Webcast Recap

On November 17, 2008, the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a conference on the humanitarian impact of arms embargoes featuring EJ Hogendoorn, a 2006 Africanist Doctoral Fellow. During his presentation, Hogendoorn analyzed the impact of UN arms embargoes on internal conflicts to see whether or not they can play a role in ending or limiting violent conflict. His presentation introduced his doctoral research which includes both analysis and case studies. His research is based mainly on a data set of 125 post-World War II civil conflicts. Out of several different types of embargoes, Hogendoorn focused on UN arms embargoes solely intended to end or limit internal conflict violence. Howard Wolpe, the director of the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center moderated this event.

Why are arms embargoes important?

Hogendoorn argued that arms embargoes are a popular political choice for the Security Council when dealing with humanitarian crises because they are more forceful than diplomacy but not as costly and risky as military interventions. The United Nations has thus frequently imposed arms embargoes in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of civil society and to reduce humanitarian crises. Arms embargoes can be effective in that a more prompt end to conflict not only prevents unnecessary loss of life, but can also prevent regressions in development. However, there is no consensus within the international community on what exactly arms embargoes can achieve. The goals of arms embargoes usually include one or more of the following: containment, deterrence, compliance and establishment of peace. There is also an important distinction between two different types of arms embargoes. Impartial or "blanket" arms embargoes are imposed on all actors of the conflict, thus denying weapons to all sides. On the contrary, partial arms embargoes are imposed on one specific side while allowing other parties to the conflict to continue arms importation.

The problems of current existing theories

Hogendoorn noted that the international community relies on a relatively simple theory to explain how arms embargoes work. Theories usually assume that if the international community imposes an arms embargo, it will reduce the supply of arms to combatants thus resulting an automatic lessening of violence, eventually leading to peace. Hogendoorn asserted that this direct correlation theory rests on several flawed assumptions.

Firstly, the UN has serious difficulties in imposing effective arms embargoes. It has problems monitoring the enforcement of arms embargoes due to the limited resources it can dedicate to this area and also lacks the expertise to effectively monitor arms embargoes. There is the problem of information sharing among different UN agencies, which tend not to share information about potential arms embargoes violations. One of the most recent examples of UN failure on the imposition of the effective arms embargo is the case of Iraqi insurgents. An arms embargo could not prevent them from resupplying weapons from Syria.

The second flawed assumption is that fewer and less sophisticated weapons will necessarily result in less definitive destruction. The example of the Rwandan genocide where more than eight hundred thousand people were killed by combatants simply armed with machetes contradicts this assumption. Furthermore, arms embargoes change the supply pattern. They tend to stop the supply of sophisticated weapons much better than relatively less sophisticated weapons. He mentioned the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo another example of fighting between poorly disciplined factions with small arms, in this case triggering a humanitarian catastrophe.

Impacts of arms embargoes

Arms embargoes have potential unintended consequences that can negatively affect the process of conflict resolution. Hogendoorn argued that impartial arms embargoes generally tend to prolong conflicts. He demonstrated that arms embargoed conflicts last on average 70 percent longer than non-embargoed conflicts increasing the length of civil wars by an average of fourteen months. Furthermore, arms embargoes can disproportionally affect the relative supply of arms which could induce different sides to negotiate. They have an important effect on relative military power of the different groups in the conflict, thus influencing the military dynamics on the ground. War termination literature makes it clear that it is only when the military dynamics change that the different sides appear willing to negotiate. Embargoes can also strengthen the aggressor who already has established supply routes such as in the cases of Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and of Charles Taylor in Liberia. Proliferation of factions can be caused by arms embargoes. They can also affect the type of weapons seen on the battlefield because, as stated, they tend to prevent the resupply of sophisticated weapons but do not prevent that of small arms. Arms embargoes can also exacerbate the tendency towards criminalization. Sanctions often empower criminals, or those with criminal connections, because they have the skills and contacts to evade controls. This has implications for both the conduct of the war, and post-conflict rebuilding. Likewise, arms embargoes lead to a co-option of the different combatants; sanctioned combatants will turn to external actors for support, which will, of course, come with strings attached.

Case studies: Bosnia, Liberia, Somalia

Hogendoorn supported his arguments with the results obtained from several different case studies. In Bosnia, arms embargoes imposed before the fighting did not prevent the outbreak of armed conflict in 1992. The arms embargoes only led to an initial Serbian advantage vis-à-vis the Bosnian Muslim Government. Embargoes in that case only led to a strategic stalemate which lasted three years. For Liberia, arms embargoes were only imposed after the breakout of the war. Nonetheless, Taylor was able to reestablish the line of supply from alternative sources and sustain his military potential. Several facts in Liberia undermined the arms embargoes such as regional rivalries, natural resources and the corruption within the ECOMOG. For Somalia, implemented arms embargoes were impartial. They were imposed in Somalia after the outbreak of the civil war when a huge quantity of weapons were already available both in country and from across the border in Ethiopia, which was emerging from its own civil war. Even though the UN Security Council imposed arms embargoes in 1992, it did little to monitor or effectively enforce arms embargoes until 2002. In addition, most of warring factors did not really need a lot of weapons. It was very easy to source weapons from neighboring countries such as Yemen.

In conclusion, Hogendoorn emphasized that arms embargoes can be an important tool for the Security Council for dealing with a humanitarian crisis but are much more effective as one element of a larger, comprehensive strategy on peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. Likewise, partial arms embargoes rather than impartial arms embargoes can help to change the military balance on the ground or change political calculations of different actors. Therefore, there is a role for both the UN General Assembly and the Secretary General to play in the discussion on whether or not arms embargoes should be imposed. Input from the Security Council should be solicited as to how one can address conflict in a strategic rather than reactionary manner.


During the question and answer session following his presentation, Hogendoorn addressed the problem of how to tackle violation of arms embargoes by private commercial actors, commenting that the international community tends to overstate the role of the private sector in arms trade. The private arms trade can be constrained but is oftentimes used as a guise for geo-political policy by state actors. Talking about a lack of political will, and citing his own experience as a member of a UN panel of arms experts in Addis Ababa and in Nairobi, he gave insight into how the UN decides on an arms embargo as a course of action. The UN Panel is given six months to a year to provide a report on a situation. It is only once the report is issued that the Security Council is seized to decide whether or not to impose an arms embargo. In general, it takes over a year for the Security Council to decide upon an appropriate course of action after the breakout of conflict.

Hogendoorn's research brought great insight to the current problems of UN arms embargoes, a rarely explored and researched area, while also providing policy recommendations. Based on his research and recommendations, more appropriate and timely policies need to be implemented concerning the imposition of UN arms embargoes. He is currently seeking to publish his research on the topic.

Drafted by Hyeongwon Joo, Intern, and Justine Lindemann, Program Assistant
The Power Point presentation from this event is available for download below.