A Guide to Trade Sanctions and Their Impact on Financial Institutions

Learn more about what trade sanctions are, different types and examples of trade sanctions, and the impacts of trade sanctions

6 min

Trade sanctions play an important role in global finance and diplomacy, serving as the middle ground between military action and verbal condemnation. 

However, trade sanctions can be highly complex as they are continuously evolving to act in more targeted manners. Therefore, understanding trade sanctions is important for maintaining ethical and legal financial operations in an increasingly interconnected and politically dynamic world​​. 

In this guide to trade sanctions, we will cover the nature, purpose, impacts, and challenges related to trade sanctions. We'll also learn how financial institutions can simplify trade sanction compliance to avoid penalties and improve their security and ethical standing.

What Are Trade Sanctions and Why Are They Imposed?

Trade sanctions are a form of economic policy tool used by countries or international organizations to enforce political, economic, or social change. They are typically imposed by one country or a group of countries against another to achieve specific foreign policy or national security goals. Sanctions can vary from comprehensive economic embargoes to targeted measures like travel bans and asset freezes.

At their core, trade sanctions are a diplomatic and economic tool that fall short of military action but are more severe than verbal condemnation. They are designed and imposed to exert pressure on governments, entities, or individuals who are seen to be:

  • Violating international laws or norms
  • Engaging in human rights abuses
  • Threatening international peace and security (usually through terrorist funding, cyberattacks, new nuclear programs, conflicts, etc.)

Statista reports that Russia is currently facing the most sanctions, with 28,227 sanctions active as of January 11, 2024. This is followed by Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

Types of Trade Sanctions

Trade sanctions are not a new concept, with the first recorded use going back to 432 BC. However, sanctions gained wider acceptance as a tool for international relations and economic policy in the 19th century and continued to evolve swiftly ever since.

Sanctions are now applied broadly to influence the behavior of state and non-state actors deemed to threaten international norms or the imposing entity’s interests​​. The most prevalent and time-tested forms of sanctions currently include:

  • Travel bans- Restriction on the movement of people from or to a certain country or region
  • Freezing or seizure- Blocking or confiscating the assets of the sanctioned entity
  • Embargoes- Complete trade bans, which may be on defined entities like arms or on all trade
  • Tariffs- Taxes on imports of specified goods or services from the sanctioned countries
  • Quotas- Limits on value or quantity of such imports from the sanctioned countries

However, there has been a significant shift towards more targeted or 'smart' sanctions which are designed to minimize the impact on innocent civilians while effectively targeting specific actors or sectors. Such examples of a more specific and targeted approach include:

  • Restrictions on capital- Limits on the movement of money or assets across borders
  • Foreign aid reductions-  Cuts or suspensions of financial or humanitarian assistance to the target country
  • Non-tariff barriers (NTBs)- Measures that limit or prohibit trade in certain products or services
  • Anti-dumping measures- Tariffs or quotas imposed on imports that are sold below their fair market value

The types of trade sanctions are also categorized on a broader level. For instance, trade sanctions can be classified into unilateral sanctions that are imposed by one country and multilateral sanctions that are agreed upon by multiple nations or international bodies like the United Nations or the European Union.

Similarly, sanctions can be categorized as either comprehensive or selective. Comprehensive sanctions are wide-ranging, affecting entire countries or regions, while selective sanctions target specific entities, such as individuals, organizations, or sectors within a country​​.

Impacts of Trade Sanctions

Trade sanctions can have various impacts on the financial systems and governance of the target, and may also affect the sender and third parties involved. Some of the possible impacts of trade sanctions are:

  • Trade sanctions may discourage sanctioned governments from continuing to violate international laws or norms, engage in human rights abuses, or threaten international peace and security.
  • They can reduce the trade flows between the sender and the target, as well as their trade partners, leading to lower income, output, and welfare of mainly the sanctioned country.
  • Sanctions on trade can discourage foreign direct investment (FDI) in the target country, as well as in the sender and third countries, due to increased political risk and uncertainty.
  • They can affect the exchange rates, stock prices, and interest rates of the sender and the target, as well as the global financial markets, depending on the size and duration of the sanctions. However, the results can negatively impact the senders' or its allies’ financial systems.
  • Such sanctions can create opportunities for trade diversion, smuggling, and evasion, as well as foster the development of alternative financial systems and institutions.

