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Comprehensive Economic Sanctions

Explore research on the use of comprehensive economic sanctions as a tool to help prevent mass atrocities.

Overview of the Evidence on Comprehensive Economic Sanctions

Our research review includes 29 reports: 3 that address the effects of comprehensive economic sanctions on mass atrocities and 27 that address the effects of comprehensive economic sanctions on closely related outcomes, such as civilian killings, human rights violations, and conflict recurrence. It found the following:

  • A mix of findings as to whether comprehensive economic sanctions were effective in helping prevent mass atrocities or closely-related outcomes, 
  • Limited evidence on which specific factors contribute to the effectiveness of comprehensive economic sanctions in helping prevent mass atrocities, and 
  • Evidence indicating that comprehensive economic sanctions sometimes led to unintended, adverse consequences, such as corruption, humanitarian crisis, or a decline in respect for human rights.

About Comprehensive Economic Sanctions

Definition

Comprehensive sanctions are “coercive economic measures taken against a target to bring about a change in behavior” (CRS 2021, p. 1). Comprehensive sanctions “block the government and include broad-based trade restrictions” (Treasury OFAC).

Theory of Change

If comprehensive economic sanctions raise the costs on the commission of atrocities, they would reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities. These costs can be material (e.g., by increasing the relative economic strength of the opposition), reputational, or political (e.g., by contributing to social upheaval) (Wood 2008, p. 491). In addition, if comprehensive economic sanctions degrade perpetrators’ capacity to commit atrocities by denying them or raising the costs of acquiring critical means, such as funds, arms, and other enabling technological goods, they would reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities.

Strategies This Tool Can Support

(1) Dissuading potential perpetrators from committing mass atrocities
(2) Degrading potential perpetrators’ capacity to commit atrocities
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