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Successful or
Coercion? The Effect of
International Sanctions
on Conflict Intensity

Journal of Conflict Resolution

The Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022002715603453

Lisa Hultman1 and Dursun Peksen2

Despite the frequent use of economic and military-specific sanctions against
countries affected by civil conflicts, little is known about the possible impact that
these coercive tools have on conflict dynamics. This article examines how
threats and imposition of international sanctions affect the intensity of civil
conflict violence. We formulate and test two competing views on the possible
effect of economic and military-specific sanctions on conflict dynamics by
combining data on fatalities in battle-related violence in all internal armed
conflicts in Africa from 1989 to 2005 with data on economic sanctions and arms
embargoes. The results indicate that threats of economic sanction and arms
embargo are likely to increase the intensity of conflict violence. Similarly,
imposed economic sanctions are likely to contribute to the escalation of conflict
violence. Imposed arms embargoes, on the other hand, are likely to reduce
conflict violence. We conclude that international sanctions appear to be counterproductive policy tools in mitigating the human cost of civil conflicts unless
they are in the form of imposed arms embargoes attempting to limit the military
capacity of the warring parties.

Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

Department of Political Science, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA

Corresponding Author:
Dursun Peksen, Department of Political Science, University of Memphis, 425 Clement Hall, Memphis, TN
38152, USA.

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economic sanctions, arms embargoes, civil conflicts, conflict intensity

When the civil war broke out in Syria in March 2011, the European Union (EU),
the United States, and several other countries initially responded to the violence
with public threats of sanctions against the Assad regime. The external threats
of sanctions, however, failed to change the regimes growing violence against the
armed opposition and civilians. The refusal of the defiant Syrian regime to cease
the use of violent means against its citizens subsequently led to the imposed sanctions by the EU, the United States, and several other countries. The use of sanctions against Syria, however, is not an isolated case. The international
community frequently involves in managing violent internal conflicts using sanctions
that aim at the military and economic capacity of the warring parties prior to or along
with other tools, most especially military and diplomatic interventions. Despite the frequent use of sanctions against countries undergoing civil conflicts, scant research has
explored the possible effect that economic coercion and arms embargoes have on conflict dynamics.
This study examines the extent to which sanction threats and imposition affect
conflict intensity measured as the number of battle-related fatalities in internal
armed conflicts. While previous research has examined whether economic sanctions
in particular (Escriba`-Folch 2010) and economic interventions in general affect civil
conflict duration (Regan 2002b; Elbadawi and Sambanis 2000; Collier, Hoeffler, and
Soderbom 2004; Regan and Aydin 2006), we know very little about how sanctions
affect the conflict behavior of the warring parties. International sanctions may alter the
incentives of the warring parties as well as the cost of fighting, but we do not know
whether that leads to an escalation or de-escalation of fighting. We offer a systematic
analysis of how international sanctions might affect the conflict dynamics by combining data on conflict violence with data on economic and military-related sanctions.
Previous studies suggest that external military interventions that enhance the capabilities of one side in the conflict may help to end the conflict to the advantage of
the supported side (Gent 2008; Regan 2002a), prolong conflict (Cunningham 2010;
Elbadawi and Sambanis 2000), or increase violence against civilians (Wood, Kathman, and Gent 2012; Salehyan, Siroky, and Wood 2014). This indicates that shifts in
the capabilities of the warring actors affect both incentives and capacity to engage in
military confrontations. We argue that nonmilitary interventions such as sanctions
could also significantly affect the capabilities and the subsequent conflict behavior
of actors involved in violent conflicts. On the one hand, sanctions may undermine
the relative fighting capabilities, which could lead to a reduction in the intensity
of violence. On the other hand, sanctions may also fail to disrupt the military capacity of the warring actors and instead trigger their short-term incentives to escalate
violence before capabilities are reduced, which would lead to an increase in conflict
intensity. We formulate these competing ideas and evaluate them empirically.

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The remainder of the article unfolds in four sections below. In the first section, we
refer to the relevant literature on sanctions and situate our study in the broader sanctions and conflict scholarships. In the second section, we present the theoretical
framework connecting the use of sanctions to battlefield dynamics. We specifically
introduce competing hypotheses on the extent to which sanction threats and imposition affect the intensity of violence through changing the relative fighting capabilities and conflict behavior of actors involved in civil conflicts. Next, we discuss
the variables and the methodological approach and report the results from our
empirical analysis. We test the hypotheses with monthly data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) on all conflicts in Africa, 1989 to 2005, coupled with
data from the Threats and Imposition of Economic Sanctions data set and the arms
embargoes data set. The findings indicate that both threats and actual use of sanctions are significantly associated with more conflict violence. One major exception
is imposed arms embargoes, which reduce the intensity of fighting. We conclude
with a discussion of the implications of the findings for scholarly research and policy

What We Know about the Effects of Sanctions

International sanctions are popular policy tools used by sender countries to coerce
the target into complying with their demands. Until recently, the research has mostly
focused on the questions of whether and under what circumstances sanctions might
achieve their intended goals. With the growing international awareness of human
suffering in Iraq following the United Nations (UN) sanctions in the 1990s, scholars
have also devoted more attention to the possible counterproductive consequences of
foreign economic pressures. Studies show that economic sanctions might deteriorate
public health conditions and the economic well-being of the populace in target countries (e.g., Weiss et al. 1997; Weiss 1999; Peksen 2011; Allen and Lektzian 2013).
Others show that economic coercion induces the government to commit political
repression and restrict democratic freedoms and media openness to maintain the status quo (Wood 2008; Peksen 2009, 2010; Peksen and Drury 2010; Grauvogel and
Soest 2014).
Some recent work finds that sanctions might affect the targets political stability
by triggering more antigovernment protests (Allen 2008; Grauvogel, Licht, and
Soest 2014), threatening the leaderships tenure (Escriba`-Folch and Wright 2010),
and changing the dynamics of the terrorist campaigns (Choi and Luo 2013; McLean
et al. 2014). Drury and Peksen (2014), on the other hand, show that sanctions are
likely to increase the extent of systematic discrimination against women.
Unlike the growing scholarship on the possible socioeconomic and political consequences of economic coercion, scant systematic research has explored whether
sanctions have any major impact on conflict dynamics in countries affected by violent conflicts. One notable exception is the study by Escriba`-Folch (2010). The
author shows that sanctions are effective in shortening the duration of civil wars. The

