of the stiffest sanctions in history.
Saddam Hussein was one of the most sanctioned regimes in history before it was toppled. Photo by Rob on Unsplash

Do Sanctions Work?

Studies have shown that economic sanctions have an adverse effect on the sanctioned country; they reduce such nations' GDP growth by up to 3% and the effects have been shown to last for up to 10 years. Over that time, aggregate per-capita GDP may decline as much as 25% or more, which could prove economically devastating if the country in question doesn't have the assets to offset those losses.

Sanctions don't necessarily do the countries that impose them any favours, either. Just look at what not buying Russian oil is projected to do in Europe and the UK. In some ways, imposing sanctions is like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

And still, they might not yield the desired outcome.

Again, looking at Russian aggression in Ukraine. The longer the war progresses, the more other governments turn away from Russia and impose sanctions but, so far, nothing seems to have deterred Mr Putin in his aims. To wit, he was labouring under sanctions even during the war on COVID and, even as his country's economy crashed (in concert with the global economy quakes), he was undeterred in his aims.

Meanwhile, we're running out of ways to sanction him.

Unintended Consequences of Sanctions

The point of sanctioning is to 'force' a desired outcome without having to resort to more severe measures like war. However, even though they're political in nature, it's seldom that politicians - those who undertook the action being sanctioned, who suffer.

When former US president Trump imposed increasingly stiff tariffs on imports, it wasn't the foreign governments paying those penalties. Foreign producers simply raised their prices in the amount of the sanctions, which American importers had to pay if they wanted any goods to sell. To recoup their losses, they charged American consumers more.

Whatever that president's aims were, they had the unintended consequence of making his constituency pay more for goods they wanted to consume.

Ex-president Trump punished his own citizens, not foreign governments
Ex-president Trump's tariffs punished Americans more than the governments he wanted to punish. Photo by CardMapr on Unsplash

So, if sanctions seldom work as intended and, generally speaking, create entire countries full of innocent victims, why are sanctions so often used? The blunt answer is that governments don't have too many other options. When diplomacy fails and military action would be calamitous, there's not really a lot left that anyone can do, other than to punish and try to coerce.

In countries such as Russia and North Korea - another heavily sanctioned country, the governments are non-democratic. The leaders have no reason to heed public sentiment because they are unlikely to be removed from power through any popular vote. Thus, they have no impetus to respond to public outcry or concern themselves with their citizens' welfare.

Critics of sanctions insist that it is not the people responsible for the misdeed that provoked the sanctions who suffer from them. Perhaps with that criticism in mind, sanctioning bodies have targeted the assets of those who were to fund Mr Putin's war; the infamous Russian Oligarchs.

Furthermore, trade sanctions, primarily not buying Russian gas, are meant to drain state coffers. Lastly, blocking Russian access to SWIFT means blocking them from foreign-held assets and barring them from trading on global stock markets effectively freezes every one of their economic avenues for relief.

What does all of this mean for ordinary Russians? History might give us a clue.

Many liken Mr Putin's attack on Ukraine, born out of profound economic distress and the thought that he had nothing left to lose, as an echo of Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland.

Now, find out how, nearly a century ago, another economic crash, the Great Depression, led to the rise of Nazi Germany.

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