Chapter Four: Key Players and Their Impact

Key players

Sanctions and embargoes have become integral tools in international relations, deployed by nations and organizations to address perceived threats, human rights abuses, or geopolitical tensions. While intended to promote positive change, these measures often raise complex ethical and political questions. This chapter explores the key players involved in imposing sanctions, the multi-country approach, and the dynamics in this field.

Key actors

The United Nations:
Often the precursor

As the primary international organization tasked with maintaining global peace and security, the United Nations (UN) plays a central role in sanctioning countries or entities that violate international norms. The UN Security Council, composed of fifteen member states, has the authority to impose sanctions. These measures can include arms embargoes, travel restrictions, and financial sanctions. Notable examples include the sanctions imposed on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program and those on Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

The United States:
A Formidable Force in Sanctions

Renowned for its economic and political influence, the United States frequently employs sanctions to advance its foreign policy objectives. The U.S. government can impose sanctions through various legislative acts, such as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) or the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The U.S. sanctions landscape is diverse, including measures targeting nations like Iran for its nuclear activities, individuals associated with human rights abuses, and entities engaging in cyber attacks. The extraterritorial reach of U.S. sanctions underscores their global impact, prompting international businesses to comply with U.S. regulations.

The European Union:
Coordinated Sanctions for Collective Impact

The European Union (EU) is a significant player in the realm of sanctions, leveraging the collective economic power of its member states. The EU implements sanctions to address conflicts and human rights violations, often coordinating measures with the UN or the U.S. Notable examples include sanctions against Belarus following the disputed presidential election and measures against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. The EU employs a mix of diplomatic pressure, economic restrictions, and targeted measures to influence change, showcasing a nuanced and coordinated approach.

Regional Organizations

Beyond global entities, regional organizations also contribute to the imposition of sanctions. For instance, the African Union (AU) may deploy sanctions to address issues like unconstitutional changes of government or human rights violations. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has implemented sanctions against Qatar in the Middle East, reflecting regional disputes and political tensions.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Advocacy Groups

While not direct enforcers of sanctions, NGOs and advocacy groups often play a crucial role in shaping public opinion and influencing policymakers. These organizations shed light on human rights abuses, corruption, or environmental concerns, prompting governments and international bodies to consider sanctions. The impact of their efforts can be seen in the sanctions imposed on Myanmar in response to the military coup and subsequent human rights violations.

Successive Sanctions:
A Multilateral Approach

The imposition of sanctions often involves a multilateral approach, with actions taken successively by the United Nations (UN) and its member countries. The UN, through its Security Council, may initiate the process by imposing initial sanctions to address various international issues, such as threats to peace, acts of aggression, or human rights violations. These sanctions may include arms embargoes, travel restrictions, or economic measures.

Subsequently, individual member countries, particularly major players like the United States and the European Union, often follow suit with additional sanctions that complement and reinforce the UN measures.

This multilateral approach amplifies the impact of sanctions, creating a coordinated and comprehensive response to the targeted entities. The sequential nature of these actions underscores the international community’s commitment to addressing complex global challenges through a collective and layered strategy. However, it also highlights the delicate balance required to ensure that such measures effectively promote positive change without disproportionately affecting civilian populations.

Evolution of Actors in Sanctions:
Shifting Dynamics Over Time

The landscape of actors involved in the imposition of sanctions has undergone significant changes over the years, reflecting the evolving dynamics of international relations. Historically, the United States and the Soviet Union played central roles during the Cold War, each leveraging sanctions as a tool to advance ideological and strategic interests. In the post-Cold War era, the United States emerged as a dominant force in imposing sanctions, wielding its economic and political influence to address issues worldwide.

However, the 21st century has witnessed a diversification of actors involved in sanction regimes. The European Union has assumed a more prominent role, deploying coordinated measures that reflect the collective economic power of its member states. Regional organizations, such as the African Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council, have also become increasingly engaged in addressing localized challenges through targeted sanctions. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups, empowered by the rise of global connectivity and social media, exert greater influence in shaping the narrative and influencing policymakers.

Furthermore, emerging powers like China have gained prominence, challenging traditional Western dominance in the imposition of sanctions. China’s growing economic and geopolitical influence allows it to shape international responses to issues like human rights abuses or territorial disputes. As the actors involved in sanctions continue to diversify, the global community is navigating a complex and multipolar landscape where collaboration and diplomatic efforts become paramount for effective resolution of international challenges. The changing dynamics highlight the need for adaptive and inclusive approaches to address the intricate interplay of political, economic, and social factors that underpin the imposition of sanctions in contemporary international relations.


Sanctions and embargoes have emerged as potent instruments in the global effort to address issues ranging from human rights abuses to geopolitical conflicts. The U.S. and the EU, as major players, employ distinct yet influential strategies in shaping the landscape of sanctions. While these measures aim to foster positive change, their effectiveness is a subject of ongoing debate, raising questions about their long-term impact on both targeted entities and the broader international community.

As the world continues to grapple with complex geopolitical challenges, the use and consequences of sanctions will undoubtedly remain a critical aspect of international relations.

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