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Overview of the Evidence on Targeted Sanctions
Our research review includes 12 reports: 2 that address the effects of targeted sanctions on mass atrocities and 11 that address the effects of targeted 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 targeted sanctions were effective in helping prevent mass atrocities or closely-related outcomes, and
- Limited evidence on which specific factors contribute to the effectiveness of targeted sanctions in helping prevent mass atrocities.
Our presentation of practitioner knowledge is based on interviews on the effects of targeted sanctions on mass atrocities with 15 former US government officials. Our practitioner interviews identified:
- 4 factors that at least two-thirds of respondents cited as being associated with greater effectiveness of targeted sanctions in helping prevent mass atrocities: high level of commitment; international or third party support or coordination; international exposure of the sanctions target(s); and clear communication about sanctions triggers and off-ramps.
About Targeted Sanctions
Targeted sanctions are “coercive economic measures taken against a target to bring about a change in behavior.” Targeted sanctions, which aim at specific individuals or entities, include “blocking of foreign assets under U.S. jurisdiction [and] prohibition on economic transactions [with sanctions targets] that involve U.S. citizens or businesses” (CRS 2021, p. 1). (Note that some studies reviewed consider arms embargoes as a type of targeted sanction. The Simon-Skjodt Center also reviewed evidence on arms embargoes separately due to the depth of research on the use and effects of this tool specifically.)
Theory of Change
If targeted sanctions raise the individual costs on the commission of atrocities, they will reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities. These costs can be material (e.g., by freezing or seizing assets), reputational, or political. In addition, if targeted 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 will reduce the likelihood or severity of mass atrocities (Krain 2017; Lopez 2015).