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About Sanctions

What are Sanctions?


Sanctions are traditionally defined as the “deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade and financial relations with a target country in an effort to change that country’s policies.” (Gary Hufbauer& Barbara Oegg, A Short Survey of Economic Sanctions, INST. FOR INT’L ECON. (Aug. 2001),

In addition to the more traditional, country-based measures, sanctions can be “targeted” against particular individuals, vessels, or entities. In other words, they are legal measures that restrict or prohibit trade and financial transactions with specified targets.

Targeted sanctions have become more common over the past two decades.

Sanctions can be either unilateral (e.g. issued by United Kingdom, United States), or multilateral (e.g. issued by United Nations Security Council, or European Union).

Goal of Sanctions

Penalize the target for its practices.

Make a symbolic political statement of opposition against such practices

Thwart activities that are illegal or threaten national security


U.K. and U.S. sanctions compliance officers form an integral part of their countries’ histories and foreign policy establishments by executing and overseeing the proper implementation of foreign policy measures authorized by their respective governments.The U.S. Treasury Department has a long history of dealing with sanctions, dating back before the War of 1812.

 At that time, Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, administered sanctions that were imposed against Great Britain for harassing U.S. sailors. Later, during the Civil War, Congress would approve a law that prohibited transactions with the Confederacy and even provided a licensing regime under rules and regulations administered by the Treasury Department.

However, the origins of sanctions regulation go back even further. In the UK, a form of sanctions regulation was imposed as early as the 13th century. In 1293, King Henry III was the first to issue what would later become known as a privateering commission, or a license granted to specific individuals to seize the King’s enemies at sea in return for splitting any spoils with the crown.

By the 16th century, the licensing of privateers during times of war became widespread in Europe, during which time most countries in Europe began to enact laws regulating and granting what were known as letters of marque and reprisal’.These powerful legal instruments authorized the engagement of third parties to pursue and, if necessary, attack and capture enemy ships at sea.

In fact, a direct link to economic sanctions is provided in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the U.S. Congress the power to “grant letters of marque and reprisal”.

The tens of thousands of sanctions compliance and trade control compliance officers at businesses and financial institutions throughout the U.S. can say with just pride that their jobs were in fact preordained by the founding fathers themselves, having been conceived at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. No other compliance position in the U.S. can claim such lofty origins.

Foundation of economic sanctions in US Constitution

A little-noticed provision of the United States Constitution established the foundation for the economic sanctions in force today. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution authorizes Congress, “To… grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal …;”, thus empowering the legislative branch to authorize private parties to seize and hold assets of foreign enemies. This grant of authority played an important role in the early days of the new nation and helped the U.S. combat foreign aggression.

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