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How sanctions are a weapon of imperialism, used to subordinate the Global South

The International People’s Tribunal on US Imperialism explains how US, EU, and UN sanctions are a means of controlling Global South sovereignty and blocking the emergence of a multipolar world, to maintain the neocolonial capitalist order.

Zimbabwe protest sanctions Africa
A protest in Zimbabwe against Western sanctions, in October 2021

Activists are organizing an “International People’s Tribunal on US Imperialism: Sanctions, Embargoes, Economic Coercive Measures,” to prosecute the empire for its crimes.

The Committee of Anti-Imperialists in Solidarity with Iran held a webinar on December 18, explaining the importance of the people’s tribunal. The following is their position paper.

We Charge Imperialism

Position paper and working framework of the International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism: Sanctions, Blockades, and Economic Coercive Measures

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of sanctions regimes, particularly by the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and the United States.[1] This is due in part to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ended the deadlock between superpowers at the Security Council.[2]

Over the past few decades, sanctions were slowly reconfigured from war time weapons into peacetime policy instruments. In order for this effort to materialize, policymakers, legal scholars, and government officials campaigned to legitimate sanctions as a lawful weapon to punish nations who refuse to submit to the United States and Europe.

A rich body of literature investigates the use of multilateral coercive measures by the Security Council, and the bilateral and unilateral measures exercised by regional and state actors.[3] This body of literature can generally be divided into two categories, ‘mainstream’ and ‘critical’ approaches, both of which are inadequate to capture the violence and true political-economic function of sanctions.

The International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism: Sanctions, Blockades, and Economic Coercive Measures approaches economic coercive measures as inherently violent, designed to maintain economic inequality, continue the theft of wealth from the Global South, and preserve racial hierarchy in the international system. Such measures are structurally incapable of reform, and cannot incorporate humanitarian concerns.

The Tribunal is a collective effort to build systems of accountability—rooted in global cross-movement solidarity—both within and outside of the law, to challenge the violence of imperialism through sanctions.

We interrogate sanctions not from the perspective of those who enforce them, but from the perspective of those most impacted by them, namely the peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America.

Our broad position is that economic sanctions constitute, and are constituted by, structures of imperialism designed to maintain the neocolonial capitalist order through Global South wealth transfer, income deflation, underdevelopment, and the massive empowerment of western monopolies.[4]

We utilize this approach to disturb and reject the conventional wisdom, reinforced through hegemonic knowledge production, that characterizes economic sanctions, especially those in their ‘smart’ or ‘individual’ forms, as ‘peaceful alternatives to war.’[5]

We unsettle this conceptualization by deconstructing the structures that economic sanctions are built upon and through which economic sanctions reproduce themselves.[6]

Sanctions are a means of disciplining and controlling Global South sovereignty and blocking the emergence of a multipolar world order. In analyzing sanctions, it is important to understand where, how and by whom they are utilized. Thus, an analysis of the political economy of sanctions and the structural, spatial, temporal, and racial configuration of the actors that deploy these measures is necessary.

The three main bodies acting as enforcing institutional mechanisms of economic sanctions include the United States, United Nations Security Council, and the European Union. We pay special attention to the structural, spatial, and racial significance of each enforcing body and the interconnections between them in order to understand the role of these powerful institutions in sustaining relations of domination and exploitation.

We have concluded that sanctions regimes require the continuous development of new legal mechanisms, techniques, and technologies to manufacture international consent for their imposition. Thus, an inquiry into and an interrogation of these legal mechanisms is a necessary step toward ultimately dismantling sanctions regimes.

Furthermore, in unearthing the legal and historical processes that led to the current construction of sanctions as peaceful policy instruments, we argue that while the legal concept of war is formulated to acknowledge military intervention and territorial control, it remains blind to economic intervention.[7]

It is therefore necessary to unsettle the normalized dichotomy of peace and war to understand the ways in which ‘war’ as it is currently deployed by scholars and analysts fails to account for certain forms of violence, including the violence of capitalism and imperialism, particularly through legal regimes of sanctions against the Global South.

By investigating sanctions through the lens of capitalism and imperialism, and in considering their significance to our current conceptualizations of war and peace, we join those who reject the dominant characterization of sanctions as ‘peaceful’ or ‘non-violent’ measures that are ‘alternatives to war’.

However, we move beyond the understanding of sanctions as a form of warfare merely because of their ‘war-like’ humanitarian consequences, as the critical scholars tend to suggest.[8] To identify economic sanctions as ‘war’ because they, too, kill people, is to completely miss the broader context through which economic sanctions exist and operate.

In making this argument, we do not overlook the significance of the humanitarian costs of economic sanctions but identify them as epiphenomenal to the central question, which is the uneven development of capitalism.

This uneven development fortifies a small number of advanced capitalist states (the imperialist core), by virtue of their power over the global economy,[9] to enforce economic coercive measures for the purpose of material exploitation, political subordination, and cultural domination of the Global South and to maintain the current capitalist order.

We therefore argue that we cannot understand or contextualize economic sanctions outside of imperialism in international law or in isolation from the developments of capitalism in the global legal order.

Ultimately, we contend that placing ‘war’ as our frame of reference for conceptualizing violence, albeit in an attempt to show that economic sanctions can be as destructive as military aggressions, is instructive but incomplete.