With a multitude of possible effects, it is clear that trade sanctions are potentially effective but may also have unintended consequences. This indicates that they must be applied very carefully and sparingly with proper financial planning. While there is no clear consensus, the Center for a New American Security estimated a trade sanction success rate of 40% as of 2019.

Challenges and Limitations of Trade Sanctions

Trade sanctions come with their complexities and controversies, and these go beyond the financial uncertainties. Some of the major challenges and limitations of trade sanctions are:

  • Trade sanctions may not achieve their intended goals. This is likely in case the target country is resilient, defiant, or has alternative sources of trade and finance.
  • They can have negative humanitarian and social impacts on the civilian population of the target country, such as poverty, malnutrition, disease, and human rights violations.
  • Sanctions on trade can potentially harm the sender country’s own economy and interests, as well as those of its allies and trade partners, by reducing trade opportunities, increasing costs, and creating tensions. 
  • They may also face legal, political, and moral challenges from the international community, especially if they are perceived as unilateral, disproportionate, or illegitimate.
  • Sanctioned governments or their allies may react undesirably or build independent systems, while negatively affected third parties may respond unpredictably for their economic interest.
  • Trade sanctions may also hinder the sender country’s own economy and those of its major trade partners. This is because sanctions may have undesired effects like increased costs and lowered trading opportunities.

These issues make the application of trade sanctions a complex balancing act. On one hand, they are considered vital tools in upholding international norms and security. On the other, their implementation requires careful consideration to avoid unintended consequences.

Examples of Trade Sanctions

Trade sanctions are taking the role of strategic tools to address complex international issues in a carefully measured manner. They are also evolving to address specific issues in more targeted manners to minimize undesirable impacts. Here are some examples of trade sanctions over time-

  • The U.N. sanctions on Iraq- These were imposed between 1990 and 2003, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions included a comprehensive trade and financial embargo, as well as restrictions on oil exports and imports of humanitarian goods.
  • The US and EU sanctions on Russia- The US and the EU imposed new sanctions on Russia on December 21, 2023, in response to its military intervention in Ukraine and its cyberattacks on Western institutions. These sanctions targeted Russian officials, companies, banks, and sectors such as energy, defense, and technology.
  • Sanctions on Iran- The US, UN, and EU have imposed thousands of sanctions on Iran, with the latest round of sanctions announced by the US in September 2023. These sanctions are primarily in response to its alleged nuclear program and human rights violations. They are targeted at Iranian officials with the aim to deter further human rights violations.

As trade sanctions evolve in response to world developments, financial institutions and compliance officers are playing a vital role in navigating them to ensure legal and ethical financial operations.

Trade sanctions are legally binding on the countries or entities that issue them, such as individual nations, groups of nations, or international organizations. They are enforced by the authorities of the issuing jurisdictions. For instance, the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, also called OFAC, administers and enforces U.S. trade sanctions. 

Generally, financial institutions have an obligation to report, block, or freeze any funds or assets that belong to or are controlled by sanctioned entities or individuals. If they fail to comply with the sanctions, the respective authorities may impose penalties or criminal charges for violations.

Therefore, financial institutions must ensure strict compliance with trade sanctions to avoid legal repercussions and to maintain their ethical standing in the global market. 


Despite their complexity and possible limitations, trade sanctions continue to be powerful tools in international relations, aimed at enforcing change and protecting global security and ethical standards. However, their increasing complexity and evolving scope make compliance both challenging and essential.

Lucinity's Role in Sanctions and Compliance

Lucinity offers solutions to help you navigate and comply with the complexities of international trade sanctions. How?

With the Lucinity platform, users can natively integrate and unify all screening processes and workflows within one system. Lucinity's clients will have access to instant screening results around the clock via Luci's integration with sanctions systems, providing real-time transaction and counterparty screening. FinCrime prevention professionals can also conduct a holistic search of an actor with the click of a button, including a search on various databases such as Experian, an internet search, and sanctions matches from providers such as Neterium. 

Sign up for insights from Lucinity

Recent Posts