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Sanctions Strategies: How to Improve Sanctions Effectiveness with Strategic Planning

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Sanctions Strategies: How to Improve Sanctions Effectiveness with Strategic Planning

Posted by Enough Team on November 22, 2019

This blog post was written by Hilary Mossberg, The Sentry’s anti-money laundering expert for Africa and the author of the recent report measuring the effectiveness of sanctions in Africa. She has over a decade of experience in illicit finance and national security and was formerly a senior advisor for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

During a budget hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) highlighted a number of key questions and issues concerning sanctions strategies in Africa. Rep. Omar referred specifically to The Sentry’s recent report on sanctions effectiveness and inquired as to how the U.S. government develops its sanctions policies to include strategic alignment, clear messaging, and exit strategies. These are areas in which there is room for improvement.

Strategic Alignment

When sanctions are used only in an effort to do something or to respond quickly to an emerging threat or crisis, they often lack a clearly conceptualized strategy. The most effective way to use sanctions is to have them be a part of a larger strategic plan, one that includes specific benchmarks and clearly articulated foreign policy goals that are implemented not only by the entire U.S. government but also by foreign governments and international organizations.

For example, a foreign policy strategy to address a crisis could include a sanctions implementation plan, a multilateral engagement approach, well-defined public messaging campaigns, diplomatic engagement plans, a list of financial and economic incentives and disincentives, as well as the possibility of military posturing, military aid, and humanitarian and/or technical assistance. When deployed in this manner, sanctions can act as both economic disincentives and a form of public shaming. They could function as a stick when levied and a carrot when lifted.

Better Messaging

To improve messaging, the parties issuing sanctions should take time to develop a communications strategy around the implementation of the sanctions. The strategy should include public messaging to reach the people of the impacted country and region, as well as direct messaging through diplomacy to the bad actors whose behavior the sanctions action is trying to change. The messaging should also be coordinated across diplomatic missions to ensure that the international community’s overarching goal is clearly articulated to all parties involved in the crisis.

A recent example of effective messaging was from the U.S. Embassy in Harare in response to the national anti-sanctions march planned by the Zimbabwean government.  The European Union mission also took to social media to dispel myths about sanctions and explain European policies.

Clear Exit Strategies

One common criticism of sanctions programs is that the criteria for delisting are often unclear or confusing. When sanctions are announced, there is no accompanying checklist for behavior changes that will lead to the removal of the sanctions and the delisting of the individual or entity.

To combat this, each sanctions designation should be accompanied by a roadmap for delisting. This is not just to decrease confusion for those listed; providing criteria for delisting may actually improve the effectiveness of sanctions. A delisting roadmap could be a public statement or an internal strategy document, but the idea is the same: a set of conditions the designated entity must meet in order for delisting to be considered. This practice will help strengthen the programs’ overall strategies and assist the government in maintaining them as they age.

Such a roadmap is not unheard of, as the Treasury Department recently provided this type of information with its Venezuela sanctions. A press release announcing new sanctions in September 2019 also included this message: “U.S. sanctions need not be permanent; sanctions are intended to bring about a positive change of behavior.  The United States has made clear that the removal of sanctions is available for persons…who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, speak out against abuses committed by the illegitimate former Maduro regime, and combat corruption in Venezuela.”

As in this example, a public roadmap to delisting has the added benefit of delegitimizing counter-messaging. Regimes under sanctions often complain that the sanctions are politically motivated, but a public roadmap of how an individual could be delisted would nullify their complaints.

Sanctions can be a powerful foreign policy tool when used in a strategic manner. Developing these types of foreign policy strategies within the U.S. government could make the sanctions implemented in sub-Saharan Africa much more effective.  Additionally, developing these strategies ensures that any future programs take these considerations into account.