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Diplomatic Sanctions

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

Overview of the Evidence on Diplomatic Sanctions

Our research review includes 5 reports: 1 that addresses the effects of diplomatic sanctions on mass atrocities and 4 that address the effects of diplomatic 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 diplomatic sanctions were effective in helping prevent mass atrocities or closely-related outcomes, 
  • Limited evidence on which specific factors contribute to the effectiveness of diplomatic sanctions in helping prevent mass atrocities, and 
  • No factors with at least 2 findings about their association with the effectiveness of diplomatic sanctions, which is why we do not provide a Success Factors tab for this tool.

About Diplomatic Sanctions


Diplomatic sanctions include “severing formal diplomatic ties with a country or significantly downgrading ties from the normal level of diplomatic activity for foreign policy purposes” (Maller 2009, p. 512). Diplomatic sanctions may specifically entail not recognizing a regime in public statements, withdrawing staff from or closing an embassy, “restrictions on travel for specific leaders” (MacGregor and Bowles 2012, p. 445), and “suspension of membership or expulsion from international or regional bodies” (ICISS 2001, p. 31). Diplomatic sanctions are intended to “signal disapproval of the target regime's behaviour, and also to signal the possibility of subsequent punitive measures should that behaviour not change” (Krain 2014, p. 27).

Theory of Change

If diplomatic sanctions impose reputational costs on potential perpetrators and/or increase their expectation that external actors will impose other costs in the future in response to atrocities, they would reduce the likelihood of mass atrocities. In addition, if diplomatic sanctions damage an abusive leader’s domestic standing, they would reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities by helping facilitate a political transition.

Strategies This Tool Can Support

(1) Dissuading potential perpetrators from committing mass atrocities
(2) Facilitating leadership or political transition