Unilateral trade sanctions as a means to combat human rights abuses:legal and factual appraisal

AuthorTilahun Weldie Hindeya
PositionLL.B (Bahir Dar University), LL.M (University of Pretoria and American University),Assistant Professor at Bahir Dar University School of Law
Tilahun Weldie Hindeya
Some developed countries have used unilateral trade sanctions against
governments that have allegedly been engaged in gross violations of human
rights as a tool to force such governments to comply with basic human rights
standards. Even though unilateral trade sanctions might be targeted against
governments that grossly violate human rights, such measures have unintended
consequences on the general population who live in the target country. In many
cases, the general population suffers as a result of such sanctions rather than the
public officials who are the targets. Hence, the effectiveness of such measures
in meeting the desired result is questionable. Such measures have been utilized
by countries that are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) thereby
raising the issue of the legality of such measures under the WTO rules. The two
main issues that surround unilateral trade sanctions are thus the legality of such
measures under the WTO rules and the effectiveness of the measures to meet
the desired result. I argue that unilateral trade sanctions on grounds of human
rights violations are neither permissible under the WTO rules nor effective
weapons to achieve the goals (i.e. forcing governments to comply with basic
human rights standards).
Key words
Unilateral Trade Sanctions, Human rights, Repressive Governments, The
World Trade Organization, Extraterritorial Application
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/mlr.v7i1.5
Some Western countries have been utilizing unilateral trade sanctions as a
means to combat human rights abuses in target countries.1 However, the use of
LL.B (Bahir Dar University), LL.M (University of Pretoria and American University),
Assistant Professor at Bahir Dar University School of Law. I am grateful to
Hailegabriel Gedecho Feyissa and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful and
valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article. All errors remain mine. The author
can be reached at: tilahunw99@yahoo.com.
1 The US, Canada, and the European Union have all used different forms of trade
sanctions against some governments that have allegedly been in gross violations of
human rights. The US has imposed Sanctions against Burma, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.
102 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 7 No.1, September 2013
trade sanctions in general and unilateral trade sanctions in particular has become
increasingly controversial.2 The dispute over unilateral trade sanctions does not,
however, relate to the purpose intended to be achieved, i.e. the objective of
promoting human rights, but rather to the question of whether these sanctions
are the most effective weapons to achieve the goals.3 While some have regarded
unilateral trade sanctions as an alternative way of defending human rights in
target countries, there are concerns that such measures do not bring about the
desired result but might rather inflict undesirable consequences on the general
population.4 Furthermore, the efficacy of trade sanctions as a tool to promote
human rights has evoked the debate over the relationship between trade
measures and human rights.5
Targeted countries and countries that take such measures are mainly
members of the WTO, and this has evoked the question of the legality of trade
sanctions under the WTO. Apart from the controversy on the effectiveness of
Canada has also imposed sanctions against Burma and Zimbabwe. Moreover, EU has
also imposed unilateral trade sanctions against Burma, and Zimbabwe. See generally
Margaret Doxey (2009), ‘‘Reflections on the Sanctions Decade and Beyond’’, 64
International Journal at 539. For further explanation on some of the sanctions, see the
last section of this article.
2 Trade sanctions can generally be divided into unilateral and multilateral sanctions.
Multilateral sanctions are imposed by all countries in a given sanctions phenomenon
and such sanctions are supported by the international community. On the other hand,
unilateral sanctions are imposed by a country acting on its own /acting alone and may
not have international support. See Thihan Myo Nyun (2008), ‘‘Feeling Good or
Doing Good: Inefficacy of the US Unilateral Sanctions against the Military
Government of Burma/Myanmar’’, 7 Washington University Global Studies Law
Review 455 at 465.
3 Id., at 457.
4 Holly Cullen (1999), “The Limits of International Trade Mechanisms in Enforcing
Human Rights: The Case of Child Labour”, The International Journal of Children’s
Rights, Vol.7 at 1.
5 Trade measures related to human rights can be “inwardly directed” or “outwardly
directed.” Inwardly directed trade measures are targeted towards ensuring that human
rights are not violated within ones own territory. For instance, prohibition of
importation of meat products for a certain period on grounds that the meat products
imported from a given country can bring about health related problems (issues of
human right to health) is an “inwardly directed” measure. On the other hand,
outwardly directed trade measures, or commonly known as sanctions are targeted
towards ensuring promotion of human rights in other countries. If the US takes trade
measures against Syria aimed at promoting human rights in the country, the measure
becomes “outwardly directed”. The main focus of this article is on the latter measure.
For further explanation on types of human rights related trade measures, see Jenny
Schultz and Rachell Ball (2007), ‘‘Trade as a Weapon? The WTO and Human Rights-
Based Trade Measures”, Deakin Law Review, Vol. 12, No.1, at 43-44.

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