In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO member states and their allies have imposed “unprecedented,” unilateral economic sanctions to hold Russia accountable, degrade its military capability, and limit its international financial access.1 From the outset, sanctioning states such as the United States have stated that they “designed these sanctions to maximize the long-term impact on Russia and to minimize the impact on [themselves and their] allies.”2 These sanctions on an economic power like Russia “have global economic effects far greater than anything seen before.”3 And there is concern that the unintended consequences of the sanctions will disproportionately harm developing states.

Unilateral sanctions have long been a subject of contention within foreign policy and international law. Once conceived as the panacea to war, scholars have come to appreciate sanctions’ destructive impact too. Yet as the United Nations learned from the terrible humanitarian consequences of its sanction regimes in Iraq and Haiti and wound them down, there has been a rise in unilateral sanctions, particularly imposed by the United States, raising humanitarian concerns along with issues of extraterritorial jurisdiction and imperialism.

The unilateral sanctions against Russia and the prospect of economic spillover effects felt worldwide, but most acutely in the Global South, call for a reexamination of how international law treats sanctions and their unintended consequences. Yet even in the midst of this fast-moving, massive, and complex set of unilateral sanctions there may be emerging welcome developments in the murky legal spaces
This Article proceeds in three parts. Part One reviews the unilateral sanction regime against Russia with particular attention expended on the unintended consequences sustained by developing states as well as exemptions that sanctioning states have crafted. The section also addresses the general literature on sanctions and humanitarian impacts. Part Two addresses the international law governing unilateral sanctions, focusing first on the principle of non-intervention and then exploring how sanctions may be classified as countermeasures. The section examines whether general-interest countermeasures are permitted and would apply to the current sanction regimes. The section also details how countermeasures do not adequately account for and protect the rights of non-targeted third states. Part Three then proposes both substantive legal changes and procedural mechanisms to mitigate unilateral sanctions’ unintended consequences. The section sketches a sanctioning state’s duty to prevent human rights harms to third states and to afford assistance to these states. The following section sketches a “lawmaking” and coordinating role for the General Assembly, clarifying what sanctions measures are lawful and resuscitating the UN Charter Article 50 process to ensure that third states enjoy a right to consult over sanctions and a right to necessary assistance. The Article concludes that a clarified legal and economic framework for unilateral sanctions is vital to the development of an international system dedicated to peace, security, and fairness.


Russia Ukraine NATO member states, economic sanctions, unintended consequences, developing states

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100 University of Detroit Mercy Law Review 441 (2023)


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