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What are sanctions — and do they even work?

You may have seen the word “sanctions” pop up in headlines a lot more lately. But do you know what sanctions are? How they work? Or, if they're effective? We’re here to tackle some of your basic questions about sanctions.

Also: Who has Canada sanctioned, and why?

A row of flags is displayed in front of a building.
The European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, is pictured in this 2018 file photo. In Canada, implementing sanctions can happen under the United Nations Act, the Special Economic Measures Act, or the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

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You may have seen the word "sanctions" pop up in headlines a lot more lately. But do you know what sanctions are? How they work? Or, if they're effective?

We're here to tackle some of your basic questions about sanctions.

What are sanctions?

Simply put: sanctions are a way for governments to put pressure on foreign governments to get what they want out of the state. 

Kristy Ironside, an assistant professor in Russian history at McGill University, says it's a "means of pursuing change in behaviour on the part of another government with whom you're in conflict."

Generally, a sanction is carried out by imposing a certain economic limitation.

"Economic sanctions, as they're typically understood, are really the implementation of policy by a government to impose restrictions on the target state," said Craig Martin, law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., and an inaugural Senior Fellow at the Rideau Institute. 

There are three prongs within the normal gamut of economic sanctions — trade restrictions, financial restrictions and travel restrictions, Martin explained.

According to the Government of Canada, sanctions vary in their measures, but often include "restricting or prohibiting trade, financial transactions or other economic activity between Canada and the target state; or the seizure or freezing of property situated in Canada."

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Who has Canada sanctioned and why?

Currently, Canada has imposed sanctions on 22 countries, including Iran, Russia, and Haiti. They also have sanctions against specific individuals and entities

The government says it has sanctioned people who are "responsible for, or complicit in, extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights," or are "responsible for, or complicit in ordering, controlling or otherwise directing significant acts of corruption." 

It also lists having any association with terrorist entities as a reason someone might be sanctioned.

Sanctions against Russia related to its invasion of Ukraine have been a frequent topic in the news for the past year, but actually go back to 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.

These were imposed under the Special Economic Measures Act "in order to respond to the gravity of Russia's violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and grave human rights violations that have been committed in Russia," the government website notes.

A man visits with soldiers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the joint staff of troops involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at an unknown location, on Dec. 17. Canada has been imposing sanctions on Russia related to violations against Ukraine since 2014. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin/The Associated Press)

How do sanctions work?

In Canada, implementing sanctions can happen in one of three ways — either under the United Nations Act, the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA), or the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (JVCFOA), also known as the Sergei Magnitsky Law.

The difference largely lies in who orders the sanction.

If the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorizes a sanction, Canada generally has an obligation under international law to also impose this sanction because it is a member state, said Martin. This falls under the United Nations Act.

The Canadian government also has its own authority to impose sanctions on a country, entity, or individual. This is separate from the UNSC and would only be between Canada and the party being sanctioned by Canada — in other words, "unilateral or autonomous sanctions," said Martin. 

This would fall under SEMA or the more recent Sergei Magnitsky law (JVCFOA), which was introduced in 2017 to expand allowable sanctions to "foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."

How long do they last?

They are normally assessed on a case-by-case basis.

A UNSC-authorized sanction lasts until the council decides to lift it. However, Canada has the option to extend the expiration of the sanctions for as long as they want, said Martin. 

If the Canadian government decides to continue imposing the sanction, then the implementation becomes a matter of Canadian law and it is on the government to decide when it should be lifted. 

In December, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, announced fresh sanctions on Russia, Iran and Myanmar over alleged human rights violations by their governments. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

Are sanctions even effective?

This question spurs a lot of debate among experts. 

"It's very difficult for anyone to point conclusively at evidence that, yes, the sanctions policy achieved its objective," said Martin.

Ironside echoed a similar sentiment. 

The irony is, sanctions themselves cause human rights harm- Craig Martin, professor at Washburn University

"The historical record is not that encouraging, to be honest," she said. 

A lot of the effectiveness of a sanction rests on the relationship that existed between the two parties beforehand. If both parties had close economic ties, then sanctions would be harder felt. If the economic relations were not as integrated, then the ripple would be smaller. 

When it comes to Russia, the trade relationship between Ottawa and Moscow was already strained. 

"They've already been sanctioned since 2014 on a number of different fronts" said Ironside. "So the levers that the Canadian government can pull on now are limited by comparison to where they were before 2014."

Instead, the effect of the sanctions is being felt more by the average person in Russia, as opposed to the government it's aiming to target. 

"I think it is having an impact on ordinary people's living standards," explained Ironside.

This impact on the everyday person in the countries being sanctioned results in "severe humanitarian impacts," said Martin. 

"The reason we impose sanctions is because countries are violating human rights," said Martin. "But the irony is, sanctions themselves cause human rights harm... and potentially are in violation of human rights."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ania Bessonov is a multi-platform journalist at CBC News with a particular interest in international relations. She has a master's degree in security and diplomacy.

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