Sanctions On the Upswing by Regional Bodies in Africa

by Kristen Boon

The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are becoming active sanctioners in Africa.   In the last few years, the AU and ECOWAS have applied sanctions in many African conflicts, including Mali, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and Guinea-Bissau.  This represents a lot of activity for the AU in particular, which is only 10 years old.

The role of sanctions by regional organizations is to be contrasted with the UN Security Council’s.  The UN has typically applied sanctions in three situations: counter-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and in cases of civil wars or interstate conflicts.  However, sanctions by African regional organizations focus heavily on internal political conditions.  Under Articles 23 and 30 of the AU’s constitutive act, for example, the AU can sanction for non-payment of organizational dues and for unconstitutional changes of government. See an analysis of these provisions here.   For ECOWAS, Article 45 of the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance permits sanctions against its members “in the event that democracy is abruptly brought to an end by any means or where there is massive violation of Human Rights in a Member State.”    In sum, these regional security systems permit sanctions in internal situations where the constitutional order and good governance is at stake. These are situations where the UN Security Council rarely acts, unless it is supporting regional measures, as it did in Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone.  Regional organizations consequently have a narrow purview, and focus less, as a legal matter, on the international ramifications to peace and security that would trigger the Security Council’s chapter VII powers.

In terms of form, the AU applies what are known as “targeted” sanctions that apply to specific actors and have specific goals.  AU targeted sanctions typically involve travel bans, asset freezes, and denial of transport and communications, as this excellent report by Mikael Eriksson explains.    Both the AU and ECOWAS can suspend membership rights as well.   Suspension might appear as little more than a slap on the wrist, however it has long been observed that there are multiple obstacles to effective implementation of sanctions in Africa, including: (i) lack of local capacity to implement; (ii) porous borders blunting the impact of sanctions, and (iii) the difficulty of reaching targeted individuals who operate outside formal financial systems.   Exclusion from membership of a respected regional organization may therefore have a greater impact than multilateral sanctions imposed by distant bodies, due to the stigmatizing effects and loss of participation in local economic and security communities.

Another difference between UN and regional sanctions is duration.   Whereas UN Security Council sanctions often linger on for years, and some would argue, far beyond their natural lifespan, sanctions applied by the African organizations are typically short lived.  For example, ECOWAS applied sanctions against Mali’s leaders in April 2012, and lifted them a few months later, in August 2012.   Relatedly, regional organizations have been much quicker to threaten sanctions in deteriorating political situations, and use them as a tool to keep the dialogue going in times of instability.  Although the track record is too short to indicate definite trends, it appears that sanctions by regional bodies have been more nimble and responsive to situations on the ground.  Nonetheless, regional organizations have encountered many of the same problems of implementation and compliance as Security Council. The jury is still out on whether regional sanctions are more effective.

Sanctions will be an important nexus point for future cooperation between the UN Security Council and regional bodies.   Of course the UN Charter accords the UN Security Council primary (but not exclusive) responsibility with regards to peace and security. There is interesting work being done on the relationship between the AU’s Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council on peacekeeping, but little work (as far as I am aware) assessing the relationship between the Security Council and regional organizations on sanctions.  This seems like an important area of inquiry moving forward, as it might provide an opportunity to more fully utilize Chapter VIII of the UN Charter on regional arrangements.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/01/16/sanctions-on-the-upswing-by-regional-bodies-in-africa/

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