Issue 18 - Article 19

Sanctions and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: assessing impacts and drawing lessons

June 3, 2003
Richard Garfield

A decade of sanctions against Serbia, part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, ended in January 2001. But some of the unintended effects of these measures will be felt for years.

The last sanctions against Serbia, the main republic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), were lifted in January 2001 following elections which ended the government of Slobodan Milosevic. The measures – ranging from a visa ban to trade and arms embargoes – were established first to discourage warfare, then to bring compliance with the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, and finally to oppose the actions of the Milosevic government in Kosovo. But they also hindered economic recovery, encouraged a burgeoning grey economy and black market and restricted access to essential humanitarian goods, including medicines and some energy supplies. Between 1993 and 1999, more than half of Serbia’s population became poor, unemployed or displaced, or were made refugees. Beginning in December 1993, the World Food Programme (WFP) distributed food to 200,000–700,000 people a month, while the Red Cross provided food, shelter materials and clothes to 100,000 local and 200,000 displaced people. In all, humanitarian assistance to Serbia in the 1990s probably totalled between $5bn and $10bn. In per-capita terms, this level of assistance was probably unmatched in any other recent crisis.

The humanitarian impact of sanctions

The UN sanctions committee and other international organisations provided or managed humanitarian assistance. The World Health Organisation (WHO), the WFP and UNICEF did their own assessments of need, but there were no inter-agency assessments of assistance, the level of need or the effectiveness of humanitarian protection until the UN Office of the Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) began operations in 1999. Thus, although international conventions require the maintenance of human dignity and prohibit unnecessary suffering, no system was established to determine if, or how, these principles were being observed during the first seven years of sanctions.

Economists estimate that the impact of sanctions on the Serbian economy was less severe than the effects of the secession of four of the FRY’s six republics, central-government mismanagement and the destruction inflicted by NATO bombing in 1999. Loopholes and inadequate enforcement of sanctions also mitigated their impact. Nonetheless, they were severe enough to retard economic recovery. The cost of fuel increased three-fold, crippling the energy sector and leading to frequent power cuts and fuel shortages, leaving many homes without heat. The regime politicised energy supplies by making less coal and oil available to communities that voted against the Milosevic government in 1996. In turn, the European Union (EU) supplied 34 opposition communities in its ‘energy for democracy’ programme. This confusion of political and humanitarian criteria obscured the human rights-related objectives of sanctions.

The exemption problem

In principle, humanitarian goods were exempt from the sanctions imposed on the FRY. In practice, however, such goods were limited in many ways. Financial sanctions interrupted or froze outside sources of support, including remittances from family members abroad, pension payments and funds for private voluntary agencies. Even international humanitarian organisations were affected. In 2000, for example, the ICRC and ECHO arranged to fund the local purchase of 4,000 tons of wheat for the WFP in Belgrade. Funds and approval went from Brussels via Geneva to a bank in Germany, where they were frozen. After a month’s delay, the funds were rerouted via a bank in another country, and only reached Belgrade because that bank failed to institute sanction controls.

Restricted cultural and social contacts led to intellectual and scientific isolation. People were barred from international travel, denied scientific information, cut off from research funding, shunned by professional organisations and excluded from the international mail system. Many of the people most capable of responding to the country’s humanitarian needs were thus discouraged from acting. The effects of this isolation may take more time to correct than the economic blows of the 1990s.


Faced with sanctions, people adapted. The gradual rise in importance of the private sector in all areas, including education and health, weakened the social fabric, encouraged disrespect for social norms and created inefficiencies and imbalances in the economy. Until the 1990s, the state provided cradle-to-grave social benefits, including a well-developed health-care system with few user fees. By the end of the 1990s, most medicines and medical procedures were purchased privately, leaving some IDPs, refugees and other vulnerable groups at a distinct disadvantage. Survival depended increasingly on political or family connections, charitable help from humanitarian organisations or black-marketeering. Drug use, domestic violence and the proportion of young people reporting psychological or emotional trauma rose.

The impact of external sanctions was magnified by the Milosevic government, which imposed its own internal measures to limit access to goods and increase profits for government-related importers. Thus, while essential drugs including insulin and basic antibiotics were in short supply, a smuggler’s market meant that ‘luxury’ products like Viagra were widely available. The government’s internal controls on access to, and the price of, goods – including humanitarian goods – were perhaps as important as the international limits imposed by sanctions. These restrictions allowed access to basic entitlements and opportunities to be abused, thus worsening economic and social discrimination. Rather then responding to the needs of vulnerable groups, sanctions thus contributed to vulnerability among women and pensioners, as well as people not well-connected politically, and those earning salaries in the formal sector of the economy.

