Start of Main Content

We asked experienced practitioners: What makes targeted sanctions more likely to prevent atrocities?

Man puts a stamp on sanctions list document. ronstik / Alamy Stock Photo

Targeted sanctions have become one of the most frequently discussed and hotly debated options in the atrocity prevention toolbox. Today, the Simon-Skjodt Center released a new report, “Using Targeted Sanctions to Help Prevent Mass Atrocities Results from Interviews with Experienced Practitioners.”

The basic idea is certainly attractive: that imposing financial and reputational costs on perpetrators of atrocities or limiting their ability to access money or goods that fuel atrocities could reduce violence, or even prevent it in the first place. And that targeting individuals, corporations, or other groups can spare populations the unintended negative consequences of more blunt sanctions against whole countries.

As with any tool with the potential to help prevent mass atrocities, policy makers must go beyond recognizing the potential utility of targeted sanctions to grapple with when and how they can be used to greatest effect.

Learning lessons about targeted sanctions

The Simon-Skjodt Center’s “Lessons Learned in Preventing and Responding to Mass Atrocities” project seeks to understand better how policy makers, across all levels of government, can take effective action to prevent mass atrocity crimes and protect civilian populations in situations where they face serious threats of group-targeted, systematic violence. As part of the project, we interviewed people with substantial experience working on targeted sanctions in the US government.

The premise for the interviews was that experienced practitioners have important insights about when and how targeted sanctions can be most effective in helping prevent mass atrocities. While one can find many ideas about how to use targeted sanctions most effectively, none that we are aware of are: (1) focused specifically on the use of targeted sanctions for  mass atrocity prevention and (2) based on the collective perspectives of a set of experienced practitioners. 

We interviewed 15 people, including multiple former senior sanctions officials at the Department of Treasury. Respondents had an average of 9.5 years of experience working on sanctions policy in the US government, and collectively, they worked in every presidential administration from George H. W. Bush through Donald Trump and in seven US federal agencies.

Main findings: key themes and success factors

We identified four cross-cutting themes from the interviews: 

  1. Targeted sanctions can help prevent mass atrocities in multiple ways. 

  2. Each mass atrocity crisis poses unique and complex policy challenges. 

  3. Sanctions practitioners should address potential unintended negative consequences.

  4. The effectiveness of targeted sanctions in helping prevent mass atrocities in the near term is one of multiple considerations that informs policy decisions.

Factors that influence the effectiveness of targeted sanctions: 

At least two-thirds of practitioners identified the following factors as being associated with greater effectiveness of targeted sanctions in helping prevent mass atrocities: 

  1. the target’s exposure to the international system, 

  2. the commitment of the sanctions implementer, 

  3. international support or coordination around the sanctions policy, and 

  4. clear communication about the sanctions policy.


Our findings have implications for both research and policy practice about targeted sanctions. 

Future policy-relevant research should focus on factors where there is a relatively high level of practitioner consensus but relatively low levels of systematic research. 

For practitioners, the collective perspectives of our interview respondents should inform future action. Given the strong consensus on the four factors cited above, practitioners can reasonably conceive of them as basic guidelines for maximizing the effectiveness of new and ongoing sanctions. While interviewees were clear that there is no checklist or single path to effective use of targeted sanctions, practitioners should nevertheless pay attention to the factors they identified as being important.

Read the full report on the findings of our targeted sanctions practitioner interviews and explore how findings from completed practitioner interviews are reflected in the interactive Tools for Atrocity Prevention website.

We expect to report findings from practitioner interviews about additional tools periodically.