By: Anna Sayre, reporter SanctionsAlert.com 
Date: May 6, 2016

Among the several unique characteristics of the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations is the fact that they apply to every nation. While economic sanctions imposed by the United States or another single nation may be powerful, they only apply to the nation or organization against which they are directed.

Of the world body, the actions of the United nations applied worldwide. In recent years, the UN has dramatically increased the pace of the economic sanctions it imposes. Presently, the UN has 15 sanctions programs in place. It is the largest number of simultaneous UN sanctions programs that have been in effect since the multinational body was created in 1945.

The increasing number of UN sanctions increases the consequences to financial institutions and nonfinancial businesses – and their customers and foreign representatives. This underscores the importance of knowing the intricacies of sanctions programs not only of the United Nations, but also of the United States, Canada, European Union and other nations and multilateral organizations that impose sanctions. It is also important that businesses and financial institutions familiarize themselves with the sanctions process of the UN and other, how the sanctions are implemented and enforced, and who is liable for sanctions violations.

What are sanctions and why are they typically imposed?

When nations impose economic sanctions on other nations, they are viewed as a more cost effective and lower risk alternative to military force. The same considerations apply with United Nations sanctions.

Sanctions take various forms from those that are diplomatic in nature, such as removal of embassies, refusal to participate in an international sports or business event, the majority of economic sanctions focus on economic punishment and pressure. Sanctions may include things as simple as travel bans or restrictions or asset freezing, arms embargoes, foreign aid reduction and trade restrictions. They may prohibit commercial activity with a country, like the now-softening U.S. embargo of Cuba, or they may be targeted, such as by blocking transactions with specific businesses, groups, or individuals, such as the sanctions against certain members of Al Qaeda.

United Nations process for sanctions approval and implementation

United Nations sanctions come about by resolutions of the Security Council, the organization’s most powerful body. The Security Council passes resolutions by majority vote of its members. Rule 83 of the Rules of Procedure of the UN General Assembly requires a two-thirds vote for “recommendations with respect to the maintenance of international peace and security”, including imposition of international sanctions. (For the full rules of procedure, click here.)

Of the 193 member nations, only five that sit on the Security Council are permanent members, or the P5s. They are China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States. These five states, and only these, can veto a proposed resolution. If any P5 exercises this veto power, the resolution cannot pass. Over the years, this has has received wide criticism. Much of the criticism has been directed at Russia, the P5 that most frequently uses its veto power. Russia has blocked sanctions against Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, four times and also against Ukraine, where Russia is party to the conflict.

UN Security Council “P5” born after WWII, serve as ‘global policemen’

The P5’s privileged status has its roots at the founding of the UN after World War II. The United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) as the victors of the war, along with the United Kingdom, shaped the postwar political environment. US Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted on China’s inclusion as a P5 state. Roosevelt envisioned international security presided over by “four global policemen.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw France as a European buffer against potential German aggression and insisted on France being included. At a famous meeting in San Francisco, the P5 drafted the Charter of the United Nations. On October 24, 1945, the UN Charter was ratified by 49 nations, officially establishing the new body as a principal international peacekeeper.

According to Chapter VII, Article 41 of the UN Charter, the Security Council may take assertive action, including the imposition of sanctions or the use of force “to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Throughout its history, this has taken the form of peacekeeping missions.

In the early 1990s, the Security Council began to make regular use of economic sanctions, starting with Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Haiti. As of 2016, 15 Security Council sanctions regimes, including more than 600 individuals and 400 entities and other groups, are in place. (For a complete list of UN sanctions, click here.)

Enforcement of UN sanctions and penalties

The United Nations has no enforcement powers of its own, relying instead on member states to enforce sanctions imposed within their respective territories. This involves and requires member states that take action to incorporate UN sanctions into their national laws. Only when a UN sanction has been incorporated, may individuals and firms be potentially liable for breaches of the pertinent sanction. Because the UN relies on member states for enforcement, penalties for violations of a UN sanctions can vary greatly from country to country.

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