United Nations Sanctions Regimes and Selective Security

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The United Nations record of imposing sanctions in response to nuclear proliferators, (civil) wars, terrorist organizations, and coups d’état reflects a regime of selective security. Some offences have been met with sanctions under Article 41 of the UN Charter, while many similar cases were left off the hook or blocked. What is the logic behind this selectivity? Is it power politics? Humanitarianism? Democracy? Or something else? This dissertation is a scientific attempt to answer this question. It considers a total of 191 ‘sanctionable offences’ in five categories (nuclear proliferation, interstate war, civil war, terrorism, and coup d’état), sixty of which (31%) received UN sanctions. Subsequently, each offence is tested on a wide range of variables, which serve as proxies for seven hypotheses: (1) countervailing power, (2) humanitarianism, (3) state fragility, (4) democracy, (5) public pressure, (6) A bias towards Africa, and (7) a bias towards Islam. The conclusion is that different types of offences can be explained through different hypotheses. Nuclear proliferation and interstate wars follow a relatively straightforward logic of neorealist power politics and countervailing power. The same goes for sanctions in response to interstate wars. Weaker states such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Iraq receive sanctions, while those with sufficient power and their close allies, including India, Pakistan, and the United States don’t. The UN’s sanctioning record in response to civil war reveals a logic that is much more informed by humanitarian concerns and concerns about state failure and its consequences. Sanctioned conflicts are about twice as deadly as non-sanctioned ones, and conflicts of 10.000+ deaths are 3 times as likely to receive a UN sanction. The same goes for conflicts that induce state failure or in which democracy is threatened. This is not to say that the geopolitical weight of those involved is irrelevant (it most definitely isn’t), but rather that it is an exception. Public pressure through media attention in the West can magnify these concerns in civil wars. The sanctions records in response to terrorism and coups d’état follow yet other patterns of selectivity. Sanctions on terrorist groups exclusively focus on Islamic extremist groups related to Al-Qaida and ISIS, disregarding many non-Islamic groups responsible for thousands of innocent deaths such as the FARC in Colombia or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, the UN’s designated terrorism lists have helped relatively powerful states such as China, Pakistan, or Nigeria to add armed groups to the list, even if some of them form relatively minor threats. Finally, UN sanctions after coups d’état are used as a sort of ‘democracy wild-card’ for the West, which they can play whenever convenient, but which lacks any form of coherency. The three occasions on which the Security Council imposed sanctions in response a coup were all cases in which a Western-backed democrat had been overthrown (Haiti and Sierra Leone), or in which narco-trafficking threatened European interests (Guinea-Bissau). The other 33 coups that occurred since 1990 were all left unsanctioned. This is a shame, because it is difficult to convince members to follow you if you don’t always practice what you preach.
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