Easier In Than Out: The Protracted Process of Ending Sanctions


With the proliferation of sanctions after the end of the Cold War, sanctions termination has also become a ubiquitous phenomenon. Of the 292 sanctions cases since 1990, around 85 per cent had been lifted as of 2018. Purportedly unsuccessful sanctions – such as the European Union’s restrictive measures against Russia over Ukraine – often provoke intense political debate about their potential removal. Less than half of imposed sanctions end with some degree of target compliance. For example, trade and financial restrictions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme were lifted after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action significantly restricted the country’s levels of uranium enrichment. In contrast, the EU resumed development aid to Sudan even though the regime remained notorious for its human rights violations. Policymakers must thus regularly decide whether to hold onto measures that do not lead to a policy change or to capitulate and lift them. These considerations are not only influenced by rational, cost–benefit analyses. Instead, sanctions termination is a volatile and often inconclusive process shaped by multiple social interactions between senders and targets as well as their diverse logics of action. The removal of sanctions signals the end of the targeted regime’s visible international isolation. Such a symbolic act can be heavily contested, as controversies over the relaxation of United States sanctions against Cuba exemplify. Decisions regarding the design of sanctions during their imposition phase affect the eventual termination process. Some sanctions regimes contain revision provisions, expiry dates, and precise termination requirements, which ensures the regular assessment of the measures’ continued political usefulness.

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