Targeted Sanctions and Organised Crime

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This paper analyses organised crime-related sanctions data and examines the current state of knowledge on the implementation and impact of these sanctions.

Sanctions are increasingly being used to tackle a range of specific issues. These include sanctions to respond to human rights abuses, combat corruption and address malicious cyber activity. As sanctions use has broadened, the question of their application to organised criminal activity has been increasingly raised. Yet, the use of sanctions against organised crime has remained limited to a specific set of issuers, notably the US and, more recently, the UN.

In the UK, the government has advanced its vision of an ambitious post-Brexit independent sanctions regime, with the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 allowing sanctions use ‘in the interests of national security’. New regimes addressing human rights and corruption have emerged. With serious and organised crime deemed a national security threat by the UK government, there is a case to add a sanctions regime to address this particular threat. The National Crime Agency itself has called for a legislative amendment to reference serious and organised crime as grounds for sanctions use.

However, little research or evaluation has been undertaken to assess the impact of sanctions against organised crime. With US sanctions used over almost three decades to disrupt cross-border trafficking, the lack of a body of rigorous relevant research is a key shortcoming. Similarly, few past initiatives have sought to assess the lessons these experiences hold for future sanctions issuers in this space. With interest mounting in the potential use of organised crime-related sanctions, this represents a critical limitation.

This paper represents the first effort to target this knowledge gap, by reviewing existing evidence on the use and impact of sanctions to disrupt organised criminal activity. It focuses on two case studies, Colombia and Libya, in differing regions of the world and with different exposure to organised crime-focused sanctions. While Colombia tops the list of states globally for organised crime-focused sanctions on individuals and entities in its territory (with the third-highest number of relevant listings since 2016), Libya’s exposure is more recent and limited. Libya nonetheless has experience of listings under UN and US country regimes relating to fuel smuggling, people smuggling and human trafficking. Here, it differs markedly from Colombia, which is the epitome of the historic US approach to narcotics-related sanctions.

This paper analyses organised crime-related sanctions data, examines the current state of knowledge on the implementation and impact of these sanctions, and draws on the two case studies. It identifies a number of factors that influence the impact of organised crime-focused sanctions, including:

  • The extent to which the host government of the sanction’s target is willing to cooperate with the sanction’s issuer.
  • The extent to which the issuance of sanctions is embedded within a coherent broader strategic approach.
  • The overarching focus of the regime within which relevant designations are made.
  • The degree of clarity of objective and purpose of the issuer when applying sanctions against organised criminal actors.
  • Resourcing and engagement of key agencies in both the country of issuance and the target’s host country.
  • The targeting strategy adopted, and the extent to which this accounts for the divergent levels of vulnerability of key actors across the illicit trade chain.

With these factors and the research’s broader findings in mind, this paper concludes with a set of 10 considerations for those countries that may, in the future, contemplate introducing organised crime-focused sanctions:

  • The need to identify where new issuers could have greatest impact.
  • How sanctions fit into broader strategic approaches to countering organised crime.
  • The criteria to be adopted to guide their use.
  • The resourcing required to administer sanctions effectively.
  • The need to balance sanctions use with interventions that address drivers of organised crime.
  • The necessity of creating a dedicated new regime versus using existing regimes.
  • The way in which sanctions address the role of state versus non-state actors in organised criminal activity.
  • The need to ensure that sanctions use does not impede longer-term criminal justice outcomes.
  • The need to account for due process concerns.
  • Individual states should consider how action in this area could offer an alternative to the gridlock in the UN Security Council around sanctions use.


Cathy Haenlein

Director, Organised Crime and Policing

Organised Crime and Policing

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Sasha Erskine

Former Research Analyst

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Elijah Glantz

Research Analyst and Project Officer

Organised Crime and Policing

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Tom Keatinge

Director, CFCS

Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies

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