The bureaucracy of sanctions

The UN sanctions committee authorised the delivery of humanitarian goods, providing a mechanism by which medicines and related products could be imported. The procedure for requesting an exemption was complex, confusing and time-consuming. The committee was quickly overwhelmed with the volume of requests, and lacked the expertise to assess them. Even requests from the ICRC and the WHO sometimes failed to elicit timely responses. Up to half of the funds available for medical imports could not be used because of the lack of timely approvals from the sanctions committee.

The WFP and UNICEF carried out important humanitarian assessments and provided services to needy groups. Other groups with mandates in cultural or economic development were far more limited in their activities. UNDP had only an observer mission in Serbia until 2000, and UNESCO and the World Bank never fielded missions. The WHO could only field a humanitarian-assistance mission as its constitution does not permit full technical offices in countries that are not members of the UN. This prevented assistance for the reform of health systems, which might have improved the appropriateness or efficiency of health programmes.

After sanctions

Even at their worst, problems with the sanctions committee paled in comparison to the unanticipated impact of the lifting of UN sanctions in 1996. It was widely assumed that this would mark a return to ‘business as usual’. Instead, the result was often no business at all. Firms had withdrawn their representatives from the FRY during sanctions, and sold goods under the authority and legal protection of the UN. The sanctions committee used FRY funds frozen in international accounts to pay for many medical imports. Without these guarantees and supervision by the sanctions committee, firms in the FRY ran up bad debts and lost the confidence of sellers. With a smaller and unstable market after sanctions, continued instability in relations with the FRY, and on-again, off-again sanctions among the states in the region, many firms believed it economically or politically too risky to sell their goods there.Ironically, the end of UN sanctions resulted in decreased access to imported medicines. There is insufficient awareness of the continuing consequences of sanctions, and of the need for the continued facilitation of trade to protect supplies of humanitarian goods.

Lessons for the future

While not part of the stated intentions of sanctions, cultural and intellectual isolation was one of their major impacts. There is confusion about sanctions rules and great potential for discrimination against people in a sanctioned country. Sanctioning bodies should make clear that such isolation is not among their goals, and should work to facilitate communications, including mail and Internet, if they are permitted under sanction rules.

Sanctions committees of the UN and other international organisations have a particularly important role to play. Such committees have in the past been set up to judge which goods should be allowed into a sanctioned country. They could instead be given a more activist charge, to assure a ‘humanitarian corridor’ – assisting the country to acquire approved goods. A sanctions committee should also help to ensure that permitted goods can be purchased, and should encourage such sales during and after the sanctions period. These committees could also monitor humanitarian conditions, and identify and facilitate responses to the needs of vulnerable groups.

The status of UN humanitarian organisations working in countries that are not currently UN members should be reviewed. The current arrangement of ‘observer’ missions, which are limited in providing scientific information and technical assistance with potential humanitarian benefit, should be revised. This may require the creation of new norms for observer missions, so as to avoid contributing to intellectual and cultural isolation.

Monitoring the humanitarian impact of sanctions should begin as soon as they are under consideration, and should continue throughout the period of sanctions. It is a sobering thought that in Serbia well-trained professionals, using good data systems, believed that the major impact of sanctions was a rise in infant mortality. Not only was this not true, but infant mortality declined more in the FRY than in any other country in the region in the 1990s.

At the same time, a rise in mortality rates among adults went unnoticed. Impartial monitoring by international authorities throughout the period of sanctions can draw attention to substantive problems, help identify vulnerable groups and facilitate a more effective response to the difficulties of those in greatest need, both during sanctions and during the transition period after they end.

The FRY case shows that monitoring should not only focus on humanitarian conditions, but also on the effectiveness of sanctions exemptions. Monitoring needs to be country-specific. The high level of obesity in Serbia, for example, renders traditional crisis measures of malnutrition insensitive to changes in living conditions. National-level monitoring should, wherever possible, be supplemented by local-level assessments. This could increase the capacity of local communities to raise funds, set priorities, identify groups and individuals at greatest need and engage in local capacity-building to speed recovery. Rather than just one-time snapshots of the situation, assessments should be carried out periodically, and should be multi-sectoral.

Richard Garfield is Clinical Professor at Columbia University, New York.

A detailed report on sanctions and humanitarian data for the FRY, from which this report is drawn, can be found at ReliefWeb,

Research was carried out with the support of OCHA/NY and UNICEF/Belgrade, and with the assistance of Manuel Bessler, Kayoko Gotoh, Jelena Marjanovic and Jean Michel Delmotte. Other organisations which contributed to the study in the FRY included ICVA, the WHO and UNDP. This report presents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of collaborating individuals or organisations.


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