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same study finds that while intergovernmental organization (IGO)-led sanctions

increase the probability of conflict resolution, non-IGO sanctions tend to increase
the possibility of a military victory. Another significant finding of the study is that
economic embargoes tend to increase the possibilities of a military and a negotiated
end, whereas arms embargoes reduce the probability of a military conflict.
Gershensons (2002) formal theoretical analysis indicates that sanctions that
inflict significant economic damage on the target government are likely to induce
the government to end conflict. The study also suggests that sanctions that cause limited economic disruption in the governments coercive capacity could be counterproductive encouraging more violent behavior by the government. Krain (2014a,
2014b), on the other hand, shows that economic and diplomatic sanctions or engagement are unlikely to have any significant effect on the severity of ongoing instances
of genocides and politicides. Strandow (2006), who examines the effects of the UNtargeted sanctions on civil wars in Liberia and Ivory Coast, provides somewhat more
optimistic findings about the efficacy of sanctions. The study shows that implemented arms embargoes are likely to increase the probability of conflict resolution, while
the threatened and imposed nonmilitary sanctions appear to have no major effect on
the likelihood of conflict resolution.
There are also studies focusing on the efficacy of economic interventions on
the duration and settlement of civil conflicts (Regan 2002b; Elbadawi and Sambanis
2000; Collier, Hoeffler, and Soderbom 2004; Regan and Aydin 2006). Contrary to
Escriba`-Folchs (2010) work on sanctions, they tend to suggest that economic interventions increase the length of civil conflicts. Economic intervention in these studies
refers to any type of economic influences by external actors. Thus, the research on
economic interventions fails to make a distinction between economic incentives
(i.e., aid, loans, and credits) and economic punishments (i.e., sanctions). Further,
because they operationalize economic interventions by relying dichotomous variables indicating the absence or presence of an intervention, they fail to capture the
extent of costs or benefits of external economic influences.
While previous research has explored the effect of sanctions on conflict duration
and their possible resolution, less attention has been paid to the more immediate
effects of sanctions on conflict behavior. Subsequently we present our theoretical
framework explaining the possible effects of economic and military-specific sanctions on conflict behavior of actors involved in internal wars.

Sanctions and Their Consequences for Civil War Violence

To theorize the impact of economic and military-specific coercion on the dynamics
of battle-related violence, we focus on the extent to which sanction threats and imposition affect the relative fighting capabilities and the consequences for the conflict
behavior of actors involved in civil conflicts. We focus on fighting capabilities
because the distribution of power is central to understanding how wars are fought.
The relative capabilities of the actors are reflected on the battlefield (e.g., Powell

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2004; Wagner 2000). Military capacity translates into an ability to carry out offensives against the adversary. Stronger parties are consequently better able to defeat
the enemy and extract concessions (see e.g., Cunningham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan
2009). Empirical research explaining the intensity of civil conflicts supports this by
pointing to the importance of factors relating to the capacity of the actors such as
mobilization capacity, support structures, and access to resources (Eck 2009; Heger
and Salehyan 2007; Lacina 2006; Lujala 2009). In addition to the current fighting
capacity, civil war actors decide how to act based on the beliefs about the future distribution of capabilities. Therefore, both threat and imposition of sanctions might
affect the conflict intensity by influencing the distribution of power and the beliefs
about future changes of the same. In the remainder of this section, we first introduce
two competing hypotheses on how economic and military-specific sanction threats
might affect conflict intensity, followed by two competing views on the extent to
which implemented sanctions might influence conflict violence.

Sanction Threats and Conflict Violence

Sanction threats are an essential component of sanction decisions (Drezner 2003;
Drury and Li 2006; Peterson 2013; Whang, Mclean, and Kuberski 2013). Before
levying sanctions, sender countries often issue threats to avoid the costs of the coercion on themselves and potential target countries. Further, sender countries might
opt for sanction threats with the expectation that the risk of economic and
military-related punishment would be sufficient to force the government to capitulate to foreign demands. Thus, if the target leaders would acquiesce to external pressures, they may be more likely to do so in the threat stage of sanctions to avoid the
expected costs of the coercion on themselves and their citizens. Sanction threats
against the governments dealing with insurgents may therefore be an effective way
of decreasing the intensity of conflict.
When sender countries publicly indicate their plans on initiating sanctions that
aim at the economic or military capacity of the target in response to an ongoing violent conflict, the target regimes might choose to alter their repressive behavior. They
may either not commit more violence or seek a peaceful settlement with insurgent
groups to cease an ongoing conflict to avoid the possible economic, military, and
diplomatic cost of the coercion. Even if the government is not fully committed to
ceasing the conflict due to external pressure, it would choose to de-escalate it in the
short term to avoid the cost of sanctions.
Based on the above discussion, our first hypothesis is economic and militaryspecific sanction threats reduce conflict violence (Hypothesis 1a).
Contrary to the theoretical view outlined above, sanction threats might potentially
increase the extent of violence in civil wars. The targeted government may choose
not to concede to sanction threats in countries undergoing civil conflicts. It may
instead become less conciliatory toward foreign demands because acquiescing to
external threats would undermine its legitimacy and political support while

