On US Sanctions – OpEd

On 11th December 2023, the United States announced new visa restrictions for nearly 300 Guatemalan lawmakers, leaders, and their families, accusing them of “undermining democracy and the rule of law” in the country. The very next day, the U.S. announced hundreds of new sanctions targeting entities and individuals across the globe, including in China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, seeking to further isolate Russia as its war on Ukraine grinds on. Earlier this month, the country also imposed visa restrictions and sanctions on 37 individuals in 13 countries, including South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Syria, and Uganda.

Following this, many wonder why the United States or any other country gives such a ban. Specifically, while there were plenty of options to go with democratic coherence, why did the USA choose bans or sanctions as a weapon?

What is a U.S. Sanction?

Usually, a country imposes sanctions to deter or punish another country or a specific person or organization. The U.S. tends to sanction countries that threaten its interests or sponsor terrorism. For example, in February of 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden announced economic and trade sanctions against Russia due to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Again, one country often imposes sanctions on another country as retaliation. As Russia did in 2014 against E.U. and U.S. sanctions.

The United States imposes sanctions on individuals, entities, and jurisdictions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. It’s a penalty set by the U.S. government to attempt to alter the behavior of a country, group, or individual that runs counter to U.S. interests, including its commitment to supporting human rights and stopping terrorism. Some of the various types of U.S. sanctions include trade restrictions, visa restrictions, arms embargoes, and travel bans.

Moreover, these measures are administered and enforced primarily by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) through statutes, regulations, executive orders, and interpretive guidance. In addition to comprehensive sanctions, OFAC implements targeted sanctions on specific individuals and entities under one or more of its sanction programs targeting various activities, such as narcotics trafficking, terrorism, proliferation activities involving nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or human rights violations.

Inside out of U.S. Sanctions 

Since the 1990s, the United States has imposed two-thirds of the sanctions against countries worldwide. Since 1998, they have imposed sanctions against at least 20 countries. The country maintains comprehensive sanctions programs, also called embargoes, generally prohibiting activity involving Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, the Crimea region of Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic of Ukraine (DNR), and the Luhansk People’s Republic of Ukraine (LNR). The embargoes imposed by the United States are- a) Arms-related export embargoes, b) Control over the export of dual-use technology, c) Restrictions on financial assistance, and d) financial restrictions. For example, the United States will oppose loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions.

However, not all of the U.S.’s sanctions target entire countries. Some are aimed at specific individuals or entities. Generally, such sanctions focus on political groups or organizations that promote violence or social unrest. They can also target government or military officials. For example, in 2019, the United States imposed targeted visa restrictions and financial sanctions on Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy General Soe Win in Burma (Myanmar).

But there are criticisms of such bans. Some say the U.S. continues to use sanctions as a foreign affairs tool. Rabi Abde Lal, Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Management at Harvard Business School, believes that sanctions have become a significant tool for the United States and Western countries in the post-Cold War era. According to him– ‘When diplomacy is insufficient and the use of force costs too much, sanctions are effective.” British diplomat Jeremy Greenstock said, “When nothing else works between words and military action, sanctions are the most popular way you can put pressure on a government.”

Recent trends of U.S. Sanctions 

The U.S. generally imposes sanctions against countries that violate U.S. interests. However, its scope has increased in recent times. Various issues, including human rights and democracy, have been added. Over the past two decades, sanctions have become a tool of first resort for U.S. policymakers, used for disrupting terrorist networks, trying to stop the development of nuclear weapons, and punishing dictators. Again, people involved in repression, human rights abuses, human trafficking, and drugs are also facing U.S. sanctions.

Following this, the U.S. continues to use visa restrictions, travel bans, and other sanctions as an essential foreign policy mechanism. Sanctions are now being represented as a penalty for violating human rights. But these are only applicable to countries that are pro-Chinese, pro-Russian, or anti-USA. For example, the nations with the longest-standing sanctions against them are Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Facing such criticism, the USA, this time, put a visa ban for target attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians. However, these sanctions are not always effective, considering the depth of the act. Also, sanctions are not solely human rights-centric these days; they have recently become more geopolitical.

Since taking office, President Biden has modified the sanctions against Venezuela to add specific, achievable objectives. His administration lifted some oil sanctions by permitting Chevron to do limited work in the country, prompted by the spike in oil prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On Nov. 18, 2021, President Biden terminated the sanctions imposed on Burundi individuals due to the positive behavior that they affected members of the Burundi government. The game of imposing or lifting the sanctions is changing with each administration.

To conclude, the U.S. sanctions laws and regulations have become increasingly complex and can change with little warning in response to world events and evolving national security interests. Given the continuing rapid pace of change in the U.S. sanctions landscape, it is now more critical than ever. While wars are costly economically and politically, sanctions are less tangible for the country sanctioning them. For the country being sanctioned, the results can be enormous and long-lasting.