Tag Archives economic sanctions

Humanitarian implications of sanctions to end the war in Ukraine

The sanctions package against Russia is expanding every day as the main strategy to end the invasion of Ukraine. While it is inevitable that ordinary Russians will suffer from these sanctions (as will people in the countries applying these sanctions), we must do everything in our ability to protect all civilians affected by this war, including people in Russia, from the impact of sanctions. This is not an easy task at all. On one hand, the sanctions might bring suffering to people in Russia (primarily for the most vulnerable ones), but on the other hand, they might lead to the end of the war, and, thereby, save many lives and reduce the extreme suffering of millions in Ukraine.

The great dilemma: using sanctions as a tool to end war

This great dilemma of how to stop the war while avoiding more suffering should not be taken lightly, and its impacts carefully assessed. On Tuesday evening, we listened to a conversation with two well-known military experts on the Dutch radio: Rob de Wijk and Arend Jan Boekestijn. After a while the conversation turned to the effects of the sanctions. Rob de Wijk stated, ‘‘We will smoke out the ’regime’.” He found it likely that the ruble would completely collapse, and hence destroy the Russian economy. Boekestijn went one step further. He praised that the Russians, as a result of the imposed sanctions, can no longer withdraw money from ATM machines. He continued, “when people get hungry, they will go out on the ’street’.” While the sanction seek to affect those in power, oligarchs, and the government itself, either of these two men did not seemed concerned about what their predictions would mean for the majority of people in Russia. On the contrary, they were impressed and fascinated by the sanctions, and almost jubilant about their possible effects.

The assumption, however, that hungry people will take to the streets to overthrow Putin is debatable. It ignores the fact that many Russians have already taken to the streets. In the early days of the war, an estimated 5,000 Russian civilians were arrested during widespread protests against the war. The effects of large-scale protests are also uncertain. Until now, we have never seen Putin care much about protests or act based on what people think.

The unsettling costs of sanctions: hurting the innocent and the most vulnerable

Provoking hunger is, unfortunately, a common weapon of war. Forcing the enemy to surrender through a siege that cuts off an area from food is a recurring theme in history. The creation myth of Carcassonne in France, in which Mrs. Carcass managed to deceive besiegers by throwing a well-fed pig over the city wall is just one of many examples. Emperor Charles V who besieged the castle did not realise it was the only pig left over in the desperately hungry city, and withdrew his troops when he concluded their siege was not successful. In the previous century, hunger has been used as a weapon of war in many conflicts — in China, Ethiopia, Biafra, Sudan, and so on. The Dutch hunger winter in the Second World War should not be missing from the long list as well, and nor should the so-called holodomor, in which Russia caused a dramatic famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, resulting in the death of more than 3 million people because of starvation.

Hunger often kills more civilians during wars than armed violence, and the long term effects of malnutrition are incalculable. The World Peace Foundation has listed 61 famines as part of conflicts that took place between 1870 and 2015. A conservative estimate of the number of victims came to 105 million deaths. To end hunger as a weapon of war, an international resolution was passed in 2018 condemning this. The resolution 2417 was an initiative of the Netherlands, and thanks to a great deal of diplomatic effort, it was adopted with unanimous support by the Security Council of the United Nations.

Making sanctions work without impacting civilians — is it possible? Sanctions are meant to end the invasion. Russia is targeting civilians with the bombing and seems to be rapidly accumulating war crimes. In the last 8 years, while war was ongoing in the separatist regions of Ukraine, humanitarian needs were immense. There were at least 850.000 people internally displaced, along with an acute need for socio-economic and psycho-social care. Aid providers shared with us about the difficulties they faced in the areas controlled by the Russian-backed separatists, ranging from concerns for the safety of aid providers to administrative hindrances (withholding permissions) in providing access. It will, therefore, be important to continue negotiating access to Ukraine, and enabling people to move freely in search for refuge, and most importantly seek an end to the invasion.

There is great optimism that the international solidarity and widely shared support for sanctions may facilitate the end of the war. It is inevitable that ordinary Russian civilians will bear some of the burden of the imposed sanctions. But we cannot let this become the goal. Instead, let us think about how to organise sanctions so that citizens are spared as much as possible, because the most vulnerable are, in every side of the conflict, the ones that usually pay the greatest costs.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

European Peace Science Conference | Why do economic sanctions work? Do they? Will they? By Peter A.G. van Bergeijk, Binyam A. Demena, Alemayehu Reta, Gabriela Benalcazar Jativa and Patrick Kimararungu

Political scientists and economists claim to understand the mechanisms of economic sanctions as a tool for foreign policy and assert to have provided convincing statistical evidence for their theories. In this contribution we argue that their theories and evidence are significantly influenced by publication bias. What does this mean for our understanding of the history of economic sanctions? Further what are the implications for the future application of the sanction instrument?