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strengthening the rebel groups (Drury and Li 2006; Peksen and Drury 2010). If the
government acquiesces to the demands of a foreign power, they will look weak to
their own citizens and they risk losing the support from key constituencies that are
central in the fight against the armed groups. Moreover, if the regime is willing to
give in to a public demand from another country, the armed groups will see that willingness as a sign of weakness. This sign of weakness will, in turn, likely embolden
the armed groups by increasing their support within the society as a credible rival
against the regime.
External threats not only make the government more defiant but also might inadvertently induce it to escalate the level of violence against its rivals. The defiance to
foreign threats often triggers the actual sanctions. The government anticipates that
imposed economic sanctions and arms embargoes would pose a direct threat to its
political survival and coercive capacity. Imposed sanctions might disrupt the governments capabilities restricting its access to essential economic and military
resources. As a consequence, imposed sanctions that weaken the target government
might shift the relative balance of power in favor of the insurgents. Such an expected
shift in the relative capacity directly affects the governments likelihood of winning
the conflict. Hence, sanction threats might create short-term incentives for the government to ratchet up its war-waging efforts to eliminate, or at least weaken, the
insurgent groups to improve its relative power before the sanctions are implemented.
This process would consequently lead to an escalation of battle-related violence.
Based on the above discussion, we hypothesize that economic and militaryspecific sanction threats increase conflict violence (Hypothesis 1b).

Imposed Sanctions and Conflict Violence

Imposed sanctions might undermine the extent of violence by weakening the governments fighting capabilities. But sanctions might be particularly effective in
undermining conflict intensity, especially when they are in the form of arms embargoes targeting the military capacity of the target actors. Economic coercion might
weaken the governments economic capacity because revenues from trade and
financial flows will decline and domestic economic actors will fail to pay enough
taxes because of the economic dislocation. This would subsequently reduce the state
resources devoted to war-waging efforts such as spending on military expenditures.
Hence, because implemented sanctions will weaken the institutions of coercion like
military forces and police, there might be a subsequent decrease in battlefield violence. The decline in the governments fighting capabilities might also shift the
balance of power in favor of the opposition. This would further restrict the states
ability to resort to violent means against insurgents.
In some implemented economic sanction cases, especially those with limited economic damage on the target economy, there might be no significant, immediate shift
in the local power balances. Even so, economic coercion as an indication of international disapproval of the leadership might give insurgent groups more leverage in

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domestic politics. Gaining more credibility and leverage will help rebel groups
recruit new members and supporters to their forces, which would further contract the
support base and coercive capacity of the target government. Weakened governments may therefore change their tactics and refrain from direct military
Although economic sanctions might damage the target governments coercive
capacity and hence contribute to the de-escalation of conflict violence, they do not
necessarily hurt the fighting capacity of the target in an effective way. Arms embargoes, which are designed with the specific goal of weakening the target states military, might be the most effective type of implemented sanctions in reducing
violence. Selective sanctioning that denies military weapons and assistance are more
likely to impose significant cost on the fighting capacity that will hurt the governments ability to maintain military activity. As the extent of military activities
decline by the government, we expect a significant decrease in violence on the
Based on the above discussion, we hypothesize that imposed sanctions reduce
conflict violence, most especially those that target the military capacity of the government (Hypothesis 2a).
Contrary to the theoretical expectation that imposed economic and militaryspecific sanctions might result in a significant decline in battlefield violence, external coercion might inadvertently escalate the level of conflict. It is likely that both
imposed economic sanctions and arms embargoes fail to impair the capacity of the
government in part because the target elites might respond to foreign pressure by
changing their public spending priorities; shifting resources from welfare policies
to military equipment and personnel to enhance their coercive capacity (Escriba`Folch 2012). Moreover, the government might redirect the scarce resources and services to its supporters such as those in police, military, and civil services to maintain
their loyalty and support (Weiss et al. 1997; Gibbons 1999; Peksen 2009).
Further, earlier studies show that the ruling elites actively involve themselves in
sanction-busting activities through illegal smuggling and other underground transnational economic channels (Andreas 2005; Gibbons 1999). They do so to undermine
the economic hardship of the sanctions by generating revenues and securing access
to scarce resources, including military weaponry and dual-use items. The sanctioned
countries also try to mitigate the costs of the coercion by developing new economic
ties with third-party governments and private actors (Early 2009, 2012). Thus, both
economic (i.e., trade and financial) and military-specific restrictions imposed on the
target government might exact minimum damage on the coercive capacity of the
government to expect a major decline in conflict violence.
Imposed sanctions might not only fail to damage the coercive capacity of the government but also inadvertently create more incentives to escalate the level of violence against the anti-regime armed groups. There is already significant evidence
in the literature that the target regime is likely to commit more political terror and
physical integrity rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings and torture,

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following the imposition of sanctions (Wood 2008; Peksen 2009). The government
might become more violent and repressive as a calculated move to weaken the insurgent groups and send a clear signal to the public that international pressure does not
have any impact on its determination to defeat the insurgency (Peksen 2009; Peksen
and Drury 2009). The escalation of violence against the rebel groups consequently
allows the regime to maintain the status quo in the face of sanctions.
Related, economic coercion might further contribute to the rise of battle-related
fatalities by undermining public health conditions in target countries (Gibbons and
Garfield 1999; Peksen 2011; Allen and Lektzian 2013). The weakened public health
services would essentially make it more difficult to effectively address public health
problems instigated by the escalation of violence.
Trade embargoes and other international restrictions might reduce the purchase of
medical equipment and pharmaceutical products that damage the health infrastructure. Even when sanctions are designed with humanitarian safeguardssuch as
excluding restrictions on food, medicine, and medical suppliesthey might not
always be humane enough to avoid the civilian pain. For instance, in Sierra Leone
and Haiti (Peksen 2011, 240) import sanctions on nonmedical products and spare
parts, such as the products used for water and electrical supply systems, deteriorated
the sanitation infrastructure and functioning of medical equipment such as X-ray
facilities and ambulances. Moreover, fuel embargoes imposed against the same
countries made it more difficult to provide food, medicine, and other basic needs
particularly to those living in rural areas.
Sanctions on agricultural products and inputs such as fertilizer and seeds might
cause food shortages and inflate food prices. Poorer nutrition as a result of food
shortages and the restricted access to basic needs and medical services would prompt
several public health problems such as the outbreak or spread of epidemics and diseases especially among the poor segments of the society. Hence, deteriorating public
health conditions as a result of imposed sanctions are likely to make populations
more vulnerable to military offensives by the government, which would result in
a higher number of battle-related deaths.
Based on the above discussion, we hypothesize that imposed economic and military-specific sanctions increase conflict violence (Hypothesis 2b).

