Benched: The Slow Erosion of Sanctions

Benched: The Slow Erosion of Sanctions

A string of recent European court rulings threatens to weaken an essential tool in fighting terrorism, crime and proliferation.

Despite the difficulties involved in adjudicating cases with classified information, targeted financial sanctions are, nonetheless, an important tool for governments to have at their disposal in order to frustrate illicit activity. This is particularly true because, when dealing with foreign terrorist organizations, tools like criminal prosecution are often unavailable. Targeted financial sanctions are therefore often the only way that the United States and allied governments can impede the efforts of illicit actors.

And there is no greater testament to the utility of sanctions than the rapidly expanding contexts in which they have been imposed. Beyond their traditional application to combatting terrorism, WMD proliferation, and narcotrafficking, sanctions programs recently have been developed to identify and isolate human rights abusers in Syria and Iran, to prevent autocratic governments from obtaining technology that can be used to repress dissent, and to crack down on the ability of transnational criminal organizations to utilize the international financial system. The expansion of targeted financial sanctions to these new contexts demonstrates their utility as a risk-management tool for governments.

At the same time, an increasing number of countries—particularly those with sophisticated financial systems—came to adopt similar sanctions programs, making it difficult for illicit actors squeezed out of the United States to gain access to the global financial system through previously underregulated avenues. As similar types of sanctions programs expanded from the United States to sophisticated financial markets in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, it became more difficult for terrorist financiers, WMD proliferators, and others to operate anywhere.

And herein lies the most significant negative effect of the recent European sanctions decisions. If European countries are unable to construct an effective sanctions regime able to withstand legal challenge, they, and the international community as a whole, will be denied an important tool in the fight against illicit activity. Europe may become a hole in the global sanctions framework, making it much more difficult for concerned countries to take preventive action against terrorist financiers and WMD proliferators.

It is critically important to have a tool like sanctions to back up diplomacy, and to impose restrictive measures on those individuals who are intent on doing harm to the values and interests of the international community. It is undoubtedly difficult to accommodate this tool to the needs of designated individuals to defend themselves. But governments must take commonsense measures to ensure that they have the tools necessary to impede activity by those who seek to do harm to the international community. Vindicating conflicting values like security, liberty and dignity may never be easy, but it is no less important.

Zachary K. Goldman is executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law.

Image: Flickr/ CC BY 2.0.