Within the decentralized international legal order, unilateral sanctions are considered one of the few lawful means of enforcement available to states and other members of the international community. The expectation is that autonomous sanctions are to be adopted in order to induce compliance with international obligations. On this assumption, international legal jurisprudence and doctrine have developed various theoretical categories of unilateral sanctions: acts of retorsion, internationally wrongful acts or (collective) countermeasures. Nonetheless, despite the discipline’s common understandings of enforcement through unilateral coercive sanctions, a closer look at what states do reveals a discrepancy between how states are expected to behave in theory and what states do in practice. This is most noticeable in applying the countermeasure framework to prima facie wrongful sanctions. This discrepancy is possibly explained by international law’s neglect of the punitive nature of sanctions, which runs counter to the principle of sovereign equality among states.
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