Research Design
To substantiate the theoretical claims outlined above, we identify all active armed
intrastate conflicts in Africa during the period 19892005. We rely on the the
UCDP/Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Armed Conflict Data set v.4-2013 to
identify these conflicts. A conflict is defined as an incompatibility between a government and a nonstate actor that results in at least twenty-five battle-related deaths
per year (N. P. Gleditsch et al. 2002). The unit of analysis is the conflict-month. That
is, each datum represents a conflict i in a given month t. The decision to use monthly
observations, instead of annual observations, is due to the dynamic aspect of the

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argument. We expect sanctions to have an impact on conflict behavior in the short

term. When sender countries initiate a new sanction threat, governments are likely to
respond within the following months. A monthly setup is thus necessary to account
for the immediate impact that sanctions are likely to have on the dynamics of the violence.1 In line with other studies on civil war dynamics interested in the potential transition from war to peace, we include twenty-four months in the postconflict period
(Cunningham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan 2009; Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon 2014).
Our data set includes thirty-seven civil conflicts in Africa that were active during
the period 19892005. Due to limitations concerning the monthly battle intensity
data, we focus only on Africa. Given the prevalence of protracted and costly civil
wars in Africa, a detailed data analysis of the African continent itself is an important
contribution to the literature. We expect that our theoretical argument also applies to
conflict cases outside the African continent. Empirically, we have no reason to
believe conflicts in Africa are different from the ones in other parts of the world. Further, sanctions are directed at African countries undergoing civil wars as frequently
as the civil war countries in other parts of the world (Morgan, Bapat, and Kobayashi
2014). However, it is still an empirical question to pursue whether sanctions have similar effects on battle intensity during conflict episodes outside the African continent.
Thus, future studies could further test the hypotheses postulated in this study using
case study and quantitative data evidence from non-African conflict cases. Below,
we offer a detailed account for the operationalization of the outcome and independent
variables and the methodological approach.

Battle Fatalities
The outcome variable is the monthly conflict intensity measured in the number of
fatalities in battle-related violence. This includes government troops and rebels
killed as well as civilians killed in battle-related activities (i.e., collateral deaths) and
unknown deaths (i.e., fatalities where the identity of the victims could not be established). To account for the number of fatalities per month, we use the UCDP Georeferenced Event Data set (GED) point data set v. 1.5-2011 (Sundberg and Melander
2013; see also Sundberg, Lindgren, and Padskocimaite 2010). This data set offers
data on the number of fatalities by event, with precise dates. These fatalities are
aggregated up to the monthly level.2 In our sample, the average number of battle
fatalities per month is 72. However, there is considerable variation across time and
across cases: with a maximum number of fatalities in one month of 9,793, the standard deviation is 425.

Sanctions Variables
To test the hypotheses about the effect that sanctions have on conflict violence, we
rely on two major data sources for economic sanctions and arms embargoes. For
threatened and imposed economic sanctions, we use the Threat and Imposition of

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Economic Sanctions (TIES) data set (Morgan, Bapat, and Kobayashi 2014). Economic sanctions refer to the deliberate, government-led restrictions of exports,
imports, and the flow of finance (commercial finance, bilateral aid, or the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank funds) that includes such specific measures
as tariffs, import duties, investment bans, asset freezes, reduction or suspension of
military aid, and restrictions on limited dual-use technologies. We also use the TIES
data set for threatened military-specific sanctions. Because the TIES data set lacks
data (hence a variable) on imposed arms embargoes, we use the arms embargo data
set (Erickson 2013) for imposed arms embargoes.
Our hypotheses cover both sanction threats and imposed sanctions. To account
for the impact of sanction threats, we use three different variables. The first variable,
Sanction Threat, is coded 1 if a country is under any type of sanctions threats in a
given month and 0 otherwise. When we test the hypothesis about the effect of sanction threats, we drop all cases of imposed sanctions. However, the results are all
robust to keeping those observations coded as 0. The second variable, anticipated
cost, is an ordinal variable that specifies the anticipated sanction cost to the target
state in all instances of a sanction threat. Threats of costlier sanctions may be perceived as more credible and thus more likely to have an effect. This variable is based
on the TIES coding of the potential costs of the imposed sanctions and it ranges
from 0 to 3. Zero reflects cases of no sanction threat, a score of 1 indicates a threat
with minor expected damage on the target economy, a score of 2 indicates major
expected damage, and a score of 3 indicates very severe expected damage that would
entirely undermine the functioning of the target economy. The third variable, threats
to military, is a restricted version of sanction threat, capturing only threats of sanctions intended to impose costs on the military of the target state, denying the military
weapons, funds, spare parts, or other necessary equipment.
To account for the impact of imposed economic sanctions, we use two variables
similar to the threat variables. First, imposed sanctions is a dummy variable coded 1
for countries facing imposed economic sanctions in a given month and 0 otherwise.
Second, we include sanction cost. Like the anticipated cost variable, it is a fourcategory variable that ranges from minor to major to severe impact to the target.
Third, to assess whether imposed sanctions designed to constrain the military capabilities of the warring parties are more effective than economic sanctions, we
include arms embargoes. It is a dummy variable that accounts for all major arms
embargo regimes included in the arms embargo data set (Erickson 2013).
In addition to the variables capturing whether there is a sanction regime in place,
we also include measures for the duration of those sanctions. It is quite plausible that
it takes a while before the costs of the imposed sanctions are felt by the target state.
Therefore, we are interested in assessing the impact of economic sanctions and arms
embargoes that have been imposed over a longer duration. The imposed sanction
duration and arms embargoes duration variables count the number of months since
the economic sanctions and arms embargoes were first imposed, respectively. To
explore whether the length of sanctions have a nonlinear association with the

