Nowadays a highly sophisticated form of commercial embargo, sanctions have had a long and varied history. From sports bans (South Africa and apartheid) to clampdowns on oil and gas extraction and revenue (Russia and Crimea) to exclusion from financial markets and personal travel (Iran and North Korea), governments have leveraged the ordinary movements and transactions of citizens and corporates in the pursuit of geopolitical goals.
But in an increasingly interconnected world, there are some wildcard consequences.
For a start, many of those citizens and corporates lack awareness of the reach of sanction laws into their lives and activities. The High Court is now considering how and when traces of past domicile or allegiance disqualify an Australian citizen from political office. Australians love to travel and work around the world, often not thinking of the personal legal nexus that accompanies them wherever they go or get involved in international projects. Corporate risk procedures are beginning to dive deep enough to uncover and manage this aspect of senior employee risk.
Enforcement of sanction laws is resource constrained and shaped by policy. The UK’s announcement in 2016 of a new Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) tacitly acknowledged that making expensive examples of a few highly visible targets is not the same as inculcating a widespread awareness of or adherence to the letter of EU sanction laws.
Of course sanction laws come at a cost to business. In Australia, balancing the national economic interest is a consideration that must be applied at the point of administrative decision when seeking Department of Foreign Affairs’ approval to engage in activity that is or could be caught by an Australian sanction law.
Understanding how sanctions come to bear on particular transactions, entities and individuals is complex and calls for experienced advice.
As global tensions rise, so do the demands on diplomacy and the attraction of making ever greater use of sanctions – because although they don’t always work perfectly, or quickly, they are an expedient short of more irreversible forms of intervention. When consensus eludes the UN, more or stronger measures by individual sovereign states often follow. Economic blockades are at least as old as the Athenian naval control over the ports of Peloponnessus in the 4th century BC but Qatar’s experience of blockade recently revived in plain sight what it means when essential goods can’t be moved by sea and air routes, and individuals’ freedom to travel is suddenly removed.
So sanction laws are not going away any time soon - and very few businesses or individuals can safely disregard them.