We should not neglect the fact that economic sanctions are in fact distinct, in their form, nature, and structure form military interventions and can therefore inflict and embody different forms of violence from those deployed in armed conflicts. This distinction is important, and it does not render economic sanctions as ‘peaceful alternatives’ to military force.

Richard Nephew, a research scholar and policy analyst who has played an important role in designing and implementing United States sanctions against Iran in recent years, argues: ‘just because the damage wrought by sanctions may be less visible (at least with some sanctions regimes), it need not be less destructive, particularly for economically vulnerable populations that may be affected.’[10]

This highlights the need to move beyond the conventional narratives that identify victims within the selective frames of war. It is only by delving beneath this surface and applying an anti-imperialist framework that we can fully grasp and therefore resist the oppressive, exploitative, and destructive nature of economic sanctions.

The organizers have chosen the “People’s Tribunal” as the organizing framework as it is a model that has long roots in anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist organizing.

People’s Tribunals capture the ethos of self-determination and internationalism that was expressed through twentieth century anti-colonial struggles and was institutionalized in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Cuba. They bring together movement lawyers and organizers from around the world and are designed by and accountable to the social movements and communities in which they are rooted.

Operating outside of the logics and institutions of capitalist and imperialist law, People’s Tribunals make decisions that may not be binding and do not have the force of law, but their achievements in a political and discursive register inspire and provide the tools necessary for present and future organizing.

People’s Tribunals allow the oppressed to judge the powerful, defining the content as well as the scope of the procedures, which reverses the norm of the powerful creating and implementing the law.

There is a long tradition of radical organizers using the law to put capitalism and imperialism on trial.

Organized by the Civil Rights Congress, and supported by the Communist Party as well as a host of Black leftist luminaries, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, and Paul Robeson, “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief of a Crime of the United States against the Negro People” indicted the political-economic system of capitalism and white supremacy for inflicting numerous forms of structural and physical violence on Black people in the U.S. as well as drawing parallels to U.S. imperialist violence abroad.

The Russell Tribunal was set up in 1966 to judge U.S. military intervention and war crimes in Vietnam. The same format reemerged in later Russell Tribunals dealing with the U.S.-backed Brazilian and Argentine military dictatorships (1964 and 1976, respectively), the U.S.-backed coup in Chile (1973), and the U.S.-European interventions against Iraq (1990, 2003).

The 2016 International Tribunal for Democracy in Brazil critically examined the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the role of the U.S. government.

Organized in Brussels by both Philippine and international groups, the 2018 International People’s Tribunal on the Philippines exposed and condemned the multiple forms of state violence visited on the people of the Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016.

And finally, the U.S. government was put directly on trial by a pair of innovative People’s Tribunals, including the 2007 International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita and the 2018 International Tribunal on U.S. Colonial Crimes Against Puerto Rico.

The International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism: Sanctions, Blockades, and Economic Coercive Measures draws from and contributes to this radical tradition of using international law against the very hierarchies and systems of oppression it was designed to uphold.


[1] Elliott, Kimberly Ann. “Trends in economic sanctions policy: challenges to conventional wisdom.” International Sanctions. Routledge, 2005. 21-32. Pg. 21.

[2] Tzanakopoulos, Antonios. “We Who are Not as Others: Sanctions and (Global) Security Governance.” (2020). Pg. 6-7.

[3] Carter, Barry E., and Ryan M. Farha. “Overview and operation of us financial sanctions, including the example of Iran.” Geo. J. Int’l L. 44 (2012): 903.

Menkes, Marcin J. “The Legality of US Investment Sanctions against Iran before the ICJ: A Watershed Moment for the Essential Security and Necessity Exceptions.” Canadian Yearbook of International Law/Annuaire canadien de droit international 56 (2019): 328-364.

[4] In making this argument, we draw on the work of critical scholars such as Eva Nanopoulos, who has conceptualized sanctions regime ‘as a form of policing, […] as tools implicated in the fabrication and management of the capitalist order in its present post-colonial and neoliberal form. Nanopoulos, Eva. The Juridification of Individual Sanctions and the Politics of EU Law. Hart Publishing. 2020. Pg. 5.

[5] Our analysis of coercive economic measures relies on the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) scholarship, including Marxian and postcolonial critiques of law, rooted in the assertion that colonialism and imperialism are central to the foundation and formulation of international law. Anghie, Antony, and Bhupinder S. Chimni. “Third World Approaches to International Law and Individual Repsonsibility in Internal Conflicts.” Chinese J. int’l L. 2 (2003): 77. Pg. 84.

[6] Lewis, Thea. The peaceful, deadly violence of embargo: denaturalizing hegemonic discourses in international relations theory. Diss. 2019. Pg. 83.

[7] Id. at 85. See also, Gordon, Todd. Imperialist Canada. Arbeiter Ring Pub., 2010.

[8] Jasper, Daniel. “Civil Society Groups Urge Immediate Sanctions Relief and Legal Reform.” LIFT SANCTIONS, SAVE LIVES., 23 Apr. 2020, .

[9] Miéville, China. “Between equal rights: a Marxist theory of international law.” Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill (2005). Pg. 228

[10] Nephew, Richard. The art of sanctions: A view from the field. Columbia University Press, 2017. Pg. 10-11.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Arnoldo Alcayaga

    2022-12-24 at 15:07

    is about time to finally make The United Estates accountable for their double standards concerning its unlawful punishments congratulations on your efforts

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