Norm collision in the European Union’s external policies: The case of European Union sanctions towards Rwanda

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Cooperation and Conflict
2017, Vol. 52(4) 553 –570
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836717710528
Norm collision in the European
Union’s external policies:
The case of European Union
sanctions towards Rwanda
Johanne Døhlie Saltnes
The European Union (EU) is the world’s biggest donor of aid to developing countries. The
provision of EU aid is conditional on respect for human rights and democratic principles in the
recipient countries. This article questions to what extent norms always yield to interests in
decisions over whether to sanction breaches of human rights and democracy. Building on a
theory that allows the simultaneous consideration of different norms, the article suggests that
rather than interests being the determining factor when the EU takes decisions on implementing
sanctions, the weighing of various norms and the choice to follow one of them can explain why
sanctions have been avoided in certain cases in Rwanda. The article shows that this weighing
of different norms plays an important role in foreign policy decisions and can have concrete
consequences with regard to sanctions. In so doing, it advances the literature on the EU’s global
role by developing a theoretical account of the evaluation process and the ultimate decision to
act in accordance with one norm in particular.
Development aid, European Union, norms, Rwanda, sanctions
The European Union (EU) is increasingly willing to sanction non-compliance with inter-
national rules and agreements (Giumelli, 2013). However, it is still the case that sanctions
are unequally applied. Why is it that sanctions are applied towards some aid-receiving
countries in situations of objectionable behaviour and not towards others?1 The standard
answer to this recurrent question in discussions of the EU’s global role is that donors
refrain from imposing sanctions when doing so would damage their own interests;
Corresponding author:
Johanne Døhlie Saltnes, ARENA – Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1143 Blindern,
0318 Oslo, Norway.
710528CAC0010.1177/0010836717710528Cooperation and ConflictSaltnes
554 Cooperation and Conflict 52(4)
however, in some cases, this answer is not satisfactory. Amongst the cases that have not
been sanctioned we find Rwanda. Rwanda does not have any particular characteristics or
natural resources that would qualify it as a country of economic or security-related interest
for the EU (Hayman, 2009; Zorbas, 2011); nevertheless, the EU has adopted a ‘soft
approach’ towards Rwanda.2 Despite several incidents of objectionable behaviour over
the past decade, the EU has refrained from implementing sanctions, choosing instead to
react through diplomatic means (EEAS#1#2#3; EUdel#1#2).
In this article, I explore to what extent it is reasonable to expect that norms will yield
to interests and whether the absence of sanctions can be shown to result from a concern
over costs, as the literature argues (Brüne, 2007; Crawford, 2001, 2005; Emmanuel, 2010;
Hyde-Price, 2008; Olsen, 2000; Warkotsch, 2008, 2010; cf. Del Biondo, 2011, 2015a,
2015b). I argue that we must at least consider the theoretical possibility that a decision not
to sanction may be due to a conflict of norms rather than a conflict between norms and
interests. It might be the case that a decision not to sanction has nothing to do with the
economic or security interests of the donor; rather, it could arise from the prioritisation of
one norm over another. In order to develop this argument, I establish a distinction between
different types of norms. Norms do not provide a single moral standard that must be fol-
lowed consistently. Actors may weigh the benefits and disadvantages of various norms
and choose to act according to one of these norms on the basis of this evaluation. This
expectation of a weighing of different norms provides an alternative to existing hypothe-
ses on cases in which sanctions have not materialised. One problem with these hypotheses
is that they rely on an indiscriminate view of norms. If a norm is not consistently followed
(i.e., rigged elections in country A result in sanctions, but those in country B provoke
political dialogue), it is assumed that interests must explain any discrepancy. However,
interests might not be the determining factor in the choice to not implement sanctions:
actors may simply have decided to act according to a different norm.
Why has the EU chosen to apply a soft approach in the case of Rwanda? In this article,
I develop an account for the EU’s lack of sanctions towards Rwanda, anchored in theory
that opens up to norms influencing policy. The added value is the ability to explain why
the EU chooses one norm over another when they point in different directions. This is
arguably a much-needed contribution to the literature on the EU’s global role, as empiri-
cal evidence suggests that the number of cases in which norms collide is increasing (Del
Biondo, 2011, 2015a, 2015b).
Analytical approach
The literature analysing the application of instruments following incidents of objection-
able behaviour generally ascribes the use of sanctions (or lack thereof) to the donor’s
self-interest (Brüne, 2007; Crawford, 2001, 2005; Emmanuel, 2010; Hyde-Price, 2008;
Olsen, 2000; Warkotsch, 2008, 2010). It is argued that economic, security-related or
historical interests in an aid-receiving country prevent donors from implementing sanc-
tions when the interest in question is considered more important than sanctioning the
breach. When there is no such interest, breaches of human rights and principles of
democracy would be followed by a ‘hard approach’. In the absence of any particular
interest in jeopardy, the ‘cost’ of implementing a sanction is low and the ‘benefit’ is high

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