A person looks at a sign taped on a gate says, "Stop Putin's War."

Do Sanctions Defend or Violate Human Rights?

The United States and allied nations have imposed severe sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine (AP News). Sanctions are a common tool of U.S. foreign policy, but few U.S. residents fully understand what they look like in practice. 

We can’t democratically support or oppose policies unless we understand what they are. Understanding the concrete effects of a government’s actions is a moral imperative for those living within its borders. 


• Encourage people you know to investigate the concrete effects of U.S. foreign policy. How do they affect people on the ground? Which opinions are easy to find in domestic media and which are drowned out?

Consider: If the U.S. economy was cut off from world trade, who would the subsequent recession harm the most? Are there U.S. government actions that would justify other countries subjecting U.S. residents to an economic collapse? What would have to happen for you to consider the U.S. government illegitimate? Who should be able to make that determination? 

What Are Sanctions? 

Sanctions prohibit economic activity with a particular country. Some target specific institutions or individuals, while others stop trade with an entire country. U.S. businesses or individuals are banned from doing business with the sanctioned entity, which is excluded from the U.S. financial system and has its assets seized by the U.S. government (ABC News). 

Why Are Countries Sanctioned?

Some sanctions are intended to compel a foreign government to take a specific action, like pressuring Russia to withdraw from Ukraine (ThoughtCo). Others are intended to destabilize countries so that their governments fall entirely — a gross violation of international law euphemistically referred to as “regime change” (European Journal of Political Economy, Huffington Post). 

How Do They Work?

Sanctions inflict economic damage to “coerce, deter, punish, or shame” a target (CFR). When regime change is the goal, the objective is to cause enough suffering that the citizens of a target nation revolt. Like the U.S., those who already have the least are the first to suffer in a recession. 

Sanctions on Iraq after the Gulf War didn’t depose Saddam Hussein, but they did cause mass starvation as food prices soared (ThoughtCo). Sanctions on Syria mean ordinary people only get access to electricity for one hour a day (Foreign Policy). Cuba faces sanctions, denounced by literally every country on the planet except the U.S. and Israel (U.N.), that contributed to a 30% drop in caloric intakes during the 1990s (AS, CNN). 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof recounts the story of a 21-year-old Venezuelan mom whose baby, Daisha, died of malnutrition. She had taken Daisha to three hospitals but was turned away from each of them. The economy of the oil-rich country is in free-fall because of U.S. trade restrictions, and none of the hospitals had enough beds, doctors, or supplies. “Do our sanctions, intended to undermine the regime,” asks Kristof, “actually make it more likely that babies like Daisha die?” (NYTimes).

What About Human Rights? 

The U.S. commonly uses human rights violations to justify sanctions. If the goal is to improve the lives of a country’s residents, systematically impoverishing them is a strange way to do it.

But the United States government isn’t a neutral party in these conflicts and doesn’t play the role of an unbiased mediator. Like any government, it’s a bureaucracy advancing its own interests. 

That’s why some countries never get sanctioned no matter what rights they violate. Saudi Arabia imposes more restrictions on female citizens than any other country (HRW). A third of Poland is governed as “LGBT-free zones” (BBC News). Muslim women in France are legally prohibited from covering their faces in public (CBS News). Over half a million migrants in Italy live in ghettos without electricity or running water, unable to access medical care or even rent an apartment (HRW). Each is a strategic ally of the U.S. government, which has never proposed issuing sanctions in response. 

There are abhorrent human rights violations in the contemporary U.S.: police violence, mass incarceration, new legal attacks on transgender youth and students of color. Would politicians in another country be justified in imposing a punishing economic recession of indefinite length upon every person living in the United States as a result?

Sanctions are a blunt, ineffective tool (ThoughtCo) that disproportionately harms working-class people of color in poor countries.

What Can We Do?

We should be clear: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter. Treaty obligations under the Charter, which insists on the “sovereign equality” between countries and the “self-determination of peoples,” should also prohibit the U.S. from using sanctions to “coerce” less powerful nations (UN). We should fight for the rights and well-being of all people. This means denouncing Russian imperialism while also resisting efforts by the U.S., an imperial power itself (NPR), to use starvation as political leverage. It also means fighting human rights violations carried out in our own backyard and committed in our name.


• Economic sanctions are presented as a peaceful way to advance human rights.

• Sanctions are ineffective but do cause mass suffering and death among the people we’re often told we’re defending. 

• Interference in the internal affairs of other countries, whether through invasion or the use of sanctions as a weapon, is a violation of international law.

2400 1600 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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