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dependent variable, we also include the squared terms of the duration variables in the
In our thirty-seven conflicts, the government received a sanction threat at some
point in time in thirteen cases (for a total of 187 conflict-months). Nine of those
sanction threat cases (173 conflict-months) are military-specific sanctions targeting
the military capacity of the target specifically. In eleven conflicts, the government
faced imposed economic sanctions, and in fourteen conflicts, it was subject to arms
embargoes. A notable difference between economic sanctions and arms embargoes
is that arms embargoes have a mean duration of 8.7 months, while economic sanctions have a mean duration of 3 months. Thus, in our data set we have more observations with an ongoing arms embargo (853 conflict-months) than with an imposed
economic sanction (251 conflict-months). However, among the cases of implemented sanctions, their duration are thirty-eight and forty-six months, respectively.

Control Variables
In addition to accounting for characteristics of the sanctions, we include a number of
control variables that capture country and conflict characteristics, as these may function as confounding variables influencing both the likelihood of receiving a sanction
and the conflict behavior of the warring actors. We control for Democracy, by
including the Polity2 index from Polity IV (Marshall and Jaggers 2002). Each countrys regime score ranges from 10 to 10, where 10 represents the lowest level of
democracy. This is intended to capture the fact that civil conflicts in democracies are
less likely to escalate to high-intensity wars (Eck 2009), at the same time as sanctions are less likely to be directed against democracies (Drury, James, and Peksen
2014; Cox and Drury 2006).
Since the size of a country may affect both the intensity of the conflict and the
willingness of the international community to issue economic sanctions, we control
for the log of the population, relying on data from the expanded gross domestic product (GDP) and Trade data 6.0 (K. S. Gleditsch 2002). We include the log of GDP/
capita, using the same data source, to account for the potential capacity of the government. The economic state capacity is both likely to provide states with the ability
to intensify conflict, and make other states less willing to impose economic sanctions. We control for the incompatibility of the conflictcapturing whether the
conflict is fought mainly over territorial issues or over the government power. The
variable government conflict comes from the UCDP/PRIO data set. Government
conflicts are more likely than territorial conflicts to be of high intensity (Eck
2009), and this may potentially influence the urgency by which the international
community considers imposing sanctions or not.
The strength of the armed opposition facing the government may influence how
the government reacts to sanctions. We therefore include strong rebels, which is a
composite measure from the non-state actor data set that includes troop size, mobilization capacity, arms procurement, and territorial control (Cunningham, Gleditsch,

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and Salehyan 2009). It is measured as an ordinal scale between 1 and 5, where 5

refers to rebels that are much stronger than the government. In conflicts with more
than one rebel group, we take the value for the strongest group.3 Multiparty conflicts may also lead to particular dynamics that affect the priorities of the government. We account for this expectation using the number of rebel groups variable.
To account for other measures that the international community or individual
states may take in response to violence, we control for biased intervention, which
is a dummy variable capturing whether any state intervened militarily to support
either of the warring parties of the conflict. This is based on the coding of support
in the form of troops in the UCDP external support data set (Hogbladh, Pettersson,
and Themner 2011). Biased military interventions bring additional fighting capabilities to the conflict, which may affect both incentives and capacity to escalate violence (cf. Wood, Kathman, and Gent 2012). Finally, interventions can also be
impartial, which may influence the conflict in a different direction. Strong UN
peacekeeping missions reduce battlefield violence (Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon 2014). Fruchart et al. (2007) also note that arms embargoes appear to be more
effective in the presence of UN peacekeepers. We therefore control for UN peacekeeping measured as the total number of peacekeeping personnel deployed to a
country (Kathman 2013).

Methodological Approach
As our dependent variable is a count of the number of fatalities, we use a negative
binomial regression to estimate our models (King 1989). This estimation technique
enables us to account for discrete, nonnegative nature of count data, and directly
models positive contagion (overdispersion) in the observed counts. Even though
we include a number of control variables, there is a great risk of unobserved heterogeneity in our data. Moreover, our argument holds that this is a dynamic process, in
that sanctions will have effects on the subsequent behavior of the warring actors
rather than a cross-sectional variation. To account for this process, we use conflict
fixed effects. All independent variables with monthly dynamics are measured at
t  1 to make sure that they precede the response variable one full period. Finally,
to account for any potential autocorrelation, we also control for past fatalities, the
past value (t  1) of the outcome variable.

Empirical Analysis
We begin by evaluating our first two competing hypotheses on the possible effect
that sanction threats have on conflict violence. According to the results in the first
model (model I) in Table 1, sanctions threats are positively associated with battle
deaths, indicating that threats of sanctions are likely to increase conflict violence.
This finding is consistent with the argument that threats provide the government
with short-term incentives to initiate a military offensive and gain the upper-hand

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Table 1. Sanction Threats and Conflict Violence.

