EU sanctions threaten global food security
A new resolution by the UN Security Council aims to safeguard civilians from harmful humanitarian effects caused by UN sanctions. However, according to Richard Burchill, the European Union has not always considered humanitarian concerns when imposing sanctions on Russia and Belarus.
The use of sanctions in international relations is an ever-expanding field as – primarily Western – states view sanctions as a key tool for foreign policy. On 9 December 2022, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted a resolution ensuring that “the provision of goods and services necessary to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance or to support other activities that support basic human needs” continues when sanctions are applied.1
Although specific exemptions for humanitarian purposes have been included in various sanctions regimes before, this resolution aims to be more pervasive by ensuring that restrictive measures do not “have adverse humanitarian consequences for civilian populations nor adverse consequences for humanitarian activities or those carrying them out”.2 Adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the resolution is binding for all member states of the United Nations.
Current EU sanctions are affecting the supply of food and agricultural products worldwide
Yet, as sanctions are increasingly used as a foreign policy tool, it is necessary to adopt a similar approach globally rather than just in UN sanctions regimes. This is shown by the EU’s current application of sanctions against Russia and Belarus following the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine; consistent humanitarian exemptions are needed to prevent negative impacts on global food security.
Inconsistent EU sanctions policy
On 23 March 2023, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres discussed the ongoing humanitarian impact of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine with members of the European Council in Brussels. The talks covered several issues, with a particular focus on food security. Guterres’ concern with the European Union in this area is well placed, since its’ current sanctions are affecting the supply of food and agricultural products worldwide.
The EU has argued that its sanctions do not impact food security3 as food and agricultural products such as fertilisers from Russia are exempted.4 However, the EU has not provided an exemption for fertilisers from Belarus, indicating a lack of consistency in its sanctions policy.
Belarus’ complicity in Russia’s massive violation of the UN Charter as well as the fundamental principles of international law and relations makes the country responsible for its supportive actions. The imposition of sanctions on Belarus for this aspect of its behaviour is therefore justified. This raises an important question: why did the EU grant an exemption to the main perpetrator of international law violations, but not to the accomplice state?
Sanctions as a tool for punishment
A possible explanation can be found in the objectives underlying the sanctions imposed upon Belarus. The Dutch government’s statement on this issue explains that there are three main objectives of the EU sanctions. Firstly, to make it difficult for Russia to finance the war in Ukraine. Secondly, to show the individuals responsible (such as the Russian political elite) that the invasion of Ukraine has economic and political consequences. And thirdly, to make Belarus pay a heavy price for its involvement.5
While Western states widely use sanctions as a tool, it remains an ungoverned activity
The first two objectives are justified, although the interpretation of the “individuals responsible” category in the second objective is currently being stretched to limits well beyond a normal understanding. However, the third point, which aims to make Belarus pay a heavy price, must be questioned as it suggests the use of sanctions as a tool for punishment and retribution. The UN Charter system does not allow for the punishment of a state.6
While it is true that fertiliser exports are a major source of revenue for the Belarusian government, the question arises as to why the European Union grants exemptions for Russian food and fertiliser but does not take the same stance towards Belarus. The only plausible explanation seems to be a political choice to punish an unwelcome regime, which is a problematic position for the EU given the impact on global food security.
Sanctions are here to stay
In its application of sanctions to Russia and Belarus, the EU has clearly not consistently applied a humanitarian exemption. This illustrates that while Western states widely use sanctions as a tool, it remains an ungoverned activity. There are no agreed principles, processes or procedures as individual sovereign units – states or the EU – make political choices that are more about making a statement and signalling their position than giving due consideration to consistency in the application or, more importantly, the humanitarian impact of sanctions.
It appears the European Union is determined to pass more sanctions and bring about greater compliance with its measures. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has stated that sanctions are here to stay.7 If more is to be sanctioned and the sanctions regime is going to remain in place for a considerable period of time, then consistency and consideration of the humanitarian impact are needed.
This does not mean the EU is not taking into account the impact of sanctions at all.8 Returning to the statement from the Netherlands, it is recognised that sanctions “have caused major disruptions to world trade and increased uncertainty”,9 including global food markets. In response, the European Union has dropped all import tariffs on fertiliser products to assist EU farmers in dealing with the current situation.10 If the countries applying sanctions take action to reduce the humanitarian impact on their own societies, it is crucial they also show more concern for the humanitarian challenges arising from the uncertainty caused by EU sanctions that affect the rest of the world.
The involvement of Belarus in supporting Russia brings about international responsibility for which condemnation is necessary. However, implementing sanctions as punishment or retribution not only violates international law, but also runs against obligations and principles of the EU.
The current situation shows that when ungoverned sanctions are utilised for self-interested political objectives, such as punishing Belarus, they have detrimental consequences on others. So, the EU must consistently implement the United Nations’ appeal for a humanitarian exemption to sanctions, thus supporting the fight against global food insecurity.
- 1United Nations, ‘Adopting Resolution 2664 (2022), Security Council Approves Humanitarian Exemption to Asset Freeze Measures Imposed by United Nations Sanctions Regimes’, 9 December 2022, par. 1.
- 2UN Security Council Resolution 2664, preamble par. 7.
- 3European Council, ‘EU sanctions against Russia explained’, accessed 20 April 2023.
- 4This has been far from clear as it was not until December 2022 that it was agreed within the EU that an exemption upon Russian fertilisers did exist. See: Susannah Savage, Bartosz Brzeziński, Barbara Moens and Jacopo Barigazzi, ‘EU agrees to ease Russia fertilizer curbs after row, angering Ukraine’, Politico, 15 December 2022. Member States have argued that the EU sanctions regulations were not clear on this point. It remains to be seen if the EU was purposely fostering ambiguity or if the sanctions measures had not been adequately thought through in relation to the humanitarian impact outside of the EU.
- 5Government of the Netherlands, ‘Aims and effects of sanctions against Russia and Belarus’, accessed 20 April 2023.
- 6Autonomous sanctions in international law are already of questionable legality and morality and there are few valid arguments to justify their use as a tool for punishment.
- 7European Commission, ‘2022 State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen’, 14 September 2022, accessed 20 April 2023.
- 8Foreign Affairs Council, ‘Russian aggression against Ukraine – consequences for food security’, Council of the European Union, 20 June 2022.
- 9Government of the Netherlands, ‘Aims and effects of sanctions against Russia and Belarus’, accessed 20 April 2023.
- 10Council of the European Union, ‘Council Regulation (EU) 2022/2465 of 12 December 2022 amending Annex I to Regulation (EEC) No 2658/87 on the tariff and statistical nomenclature and on the Common Customs Tariff’, 12 December 2022.