Guidelines for the Imposition of Sanctions

2016 Book of Resolutions, #6043

The parable of the good Samaritan invites us to see the fundamental character of God’s love as unconditional and overflowing. In the face of death and in death-dealing situations, aid and succor are the hallmarks of Christian response. In this parable the neighbor in need and the good neighbor were not known for their friendly relations. They were strangers and historical enemies to one another. In the time of need, however, compassion flowed and care was ultimately ensured by the good neighbor’s request of an innkeeper: “‘Look after him, … and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’ (Luke 10:35 NIV). This provision of care was unconditioned by tribe, class, kinship, gender, religion, race, and economic or political status. Jesus’ command was plain but bold: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 NIV). And our prayer echoes the prayer of the psalmist, “How long will you defend the unjust / and show partiality to the wicked? / Defend the weak and the fatherless; / uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. / Rescue the weak and the needy; / deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:2-4 NIV).

Sanctions as political and economic tools of pressure and leverage can play a critical role in the mitigation and deterioration of conflicts. It is in this sense that sanctions are sometimes seen as a more tolerable alternative to war, but in no case should they impede the ability of people to have adequate access to food, water, and medicine.

Sanctions, in whatever form, however, lay conditions on the extension of humanitarian aid and succor; thus, they fall short of the gospel imperative for unconditional love. Bearing in mind the limitations of sanctions, we must provide guidelines for their imposition and implementation so that we may be reminded of the compassion in which we should always act.

A 2006 Church World Service and Witness (CWSW) study defines sanctions as “a menu of possible diplomatic, communications and economic measures used by governments, intergovernmental bodies, and nongovernmental entities to force changes in policies and behavior (usually but not exclusively on the part of a government).” The study continues: “Sanctions cover a wide variety of measures from moratoria on diplomatic contacts to trade embargoes. Consumer boycotts and disinvestments programs are related measures.” (See report:, 2006-04-23)

The CWSW study notes that “sanctions can be limited and targeted, such as sports boycotts or restrictions on air travel, or they can be comprehensive, as in the case of trade embargoes. Sanctions can be unilateral (involving a single government) or multilateral (involving more than one).” The term sanction is most frequently associated with economic measures intended to inflict economic damage and thereby force a government or other entity to change its behavior and its policies. The effective use of sanctions lies in the political will of the imposer and is to be measured by the positive effects of the sanctions on the desired outcomes.

At the heart of the conflictive character of sanctions is the concern for possible adverse effects of sanctions on the most vulnerable segments of the population as well as added strain on the already struggling economies of developing countries. Thus, the cautioned use of sanctions arises out of a fundamental ethical and moral dilemma to protect: the innocent, and noncombatants in situations of disaster, conflict, and emergency. Those countries and entities who impose sanctions of any kind must always take care to protect the suffering and the innocents by means of the basic, uncompromised modicum of international human rights and humanitarian laws. We must guarantee the right to protection of human life, human rights, and civil liberties; sanctions should not be imposed at the expense of the vulnerable. Therefore the Christian community must insist that any and all sanctions provide humanitarian exemptions for the provision of care—which includes food, medicine, medical supplies and equipment, basic school supplies, and agricultural inputs and implements—to those in dire need under circumstances of disaster, conflict, and emergency.

Humanitarian exemptions in the case of sanctions are embodied by the concept of the responsibility to protect. Responsibility to protect (R2P) is defined as an international security and humanitarian norm that calls the international community to protect innocent civilians and noncombatants in the face of war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity. We acknowledge that God’s mercy happens not when one is suffering, however, but at the point where people are still empowered to act, a prior state in which one is capable of deciding for and producing for their own needs as well as the needs of their children and loved ones. Thus, the responsibility to protect arises out of a failure of prevention. The responsibility to prevent calls us to address the root causes of internal conflict and other crises that put marginalized populations at risk. We must begin to foster an ethic of prevention—as additional to and foremost of protection—to ensure that people live “in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest,” in assurance that peace is the fruit of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 32:16-18 NIV). (See World Council of Churches publication entitled The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, 2005. See also and December 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty entitled The Responsibility to Protect.)

The CWSW study on the effectiveness of sanctions as an alternative to war concluded with recommendations that include the establishment of decision-making criteria for the imposition of sanctions based on the following guidelines:

  • Sanctions must be a part of a broader strategy of peace-making and an alternative to warfare.
  • Sanctions should be adopted only in circumstances of flagrant and persistent violations of international law.
  • Sanctions should have a clearly defined purpose.
  • Sanctions have their greatest legitimacy and moral authority when authorized by a competent multilateral authority.
  • The good achieved must not be exceeded by anticipated harm.
  • There must be a reasonable prospect that their stated purpose of effecting political change will be achieved.
  • Sanctions are effective only to the extent that they are consistently and thoroughly applied.

There must also be operational criteria to sanction impositions:

  • Sanctions should be directed as precisely as possible to those bodies and leaders most responsible for the violation. Humanitarian assistance should be made available to the general population.
  • The progress and effects of sanctions should be continually monitored by an independent and impartial multilateral monitoring body.
  • Enforcers should be prepared to address the hurts and needs of victims in the sanctioned country and affected third countries.
  • Open communication should be maintained with government leaders and civic groups in the sanctioned country.

United Methodists are called to:

  • request that all governments employ and subscribe to already available indicators to assess potential humanitarian impacts prior to imposing sanctions and for monitoring impacts once sanctions are in place; especially those developed by multilateral institutions such as the United Nations;
  • request that all governments seek to develop a list of humanitarian exceptions in cases in which no previous precedent as developed by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions exists and to incorporate those exemptions in any and all sanctions regimes;
  • call for systematic monitoring of sanctions by independent expert observers;
  • call for consensus to be required on a regular basis, before the United Nations imposes and/or continues Security Council sanctions;
  • ensure in our advocacy efforts that sanctions and embargoes meet the requirements of available international human rights and humanitarian laws, including the provisions of the Statute of the International Criminal Court;
  • commit ourselves and our humanitarian aid efforts as United Methodists, especially through UMCOR, to be carried out with awareness of the limited effectiveness of sanctions and similar enforcement tools in achieving their stated political goals and while also fostering and implementing an ethic of protection and more importantly prevention such that the dignity and human rights of the most vulnerable are preserved; and
  • call on the General Board of Church and Society to advocate for policies in national and international arenas that embody the understanding of sanctions and their implications that is contained in this resolution.


See Social Principles, ¶ 165A, B, D.

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