A considerable body of research shows economic sanctions can exacerbate human rights abuses. But the reasons have remained unclear.
Seeking to better define this causal relationship, researchers at the University of Georgia discovered two mechanisms that fit the pattern, and their conclusions could have a significant impact on the future use of sanctions as a foreign policy measure.
Amanda Murdie, head of the department of international affairs and professor in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs, recently collaborated with doctoral candidate Ryan Yu-Lin Liou and University of Memphis professor Dursun Peksen on research examining the causal links between economic sanctions and human rights abuses. Their work appears in the journal Political Research Quarterly.
“This research is really interesting because in the area of foreign policy, we often hear leaders suggest sanctions as a way to further human rights purposes,” Murdie said. “Sanctions are seen as softer than a military intervention, so we would hope that they work.”
But research has shown the opposite is true, and Murdie’s research posits two factors: Sanctions provide a signal to the domestic community that their country is struggling in some way; this leads to violent protests, which are then repressed. Second, sanctions reduce state capacity—the ability of the government to monitor conditions on the ground.
“In that situation, you’re going to see more human rights abuses, not because leaders order them, but rather because there are agents that aren’t being monitored,” said Murdie. “They take shortcuts and that leads to an increase in human rights abuses.”
From a policymaker’s standpoint, this shows that if they are concerned about human rights in a certain state, they might want to pay closer attention to the dissent that is taking place on the ground when sanctions are introduced.”
The researchers used a model that enabled them to investigate the process of sanctions leading to more protests and protests leading to repression. “This model allows us to see the causal chain all in one statistical way. Now we can spell it out in these specific stages,” Murdie said.
The researchers emphasized the importance of this research for establishing guidelines in foreign policy.
“From a policymaker’s standpoint, this shows that if they are concerned about human rights in a certain state, they might want to pay closer attention to the dissent that is taking place on the ground when sanctions are introduced,” Murdie said. “They might want to pay closer attention to those protests, and especially how the government of the state is restructuring their money in the face of those sanctions.”