Sanction threat
Anticipated cost
Military sanction threat
GDP per capita
Government conflict
Strong rebels
Number of rebel groups
Past fatalities
Biased intervention
Panel fixed effects

Model I

Model II

Model III

0.410 (0.154)**

0.025 (0.009)**
0.565 (0.043)***
0.456 (0.049)***
0.954 (0.119)***
0.092 (0.048)
0.670 (0.075)***
0.025 (0.003)***
0.237 (0.071)***
0.114 (0.019)***
12.033 (0.683)***

0.339 (0.136)*

0.024 (0.009)**
0.567 (0.043)***
0.45 (0.049)***5
0.952 (0.119)***
0.094 (0.048)*
0.673 (0.075)***
0.025 (0.003)***
0.237 (0.071)***
0.112 (0.019)***
12.044 (0.684)***

0.421 (0.164)*
0.025 (0.009)**
0.565 (0.043)***
0.456 (0.049)***
0.957 (0.119)***
0.092 (0.048)
0.671 (0.075)***
0.025 (0.003)***
0.235 (0.070)***
0.113 (0.019)***
12.027 (0.683)***

Note: Standard errors appear in parentheses. UN PKO United Nations Peacekeeping Operations; GDP
gross domestic product.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001 (two-tailed test).

before sanctions are implemented. In model II, we examine whether the anticipated
costs of sanctions affect the number of battle deaths. The coefficient for the anticipated cost variable is positive and statistically significant. This suggests that the
costlier a sanction threat, the more violence we see in the subsequent period. We thus
find evidence in support of the theoretical argument that as governments expect to be
punished in the near future, they escalate conflict to improve their position before
resources for the conflict are restricted in the future. If the expected costs are really
high, the potential shift in the balance of power is more severe and so is the need for
an immediate preemptive military response.
In model III in Table 1, we include the sanction threat variable that only accounts
for the military-specific sanction cases. It is possible that the threats that are geared
toward the military are more effective in reducing conflict intensity. The results,
however, indicate that military-specific sanction threats are also associated with
higher levels of battle deaths. The coefficients of the threats and military threats variables are similar in size, indicating that there is no qualitative difference between
them. However, we should note that a large majority of the threats in model I are
in fact military threats. This is perhaps not so surprising since we are studying a sample of ongoing conflicts, so the sanctions that are threatened in such situations often
include a threat also to target the military capacity of the target.
How large are the effects of sanction threats in estimating the count of battle
deaths? In Table 2, we report the marginal effects of the sanction threat variables.

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Journal of Conflict Resolution

Table 2. Marginal Effects of Sanction Threats.

Pr (# of battle deaths)
Sanction threat
Anticipated cost (minor)
Anticipated cost (moderate)
Anticipated cost (severe)
Military sanction threat

Initial value
0.10 [0.09,
0.10 [0.09,
0.10 [0.09,
0.10 [0.09,
0.10 [0.09,

Unit change



New value
0.15 [0.11,
0.14 [0.10,
0.20 [0.09,
0.28 [0.06,
0.15 [0.10,



Note: 95 percent confidence interval are in the brackets.

To calculate the marginal effects, we use Statas margins command. As the top row
shows, the predicted value of battle deaths increases by 50 percent when there is a
sanction threat, compared to no threat. The effect is the same for military threats.
The anticipated cost of the sanction threat has a strong impact on the subsequent conflict violence. If there is a threat of a sanction with severe costs to the target state, the
predicted number of battle deaths increase by 180 percent. Even an anticipated moderate cost has a strong effect, increasing the battle violence by 100 percent. Thus, we
find substantive evidence suggesting that the higher the expected cost of the external
coercion, the higher the level of violence will be on the battlefield.
In Table 3, we report the models that test the hypotheses for imposed sanctions. The
results in model IV indicate that imposed economic sanctions increase the likelihood
of more conflict violence even when we control for all sanction threats against the targeted government. The economic sanction cost variable in model V is also positively
associated with battle intensity. We therefore find support for the hypothesis that
implemented economic sanctions in general appear to result in more violence during
civil conflicts. These sanctions include all forms of economic sanctions, which often
hurt the society at large. Our findings suggest that they are not effective for managing
conflict violence. We recognize that not every economic sanction regime is initiated
with the purpose of influencing the conflict behavior of the warring actors. Hence,
they may still be effective in achieving their intended goals and changing the behavior
of the target state in other respects. Thus, in such cases, an increase in the intensity of
violence can be considered as an unintended consequence of economic sanctions.
In model VI in Table 3, we include the arms embargoes variable to evaluate the
impact of imposed sanction regimes that are designed to directly target the military
capacity of the state. Our results show that, unlike economic sanctions, arms embargoes in fact reduce conflict violence.4 Thus, we find some evidence for the argument
that imposed arms embargoes might be more effective than economic sanctions in
undermining conflict violence. It is likely that a reduction in the inflow of arms to
a country involved in an armed conflict has positive consequences in the form of
leading to fewer battle deaths.
Thus far we have only discussed the impact of sanctions being imposed or not. In
model VII, we address the potential problem of effects not being direct in time by
introducing the duration of imposed economic sanctions and arms embargoes.5 To

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0.218 (0.099)*

0.409 (0.153)**
0.020 (0.009)*
0.490 (0.040)***
0.357 (0.048)***
0.943 (0.119)***
0.035 (0.046)
0.645 (0.074)***
0.026 (0.003)***
0.256 (0.069)***
0.128 (0.019)***
10.502 (0.644)***

0.318 (0.064)***

0.431 (0.153)**
0.018 (0.009)*
0.483 (0.039)***
0.368 (0.048)***
0.920 (0.119)***
0.042 (0.047)
0.632 (0.074)***
0.026 (0.003)***
0.280 (0.069)***
0.127 (0.019)***
10.526 (0.632)***

Model V
0.601 (0.118)***

0.542 (0.093)***

0.396 (0.154)*
0.018 (0.009)*
0.501 (0.040)***
0.350 (0.048)***
0.998 (0.119)***
0.057 (0.046)
0.578 (0.077)***
0.025 (0.003)***
0.172 (0.070)*
0.134 (0.020)***
10.658 (0.644)***

Model VI

Note: Standard errors appear in parentheses. GDP gross domestic product; UN PKO United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001 (two-tailed test).

Imposed sanctions
Sanction cost
Arms embargoes
Sanction duration
Sanction duration square
Arms embargo duration
Arms embargo duration square
Sanction threat
GDP per capita
Government conflict
Strong rebels
Number of rebel groups
Past fatalities
Biased intervention
Panel fixed effects

Model IV

Table 3. Imposed Sanctions and Conflict Violence.