Economic sanctions have become a much more important instrument in the international arena since the 1990s. Indeed, 1990 is a watershed year. It is the year that marks the fall of the Soviet Union and thereby the end of the superpower conflict that complicated United Nations security sanctions. It is the year of the sanctions against Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Sanctions that stood out, because they were imposed within a week, truly multilateral (the first case, for example, in which Switzerland participated), and covered both trade and financial flows. Also, the imposition could and was monitored closely by means of a blockade by the navy. The sanctions against Iraq are the show case where all economic conditions for success were met. And, yet they failed.

It may of course have been the case that the goal of the sanctions was impossible to meet because giving in would mean the end (and actually the death) of the regime. So, research continued to investigate what factors are important for sanctions to be successful. We have investigated three determinants of sanctions’ success by means of a meta-analysis of thirty-six studies that were published in the period between 1985 – 2018 (most of these studies appeared in peer-reviewed journals). These determinants are trade linkage (economic sanctions do not make much sense if the sanction target and sanction sender do not trade), sanction duration (sanctions probably need to be quick and unexpected to have a maximum impact) and prior relations between sender and target (sanctions may work better against friends than foes).

Based on this, the first conclusion is that the research findings are not converging. This is illustrated in Figure 1 indicating the consensus of the literature until the turn of the millennium. It shows that the trade linkage is a determinant of sanction success, but after say 2005 the literature increasingly disagrees. We find the same pattern for both sanctions’ duration and prior relations.


Figure 1 Reported coefficients for trade linkage in 32 studies (a positive coefficient means: the study finds that more trade linkage is positively correlated with sanction success)

In our analysis, we focussed on publication bias as a potential source of the heterogeneity of the research. Publication bias may be introduced by the science publication industry. Editors and referees force scientists to look for significance and authors in a publish-or-perish-environment may be tempted to report the regression with the significant coefficient although “the other million of regressions” that they run were insignificant. Authors may also self-select because they are, for example, convinced of the need to use sanctions and therefore, want to show that sanctions work. Or they are ideologically inclined to argue against limiting international trade flows. We use meta-analysis to measure the extent of bias with respect to the findings for trade linkage, duration and prior relations. Consistently, we find a significant bias, so strong that the underlying average effect actually is zero.

Our findings fit in the so-called replication crisis that is a general and disturbing trend in science. Scientifically, this is disturbing because it hurts the credibility and reliability of our knowledge production in the hearth.

In the end, it poses a clear challenge for policy makers inclined to design evidence-based policies and an imperative question then becomes – what evidence to consider?

This contribution is based on a research project for MA students at the Institute of Social Studies for which Alemayehu Rita, Gabriela Benalcazar Jativa and Patrick Kimararungu received the Award for the best Research Paper Project 2018. It is the second article in a series related to the 19th Jan Tinbergen European Peace Science Conference that was hosted by the ISS from June 24th to 26th June 2019. Read the first article here

Image Credit: IsaacMao on Flickr

About the authors:

pag van bergeijkPeter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS.




Binyam Afewerk Demena is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). His PhD and MA in Development Economics from the ISS, EUR. His research interests relate to primary empirical research and meta-analysis in development economics, international economics, fishery economics, health economics and other related issues. He has published articles in Applied Economics, Journal of Economic Surveys, Journal of International Trade and Economic Development, and Third World Quarterly among others.


Alemayehu Sisay Reta is a research assistant at the ISS. His research and professional experiences are in the areas of Development, Economics, Economic sanction, Project Feasibility Studies, Business and Economic analysis, Monitoring and Impact Evaluation and Program Development. He has an MA graduate in Economics of Development, 2018, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.



Gabriela Benalcazar Jativa is an MA graduate in Economics of Development, 2018, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She specializes in quality assurance but she is also interested in researching issues concerning local development and meta-analysis.


Patrick Bitandaro Kimararungu is an MA graduate in Economics of Development, 2018, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Patrick’s MA thesis focused on Meta-Analysis on Economic Sanctions. His interests lie in the continuation of economic policy research especially in developing countries.