Precision-guided or blunt? The effects of US economic sanctions on human rights

Abstract

This study analyzes the consequences of economic sanctions for the target country’s human rights situation. We offer a political economy explanation for different types of human rights infringements or improvements in reaction to economic shocks caused by sanctions. Based on that explanation, we derive hypotheses linking sanctions to four types of human rights: economic rights, political and civil rights, basic human rights, and emancipatory rights. We use endogenous treatment regression models to test those hypotheses by estimating the causal average treatment effect of US economic sanctions on each type of human rights within a uniform empirical framework. Unlike previous studies, we find no support for adverse effects of sanctions on economic rights or basic human rights, once the endogenous selection of sanctioned countries is modelled. With respect to women’s rights, our findings even indicate a positive effect of sanctions that is associated with improvements in women’s economic rights. Only our results for political rights and civil liberties suggest significant deterioration under economic sanctions. We conclude that it is important to account for the potential endogeneity of economic sanctions and to distinguish different dimensions of human rights, as the effects of economic sanctions along those dimensions may vary considerably.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Adam and Tsarsitalidou (2019) also discuss other reasons why focusing on US sanctions might be advantageous.

  2. 2.

    The endogenous treatment model was first introduced by Heckman (1976, 1978). It is closely related to the Heckman selection model, as it can be interpreted as addressing a double sample-selection problem (Clougherty et al. 2016, p. 298). Alternatively, one could estimate two separate Heckman selection models for the treated and untreated units. That would, however, be less efficient, as only the subsample of the treated and untreated units, respectively, could be used to identify the parameter of interest. See Cameron and Trivedi (2005) for a thorough discussion. Compared to an instrumental variable estimation, the treatment effects are estimated more precisely because the outcome and the treatment model are estimated simultaneously.

  3. 3.

    Table 4 in the Appendix summarizes all variables as well as their definitions and sources. Table OA3 provides summary statistics and detailed information on episodes of economic sanctions and conflicts.

  4. 4.

    An alternative explanation for the use of this instrumental variable relates to Spolaore and Wacziarg’s (2016) empirical finding that genetically closely related populations generally are more prone to engage in international conflict with one another.

  5. 5.

    The estimates and those in Sect. 4 below differ slightly, as the latter are based on a simultaneous estimation of Eqs. (1) and (2), whereas the results reported here are based on Eq. (2) only.

  6. 6.

    The counterintuitive sign for economic aid can be explained by collinearity with military aid.

  7. 7.

    The corresponding F-test statistic when estimating a linear probability model for the selection stage is F(4,2570) = 10.67**, which exceeds the threshold for non-weak instruments in 2SLS estimations.

  8. 8.

    As part of our robustness tests, we estimate the endogenous treatment models using only one instrument at a time. As indicated by Tables OA4a–OA4c in the Online Appendix, the estimated treatment effects are robust to variations in the set of instruments.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Sabine Carey, Sebastian Garmann, Paul Schaudt, William Shughart II (the Editor), Christian von Soest, Akiva Weiss, Alexander Wulf, participants of the 2016 EMLE Midterm Meeting, the 2016 European Public Choice Society Conference, the 2016 Silvaplana Workshop in Political Economy, the 2016 European Association of Law and Economics Annual Meeting, the 2017 Political Economy of Democracy and Dictatorship Conference in Münster, and the GIGA Seminar in Socio-Economics, as well as two anonymous referees for helpful comments. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 4, 5 and Fig. 2.

Table 4 Variable definitions and sources
Table 5 Results of selection model

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Gutmann, J., Neuenkirch, M. & Neumeier, F. Precision-guided or blunt? The effects of US economic sanctions on human rights. Public Choice 185, 161–182 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00746-9

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Keywords

  • Democratization
  • Discrimination
  • Economic sanctions
  • Endogenous treatment model
  • Human rights
  • Repression

JEL Classification

  • F51
  • F52
  • F53
  • K10
  • K11
  • P14
  • P16
  • P26