5.876 (0.660)***
0.047 (0.006)***
3.013 (0.482)***
0.018 (0.004)***
0.364 (0.154)*
0.012 (0.009)
0.515 (0.040)***
0.359 (0.048)***
1.017 (0.120)***
0.065 (0.046)
0.589 (0.079)***
0.025 (0.003)***
0.154 (0.070)*
0.138 (0.020)***
10.867 (0.653)***

Model VII


Journal of Conflict Resolution

Table 4. Marginal Effects of Imposed Sanctions.

Pr (# of battle deaths)
Imposed sanctions
Sanction cost (minor)
Sanction cost (moderate)
Sanction cost (severe)
Arms embargoes

Initial value
0.11 [0.10,
0.11 [0.10,
0.11 [0.10,
0.11 [0.10,
0.13 [0.11,


Unit change

New value



0.20 [0.15, 0.24]

0.14 [0.13, 0.16]
0.20 [0.15, 0.25]
0.27 [0.18,0.37]
0.07 [0.06, 0.09]


Note: 95 percent confidence interval are in the brackets.

account for nonlinear effects, we also include the squared terms of both variables.
We find that there is a statistically significant nonlinear association between the
length of economic imposed sanction regimes and conflict intensity. We specifically
find that the suggested positive effect of imposed economic sanctions on conflict
dynamics appears to be higher in the earlier rather than the later months of the imposition. Arms embargoes, again, have the opposite effect. The longer the duration of
an arms embargo regime, the fewer the battle deaths are. However, this negative
effect of duration is also nonlinear; the conflict mitigating effect is weaker, the longer the arms embargo is implemented.
In Table 4, we report the marginal effects of the sanctions variables included in
models IV, V, and VI. Conflicts in which the government faces an imposed sanction
have, on average, 82 percent higher conflict intensity. The results for the three categories of the sanction cost variable suggest that the limited, moderate, and extensive
sanctions increase the predicted number of battle deaths by 27, 82, and 145 percent,
respectively. Imposed arms embargoes, on the other hand, reduce the predicted battle deaths by 46 percent. Directing an arms embargo against a country with a civil
conflict might thus help alleviate the human cost of conflict by considerably diminishing the intensity of conflict.
Turning to the sanction duration variables, we plot the predicted number of battle
deaths over time. We do so by examining the impact of sanctions for the first eight
years of imposition. We explain the first eight years to make sure that the few
extremely long sanction episodes are not driving the results. Figure 1 indicates that
imposed sanctions are likely to contribute to the rise of battle deaths for the first four
years. As such, the predicted value increases by about 105 percent (from 1.1 to 2.25)
from the start to the fourth year of the imposition. After the first four years, the adverse
impact of sanctions on conflict intensity appears to decline considerably, which is consistent with the estimates in Table 3. In Figure 2, we examine the marginal effect of the
arms embargo duration variables on the outcome variable. The figure suggests that
arms embargoes decrease the predicted value of battle deaths, especially during the
first five years of the arms embargo regimes. We observe about 71 percent (from
1.2 to 0.85) decline in the predicted values of the dependent variable between the initial and the fifth year of the implementation of arms embargoes.

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Figure 1. Economic sanctions and predicted values of battle deaths with 95 percent confidence intervals.

Figure 2. Arms embargoes and predicted values of battle deaths with 95 percent confidence

Overall, these results show that sanctions could be designed to aim at the military
capacity of the warring parties to reduce conflict violence. It is important to stress
the results that show a potential counterproductive effect of sanctions when they
threaten government interests in the short term without targeting the actual problem
of military capabilities. Moreover, our findings suggest that the mechanism through
which sanctions may work to reduce violence in civil wars is not a signaling
mechanism, by which the sender provides a credible threat that influences the

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Journal of Conflict Resolution

Figure 3. Threatened and imposed economic sanctions in Liberia.

behavior of the government, but rather a coercion mechanism, by which sanctions

are directed at impairing the targets fighting capacity.
The case of Liberia serves to illustrate the sequence of sanction threats and imposition and battle dynamics shown in Figure 3. In June 2000, a multilateral, UN-led sanction threat was issued against the Liberian government (Morgan, Bapat, and Kobayashi
2014). In this case, the threat did not lead to an instantaneous escalation of conflict.
However, the conflict continued and the sanction was imposed in October the same
year. After that, the conflict continued and intensified over the years, with a peak of over
1,000 deaths in a single month in 2003. Following that intense period of fighting, a
ceasefire agreement was struck and a UN mission was mandated in September, which
coincided with the lifting of the sanction. These efforts put a halt to the fighting.
This case can be contrasted with the government conflict in Ethiopia in the early
1990s, shown in Figure 4, where the arms embargoes were imposed in February
1990 by the international community in response to the ongoing internal conflict
in the country (Erickson 2013). The conflict intensity dropped sequentially after that,
and the conflict ended in mid-1991. The arms embargo did not occur in a vacuum;
this supplemented an ongoing negotiation attempt and an international involvement
by the United States that led the talks. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian case illustrates the
average positive impact of arms embargoes suggested by our statistical results. It is
thus likely that the arms embargoes along with other international attempts helped
mitigate the conflict violence.
We recognize that the effectiveness of arms embargoes varies. Moreover, arms
embargoes do not always mean that weapon inflows are reduced. In Cote dIvoire,
for instance, the conflict has been fueled by illegal supply of weapons to the warring
actors (Amnesty 2013). However, Erickson (2013) shows that arms embargoes do

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Hultman and Peksen


Figure 4. Imposed arms embargoes in Ethiopia.

restrain arms flows, and major exporters tend to comply with international sanctions.
While it is beyond the scope of this article, future quantitative and case-study-based
work should investigate further the conditions under which arms embargoes are
effective and when they have a more limited impact on conflict violence.

