Governments often use economic sanctions for the expressed reason of curbing poor human rights practices by targeted states. However, previous research on the topic (e.g. Peksen 2009; Wood 2008) has found that the imposition of economic sanctions is regularly followed by increases in the use of torture, extrajudicial killing, political imprisonment, and enforced disappearance (also known as physical integrity rights abuses) by the targeted government, even when the sanctions are imposed over the target’s human rights practices. This raises a question: if sanctions produce worse human rights outcomes in the states targeted with them, why do governments continue to use them to try to improve human rights?
There are many possible answers to that question, but in my recent article at the Journal of Global Security Studies, I focus on two in particular. First, while the imposition of economic sanctions may very well lead to increased abuse in targeted states, the threat of human rights-related economic sanctions may lead to improvements in the targeted government’s human rights practices (e.g. Drezner 2003; Lacy and Niou 2004). Second, targeted states may not be the only, or even the most important, audience for the signal sent by sanction activity (Baldwin 1985). As such, by showing observing leaders around the world that there is a possible additional cost associated with human rights abuse, rights-related sanction activity may cause some governments that were not targeted with sanctions to think twice before engaging in rights violations.