Sanctions Termination in Times of Crises: Unpacking the Role of External Shocks

  • In March 2020, the UN Secretary-General called for the easing of sanctions against Iran in response to COVID-19. Hence, external shocks are potentially related to sanctions termination. Yet, the effect of different types of external shocks such as pandemics, natural disasters, and economic crises on the (gradual) removal of sanctions has not been systematically studied. This project examines when and how external shocks affect sanctions termination through a nested research design combining new data collection, statistical analyses, and two case studies.
    DFG, 2022-2024

    Logo der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
    Logo der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)


    Sanctions senders’ calculations about whether and when to lift coercive measures can be fundamentally altered by external shocks, as current debates about ending sanctions in times of the pandemic illustrate. This project aims to examine whether and how external shocks such as financial crises, natural disasters or the COVID-19 pandemic affect the termination of sanctions. In doing so, it asks two interrelated questions:
    - Do sanctions senders (gradually) lift sanctions in response to external shocks?
    - Or do they turn to other foreign policy tools when external shocks make sanctions too costly or indefensible on humanitarian grounds?

    Beitrag zu internationaler Forschung

    The issue of sanctions relief constitutes an important yet under-researched part of the sanctioning process. The ongoing DFG project on the termination of sanctions has played an important role in closing this gap in the literature. But research on how external shocks affect the use and termination of sanctions is still in its infancy, not least because limited existing large-N data has constricted researchers’ ability to capture the gradual adaptation of sanctions under such circumstances. Moreover, many studies have considered sanctions as an isolated foreign policy tool. As a result, their use and relation to other foreign policy tools – particularly in times of crises – remains unclear.

    To address these gaps in the literature, the project makes two major contributions. Theoretically, the project will develop a coherent analytical framework that brings together disparate arguments on how economic and humanitarian considerations influence the potential removal of sanctions. Empirically, it will investigate how different types of external shocks affect processes of (gradual) sanctions termination and the use of alternative foreign policy tools as substitutes or complements.

    Forschungsdesign und Methoden

    The project employs a nested research design consisting of three steps: a dataset extension, advanced large-N analyses and two case studies. To be able to capture the potential effect of the current pandemic, the project team will extend the novel ‘International Sanctions Termination’ (IST) dataset, which currently covers the time frame from 1990 to 2018, for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021. The statistical analysis will consist of a range of logistic regressions that investigate the effect of different external shocks on sanctions termination and on the use of alternative foreign policy tools such as mediation and military intervention. Two follow-up case studies, relying on interviews and media analyses, will unravel the underlying causal mechanisms. The case studies will examine sender decision-making on sanctions during the Covid-19 pandemic, which offers a unique opportunity to study foreign policy responses to external shocks in ‘real time’.

    Vorläufige Ergebnisse

    The updated IST dataset shows a number of sanctions termination decisions in 2020. We question whether these sanctions were lifted in response COVID-19, which constituted significant external shock and humanitarian crises, but find no support for this claim for two main reasons: First, the upward trend in sanctions termination in 2020 decreases directly afterwards, while at the same time a wave of new sanctions were imposed in 2021 when COVID-19 still constituted a significant source of vulnerability for many target states. Second, many of the sanctions terminated in these two years were restrictive measures against individuals that are less likely to be lifted in response to humanitarian concerns as opposed to, for example, sectoral or aid sanctions.

    However, we identified other adjustment strategies by the senders in form of humanitarian exemptions and general licenses that were issued in 2020 and 2021 to temporarily ease sanctions that can be directly attributed to the pandemic. We have found similar results when investigating other historical sanctions cases. The embargo against Saddam Houssein’s government was not terminated in response to humanitarian concerns. Instead, sanctions exemptions programs were created to mitigate the humanitarian crises while keeping the UN sanctions in place.

    Journal of Global Security Studies | 12.2023

    Easier In than Out: Lessons Learned from the Termination of the Iraq Sanctions Regime

    Reconstructing previously neglected debates about ending sanctions for the “watershed case” of the UN embargo against Iraq, we find that the United States depicted the lifting of sanctions as an all-or-nothing question, which impeded a more gradual approach toward ending the measures.

    International Studies Quarterly | 06.2023

    Monitoring the Monitor? Selective Responses to Human Rights Transgressions

    This paper investigates whether sanctions based on standardized human rights assessments are also influenced by senders’ strategic political and economic interests.

    Journal of Peace Research | 08.2022

    International Sanctions Termination, 1990–2018: Introducing the IST Dataset

    We introduce the International Sanctions Termination (IST) dataset that captures all EU, UN, US and regional sanctions between 1990 – 2018. We describe the data collection process, discuss IST’s compatibility with existing datasets, introduce new variables that focus on the design of sanctions and explore how they affect their termination.

    Konferenz | 05.11.2023 - 07.11.2023

    A Story of Exemptions rather than Termination: Humanitarian Crises and the Lifting of International Sanctions

    IHSA Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Online Event and Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dhaka Organisation: International Humanitarian Studies Association Dr. Julia Grauvogel (Vortragende:r), Dr. Hana Attia (Vortragende:r)

    COVID-19 did not significantly alter decisions related to the termination of sanctions in the years 2020 and 2021. There, are however, other temporary adjustment strategies by the senders in form of humanitarian exemptions and general licenses that were issued during these two years.