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Sanctions Against Non-State Armed Actors

Sanctions Against Non-State Armed Actors

Photo credit: Michael Seamans

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Agbonifo, J. (2017). Sanctions, conflict prevention and peacebuilding: coercing non-state armed actors in Africa. Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 12(1), 65-78.

Talking Points

  • Current sanctions research and policy focus on states, with little attention given to the distinctive challenges of targeting non-state armed actors, making sanctions less effective against them.
  • The failures of sanctions against selected non-state armed actors illustrate shortcomings in sanctions design, such as inadequate recognition of the groups’ lack of reliance on key allies, the severe costs they face in complying with sanctions, the secrecy of their leadership, and their independence from global trade systems and international organizations.
  • More attention must be given to the unique challenges of influencing non-state armed actors through sanctions, so these can become more effective tools for ending armed conflict.


In situations of armed conflict, sanctions are tools available to the international community to influence armed actors away from violence. Although generally seen as less harmful than military action, sanctions have not been without fault—for instance, there was widespread criticism of the indiscriminate effects of UN sanctions on the people of Iraq in the 1990s. Targeted sanctions, therefore, have gained more attention in recent years to pressure specific individuals responsible for—or benefitting from—objectionable policies, without making the public in their countries more vulnerable. Both scholarship and policy on sanctions, however, tend to focus on their effectiveness as a tool for influencing states—whether through coercion, constraint, or signaling—leaving largely unexamined how sanctions work against non-state armed actors (NSAAs).

Examining two cases where UN sanctions were used against NSAAs with the goal of ending armed conflict—the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola—the author investigates the effectiveness of sanctions in coercing these NSAAs and to what extent the factors associated with sanctions’ effectiveness (with states) were relevant in these cases.

The author finds that UN sanctions were not terribly effective in influencing the behavior of these NSAAs. In the case of Sierra Leone, the author outlines five episodes of UN sanctions from 1997 to 2003—from arms and petroleum embargoes to travel restrictions and a diamond export ban. None of these measures succeeded in stopping the RUF’s or the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC)’s seizure of power, armed incursions, or atrocities against civilians. The story is similar in the case of Angola: the author outlines four episodes of UN sanctions from 1993 to 2002—including petroleum and arms embargoes against UNITA, a UNITA travel ban, the closing of UNITA offices in foreign countries (and later prohibition of all official contact with UNITA leaders), the prohibition of flights (and then all other forms of transportation) to/from UNITA territory, the freezing of UNITA funds, the prohibition of mining services, and, finally, a diamond embargo—all of which failed to bring an end to the civil war. More specifically, these sanctions failed to keep the UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi, from resuming his armed struggle every time a political outcome did not go as he wished. Only his death and the willingness of UNITA’s remaining leadership to agree to a ceasefire agreement brought about an end to the war.

The author argues that the failure of sanctions against the RUF and UNITA can be attributed to the state-centered bias of sanctions, making them more effective against states than against NSAAs. Drawing from these two cases, he lists the following characteristics of NSAAs that make them less susceptible to the pressure of sanctions:

  • Both groups were intolerant of diverse opinions within their ranks and not particularly “depend[ent] on key allies for their stability,” therefore sanctions targeting allies of/within those groups who might then try to convince their leaders to change course were not likely to work.
  • Because NSAAs usually challenge the status quo, they tend to have more to lose than states do in complying with sanctions (which often call for a return to the status quo) and therefore are less willing to give way to pressure from sanctions.
  • NSAAs tend to be more secretive than states, so there is a lack of knowledge about the identity of key leaders and/or about their personalities or leadership styles—knowledge which could otherwise inform the design of sanction policy.
  • NSAAs are not as dependent on international relationships or as integrated into international institutions—for example, trade relations, foreign aid, UN membership, etc.—as states are, and therefore they are not as vulnerable to the disruption of these relationships that sanctions can bring about. NSAAs tend to participate in illicit market exchanges, which are harder to track, regulate, and disrupt.

In closing, the author calls for greater attention to the unique characteristics of NSAAs and more research on how sanctions can work against them. Due to the difficulty of coercing NSAA leaders through sanctions—as illustrated by the RUF and UNITA cases—he suggests that more consideration be given to the design of sanctions to constrain NSAAs rather than coerce them.

Contemporary Relevance

Although not without their shortcomings, sanctions can be a valuable tool for putting pressure on conflict parties who might otherwise continue with violent behavior, providing an alternative to military action as a source of leverage on the global stage. Given the growing prominence of non-state armed actors (NSAAs) in contemporary warfare, however, it is important to take stock of and revise old frameworks for sanction design and effectiveness to ensure that sanctions—if justified and with strong support—can work against these types of actors as well as states. The more non-lethal tools the international community has for confronting groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, or the FDLR (in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the more effective those tools are, the less persuasive arguments for military intervention will be, with its inevitable human costs and potential for escalation.

Practical Implications

As noted by the author, researchers and policy-makers need to give more attention to the particularities of non-state armed actors (NSAAs) when studying and designing sanctions. Once these are taken into consideration, designing sanctions that will be able to effectively influence NSAAs will be no easy task, given the challenges the author identified. There is reason to think, however, that there may be more points of leverage than he suggests. Although this research argues that NSAA leaders do not rely on key allies/constituencies for power or stability (like states do)—and therefore are not likely to respond to their recommendations to change course considering the pressure sanctions are putting on them—there is reason to believe that this particular distinction between NSAAs and states may be overstated. Political theorists as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Gene Sharp remind us that no one person is able to execute his/her will to the extent that despots (or NSAA leaders) do without the compliance and consent of lots of other people who are willing to carry out his/her orders. Even NSAAs that might be defined by their reliance on brute force to control their populations—and even their own foot soldiers—depend on the support (whether enthusiastic or grudging) of the group’s members to operate. If this support and compliance are taken away, the leader of a NSAA is no longer powerful. This does not mean that withdrawing that support is easy—especially if these individuals fear for their lives at the hands of others, like them, who fear for theirs if they disobey—but it is possible. Targeted sanctions can be part of the equation—but so can other non-military “interventions” that make it possible for individuals to defect from armed groups. Just as important to consider as these dependency relations within NSAAs are their dependency relations with the world. Although the author notes that NSAAs’ lack of integration into global trade systems and international organizations may make it more difficult to pressure them, it is worthwhile to highlight the ways they do interact with and depend on outside actors through their involvement in illicit global economies, diaspora networks, and so on. These dependencies create alternate points of leverage, albeit more difficult to access.

Continued Reading

The Effectiveness of United Nations Targeted Sanctions. By Thomas Biersteker, Sue Eckert, Marcos Tourinho, and Zuzana Hudáková. Graduate Institute, Geneva; Watson Institute for International Studies; Targeted Sanctions Consortium, November 2013:

Sanctioning Non-State Armed Groups: Does It Work? By Emily Daglish. Human Security Centre, September 1, 2014:

The Global Regime for Transnational Crime. By International Institutions and Global Governance Program. Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013:

What Happened to Smart Sanctions? By David Cortright. November 5, 2012:

Keywords: Angola, civil war, non-state armed actors, peacebuilding, RUF, sanctions, Sierra Leone, UNITA

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 4, of the Peace Science Digest.

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