Sanctions against violators of women’s rights: A political lens 

Democratic Republic Congo: Meeting for rape survivors who have been successfully reintegrated into their communities assemble in a “peace hut” near Walungu, South Kivu in DRC.  Unknown date. By L. Werchick / USAID - Public Domain. Fair use.

Australia, the US, UK, and the EU implemented a coordinated action plan to sanction global violators of women’s rights in celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8 this year. 

The Magnitsky-style sanctions were implemented to specifically target entities and individuals implicated in human rights violations against women and girls, in the aim of prioritizing women’s security and preventing future violations. The sanctions included asset freezes and travel bans imposed on individuals and entities implicated. The coordinated actions plan in March aligned with the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, established in the year 2000, and brought the US, UK and the EU closer to its goals. 

On March 7, the European Council (EC) imposed sanctions on nine individuals and three entities including Afghan Taliban ministers responsible for gender segregation decrees, Moscow Police Station and Russian armed forces accused of torture and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), government officials overseeing SGBV as a war tactic in South Sudan, and the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs in Myanmar/Burma responsible for the use SGBV as a torture tool

On March 8, following the EC’s actions, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced sanctions against four military figures across Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) responsible for promoting and overseeing SGBV in their respective institutions, in addition to Iranian government institutions responsible for policing women’s dress code and autonomy. 

Similarly, the US also joined the effort by announcing sanctions on the same day. These sanctions targeted five individuals including Iranian prison officials involved in SGBV, the Iranian Technical Director of the Cyberspace Affairs, the Deputy of the Prosecutor General’s Office responsible for censorship, and commanders linked to violent protest suppression. The targeted entities include procurement companies associated with Iran’s Law Enforcement Command and security forces. 

Continuing the global response, on March 20, Australia announced its own sanctions on 14 individuals and 14 entities involved in violating women’s rights. The targeted individuals include members of Iran’s Morality Police and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for suppressing women’s protests, as well as senior figures involved in the arrest, detention and mistreatment of Mahsa Amini whose death sparked the initial protests. 

Examining the effectiveness of sanctions in empowering women and girls

The use of individual-focused sanctions for human rights violations is a recent development, introduced in the US in 2016 and in the EU in 2020. The effectiveness of this approach relies on coordinated efforts among countries. While there is consistency in targeting Iran among Australia, the UK, US, and EU, there are discrepancies in the targets for other countries. The EU focuses on Myanmar, with the UK joining in targeting Syria and South Sudan, while the UK alone targets Central African Republic. These inconsistencies raise concerns about the impact and effectiveness of these sanctions in deterring future human rights violations.

Furthermore, there are concerns that these sanctions may unintentionally isolate victims of SGBV by impacting their access to foreign aid. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Wopke Hoekstra, said in a press release on March 7, 2023, that “Sanctions are a powerful way for us to stand up for universal values and force international change.” Such statements, framing sanctions as representative of ‘universal values,’ may be subject to varying interpretations and maybe be perceived as neocolonialism or external interference, or pressure that reinforces power dynamics between countries, potentially straining diplomatic relations and impeding humanitarian initiatives.

 A more effective narrative would be to highlight the tenets of international criminal law that prohibit SGBV. Instead of imposing Western values upon other nations, policymakers should prioritize upholding universally accepted legal principles rather than promoting their own cultural or ideological agenda. Perhaps a more effective approach to make tangible changes in the lives of women in the targeted countries would be to focus on providing humanitarian aid and supporting projects that preserve the self-determination and autonomy of women and girls in these regions.


Comprehensive Scale of Rape (2018) - LRW-SCALE-11.svg

A map of the world showing a composite index about the rape of women in 2018.  The color ranges from white to red, with white indicating “Rape is not a major problem in this society” and red indicating “Rape is endemic in this society.” Grey means no data. Image by Sette-quattro, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Key omissions 

If the objective of sanctions is to enhance the wellbeing of women and girls, it is hard to overlook the notable omissions or gaps in the coordinated action in March 2023. 

The sanctions overlooked addressing the Yemeni Houthi leaders despite their use of SGBV as a war tactic and their increasing restrictions on women’s rights and autonomy since 2014, similar to the Taliban. These restrictions include limitations on freedom of movement, dress, access to public spaces, and reproductive health. Although the Houthi policies were documented and criticized by UN human rights experts in a letter to the Houthi leaders, no individuals or entities were included in the March sanctions. While the US targeted Iran’s financing Houthi rebels, the sanctions did not specifically mention women’s rights violations.

A similar omission can be found in Somalia. Despite enduring decades of a devastating civil war, women and girls continue to face rampant SGBV.  Internally displaced women and girls are particularly vulnerable when travelling long distances to collect water for themselves and their families. Cases of rape by government soldiers have been documented in the capital city of Mogadishu. 

Further south, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, women and girls are also facing a similar fate. The Mai-Mai militia in particular has been employing SGBV as a tactic or tool of war. Nevertheless, no individual or entity sanctions have been imposed.

Qatar is another notable omission in the sanctions. Despite some progress made by civil society groups in Qatar with a 9.8 percent women's representation in parliament, the country still enforces discriminatory policies that uphold male guardianship, severely restricting women’s autonomy in areas such as marriage, education, employment, travel, and reproductive health. Moreover, rape is generally treated as pre-marital sex, subjecting victims to a seven-year prison sentence. Any protest action by feminist activists is also repressed, such as the case of Noof al-Madeed, who was allegedly subjected to widespread violations of her civil and human rights by the authorities.

Determining the criteria for sanctions

The key omissions in the application of the sanctions raise questions about the criteria used, and it is important to examine the factors that may have influenced these decisions. While considerations such as a country’s progress in women’s rights, implementation of a WPS National Action Plan, level of feminist activism, and the verifiability of SGBV allegations, may have been considered. The criteria used remain unclear.

Other political factors could have played a role in determining the target individuals and entities, for instance, existing trade agreements, concern over powerful oil interests — especially in light of the Russia's invasion of Ukraine — complications of proxy wars, fear of destabilizing regions already at civil war, or even a lack of interest from Western civil societies in regions across Africa. 

In general, the absence of a clear and transparent framework for determining sanctions highlights the need for greater clarity, accountability, and consideration of factors shaping sanctions policies in the West.

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