Why Canada Should Rethink its Approach to Economic Sanctions

(Published in The Conversation, Mar. 6, 2022)

Western countries have imposed massive sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The West has increasingly relied on economic sanctions to punish or change the policies of foreign governments in the last several decades. The conventional wisdom is that economic sanctions are an effective and peaceful foreign policy tool.

Some sanctions regimes, such as the current effort against Russia, may be both effective and lawful. But as I explored in a recent research report, some economic sanctions may violate international law principles, including those the sanctions are intended to enforce. They may therefore undermine the very legal regimes that Canadians like to champion.

The nature of economic sanctions

Many economic sanctions are authorized by the United Nations Security Council or regional organizations. But countries are increasingly imposing sanctions without such legal authority. It’s these so-called unilateral or autonomous sanctions that raise legal questions.

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Economic Sanctions Under International Law: A Guide for Canadian Policy

My report on economic sanctions has been published: Economic Sanctions Under International Law: A Guide for Canadian Policy,” Rideau Institute and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa: Research Report (2021).

The abstract is below, and a short blog post that discusses the report was also published on the Rideau Institute blog.

Economic sanctions have become an increasingly favored tool of Western states in their international relations over the last several decades, but there have also been growing questions regarding the lawfulness of autonomous sanctions (those not authorized by the U.N. Security Council) generally, and so-called secondary sanctions and targeted sanctions more specifically. This report provides an examination of the nature and operation of both authorized and autonomous economic sanctions and the distinct areas of international law that govern the various forms of economic sanctions, with a view to informing Canadian foreign policy on sanctions.

The report provides an analysis of the different legal bases for possible objections that these different forms of sanction are unlawful, from claims that they may constitute unlawful coercive intervention, or be an unlawful extraterritorial exercise of jurisdiction, to claims that they violate specific principles of human rights law, or international trade and investment law. It also examines whether any such violations could be justified as legitimate countermeasures. The report finds that there is a degree of uncertainty regarding some of these aspects of international law, with differing perspectives between the developed and developing states on these questions.

The report provides a brief review of the Canadian domestic law authority for imposing economic sanctions, and places Canada’s current sanctions regimes within the context of the foregoing legal framework and analysis. Canadian law authorizes broad autonomous sanctions both against states and against individuals and private entities, though it has thus far avoided the use of secondary sanctions. The report ends with the suggestion that Canadian policy makers should take the unsettled state of the law as a cause for caution. Moreover, they should be mindful of Canada’s role in helping to shape the evolving customary international law regime, and whether the use of some economic sanctions may be inconsistent with its support for human rights, respect for sovereignty, and the international rule of law.

Geoengineering and the Use of Force

(Published in Opinio Juris, Jan. 20, 2021).

It is now widely accepted that the climate change crisis is going to contribute to increasing levels of armed conflict among and within states in the coming decades. Less widely considered is the effect the crisis may have on the jus ad bellum regime. In a two-part essay in Opinio Juris (and in a much longer law review article), I have suggested that there will be growing pressure to relax the jus ad bellum regime when the more dire consequences of the climate change crisis begin to manifest themselves. That is, there will be mounting claims that the threat or use of force may be justified against those “climate rogue states” perceived to be recklessly and unlawfully contributing to the growing threat to international peace and security.

This argument may seem rather radical and unlikely from today’s perspective. But in this essay, I will examine how the case of geoengineering may help to illustrate just how some of the threats posed by climate change will create real tension for the jus ad bellum regime. The essay explores the hypothetical situation in which one country moves to unilaterally engage in a geoengineering scheme that many other states think will cause catastrophic harm to the climate and the ecosystem. How would the international community likely respond, and with what implications for international law?

Geoengineering

As most readers will know, the term geoengineering refers to large-scale intervention and manipulation of the environmental systems for purposes of either reducing the pace or countering the effects of climate change. There are many different avenues being explored, ranging from different methods of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), to various forms of solar management regulation (SRM). The latter is a broad category of methods that aim to lower or maintain the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere by reducing the exposure of the Earth’s surface to the full brunt of energy from the sun.

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New Podcast on the Laws of War

In mid-July I launched a new podcast series called “JIB/JAB – The Laws of War.” It will feature conversations with experts in the various legal regimes that govern aspects of the use of force and armed conflict — namely, the jus ad bellum, jus in bello, international human rights law, constitutional war powers, and some others in the margins — focusing on both their recent work, and how it may relate to recent events. I am hoping to strike a delicate balance wherein it will be of interest and value to both experts and non-experts (including students) alike. For more information and to peruse the episodes already up, check out the website at http://jibjabpodcast.com — or subscribe on most podcast platforms.