Unilateral economic sanctions have undoubtedly become the primary weapon for responding to any geopolitical challenge. Be it the human rights situation in Xinjiang and Myanmar or the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, the imposition of sanctions has been the first response to force the alleged wrongdoer to course correct. Recent sanctions imposed against Russia for invading Ukraine are the most comprehensive and coordinated actions taken against a major power since World War II.
Examples of such unilateral economic sanctions include trade sanctions in the form of embargoes and the interruption of financial and investment flows between sender and target countries. A more problematic aspect of the unilateral economic sanctions regime is the targeting of third or neutral countries that engage in any sort of trade or commerce with the targeted state. The United States’ (US) law on economic sanctions, i.e., Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, 2017 (CAATSA) allows for the imposition of sanctions on such third states if they enter into any significant transactions with the targeted states, i.e. Iran, North Korea, or Russia.
The widespread use of this economic tool warrants an enquiry relating to their legality under international law. State practice throughout the history of international relations is evidence of the fact that coercion has been one of the defining features of engagement during wars. Over the course of time, the coercive practices used during armed conflict like blockades, reprisals, embargoes, deliberate starvation of the enemy’s population, etc. came to be regulated by numerous international legal instruments.
These international norms like obligation to allow unhindered transit of basic necessities like food and medicines during armed conflict have achieved universal ratification, despite occasional violations. However, the international legal regulation of non-forcible coercive measures such as unilateral economic sanctions, which are employed even during peacetime, is still in the nascent stage of its development. Although Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter allows for imposition of sanctions, these sanctions are in form of collective action taken under the aegis of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) so as to force a country to put an end to its actions which threaten or breach international peace and security. The UN Charter does not recognise unilateral measures, either forcible or non-forcible, by any member state except the right to self-defence as an interim measure.