Robustness Checks and Additional Analyses

In the data analysis so far, we have treated sanction threats as an exogenous variable.
However, the identified effect of sanction threats on conflict violence might be
partly driven by sanction threats to a higher degree being issued in conflict cases
where violence is already escalating. We address this potential endogeneity issue
using the Granger causality test. We use this to explore the question of whether causality indeed runs from sanctions to conflict violence (Granger 1969). Granger causality is a statistical concept of causality denoting that a variable X causes a variable Y, if
the past values of X predict Y even when the past values of Y are controlled for. It is an
F-test on the coefficients (b) and the null hypothesis is a variable X does not Granger
cause a variable Y. Table 5 reports the p values and w2 statistics from the causality test.
To run the test, we first estimate three negative binomial models that include the
count of battle deaths as the outcome variable and control for one- and two-year lagged
values of the sanction threat, imposed economic sanctions, and arms embargoes variables, respectively. The models also include one- and two-year lagged values of the outcome variable. We then run three logit models that use the sanction and arms embargoes
variables as the outcome measures. On the right-hand side of the equation, we control
for one- and two-year lagged values of the battle deaths variable and account for oneand two-year lagged values of the sanction and arms embargoes variables.

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Journal of Conflict Resolution

Table 5. Granger Causality Test.

Direction of causal relationship
Sanction threats ! conflict violence
Conflict violence ! sanction threats
Imposed sanctions ! conflict violence
Conflict violence ! imposed sanctions
Arms embargoes ! conflict violence
Conflict violence ! arms embargoes

p Value




Note: Ho X does not Granger-cause Y (null hypothesis).

The p values in Table 5 indicate that both threatened and imposed economic sanctions Granger-cause conflict violence (battle deaths), but conflict violence does not
Granger-cause sanctions. These results provide evidence that causality indeed runs
from economic sanctions to conflict violence. In the case of arms embargoes, we
find that arms embargoes Granger-cause conflict violence. However, we also find
that conflict violence Granger-cause arms embargoes. Hence, while reciprocal causation is unlikely to be an issue for economic sanctions, it might be an issue for arms
embargoes. However, the logit estimates of the effect of past battle deaths that are
used for the Granger test show that those past fatalities increase the likelihood of
an arms embargo. Hence, we see a conflict-reducing effect of arms embargoes, even
if they are likely to be issued in the most severe conflict situations.
In addition to the models reported in Tables 1 and 3, we also try several alternative
model specifications to ensure the robustness of the results. First, for both sanction
threats and imposition, we replicated the models employing random effects instead
of fixed effects. The results appear in the online appendix. In the random effects models, we find very similar results; both the threat and imposition of economic sanctions
appear to increase conflict violence, while arms embargoes are likely to reduce it.
Second, we employ a more restricted version of the dependent variable, where we
disaggregate the conflict violence variable and select only rebels killed. This variable is a more conservative measure of the governments fighting efforts, which
enables us to capture how sanctions might affect the ability of the government to
defeat the rebels on the battlefield. The models appear in the online appendix. The
results in the models remain robust in these specifications, with the exception that
the imposed sanctions dummy loses its statistical significance in model IV. However, when also controlling for arms embargoes in model VI, imposed sanctions
have a positive and significant effect.

This article explores the extent to which economic and military-specific sanctions
alter battlefield dynamics. We find empirical support for the argument that threats
of economic and military-specific sanctions inadvertently induce the government

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Hultman and Peksen


to resort to more violence to weaken the rivals and enhance its relative power before
the imposed sanctions. Likewise, implemented economic sanctions may also
increase violence due to ineffectiveness in actually limiting the fighting capacity
of the warring actors. However, sanctions do not always produce such unintended
consequences. We maintain that sanctions that directly weaken the fighting capabilities of the government may reduce the human cost of civil conflicts. The results
from the data analysis support the hypothesis that imposed sanctions that are
designed to inflict cost on the military reduce battlefield violence in civil conflicts.
Sanctions are often considered ineffective policy tools with potentially significant collateral damage to the target society. We show that one possible positive
effect of imposed sanctions is to undermine violence during civil conflicts if they
are designed to impair the fighting capabilities of the target government. Hence, one
significant policy implication of the findings is that sender countries should consider
using targeted, military-specific sanctions that aim at the coercive capacity of the
government. Military-specific coercion such as the denial of military equipment and
funds would help avoid any inadvertent socioeconomic and civilian pain that general
sanctions produce. Such selective sanction regimes would also improve the efficacy
of the external coercion in destabilizing the targets coercive power that will subsequently reduce the human cost of internal armed conflicts.
Authors Note
Lisa Hultman and Dursun Peksen contributed equally and are listed alphabetically.

We would like to thank Cooper Drury, Clifton Morgan, and the participants of the Economic
Sanctions Workshop at Rice University, Houston, TX (November 2013) for helpful comments
and suggestions on earlier drafts. We owe special thanks to Patrick Regan and David Lektzian
for fruitful discussions on the topic early in the process.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.

The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: Lisa Hultmans research has been funded by Riksbankens
Jubileumsfond (Sweden) and Knut och Alice Wallenbergs stiftelse (Sweden).

1. However, moving below monthly observations to daily observations would require the
effects to be more immediate in time than we believe they are. It would also introduce
other problems, such as the data on the dependent variable not being precise enough at that

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Journal of Conflict Resolution

level. We, therefore, think that the monthly setup is the more appropriate temporal resolution for assessing the impact of sanctions on conflict behavior.
In the instances where an event spans two or more months (e.g., an offensive that starts on
the 30 April and ends on 2 May), we assign all deaths to the month of the start date.
When this variable has a missing value, often because it is only coded for active conflict
periods and we include twenty-four months of inactivity, we impute the last observed
In this model, we include both economic sanctions and arms embargoes simultaneously.
When we drop the economic sanctions variable from the model, the impact of arms embargoes remains negative and statistically significant.
The results are the same when estimating the effect of duration of economic sanctions and
arms embargoes separately.

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