Task Force Iran

European Union sanctions

17/03/2021 - 07:10
Policy - Activity

Restrictive measures, or sanctions, are one of the EU's tools to promote the objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). These include safe-guarding the EU's values, its fundamental interests and security; consolidating and supporting democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the principles of international law; preserving peace; preventing conflicts and strengthening international security.

EU sanctions do not target a country or population, but are always targeted at specific policies or activities, the means to conduct them and those responsible for them. Moreover, the EU makes every effort to minimise adverse consequences for the civilian population or for non-sanctioned activities or persons. They always form part of a wider, comprehensive policy approach involving political dialogue and complementary efforts. They are not punitive.

EU sanctions are reviewed at regular intervals. The Council of the EU decides whether sanctions should be renewed, amended or lifted. All legal acts related to EU sanctions are published in the Official Journal of the EU.


Restrictive measures imposed by the EU may target governments of third countries, or non-state entities (e.g. companies) and individuals (such as terrorist groups and terrorists). For a majority of sanctions regimes, measures are targeted at individuals and entities and consist of asset freezes and travel bans. The EU can also adopt sectoral measures, such as economic and financial measures (e.g. import and export restrictions, restrictions on banking services) or arms embargoes (prohibition on exporting goods set out in the EU`s common military list).

There are three types of sanctions regimes in place in the EU. First, there are sanctions imposed by the UN which the EU transposes into EU law. Secondly, the EU may reinforce UN sanctions by applying stricter and additional measures (e.g. vis-à-vis DPRK). Finally, the EU may also decide to impose fully autonomous sanctions regimes (e.g. vis-à-vis Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine/ Russia).

All sanctions adopted by the EU are fully compliant with obligations under international law including those regarding the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

There are over 30 EU autonomous and UN transposed sanctions regimes in place globally. For example, sanctions have been imposed in light of the situation in e.g.: Syria (see details), Iran (see details), Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela (see details), Libya, Russia and Ukraine (see details) as well as North Korea (see details).

In addition, the EU has also adopted horizontal regimes targeting: terrorism, cyber-attacks, proliferation and the use of chemical weapons.

See the EU sanctions map

The development of sanctions regimes is a complex process involving different actors. All decisions to adopt, amend, lift or renew sanctions are taken by the Council following examination in the relevant Council working groups. EU Member States are responsible for the implementation of all sanctions within their respective jurisdictions.

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy contributes through his/her proposals to the development of CFSP. Together with the Council, the HR ensures the unity, consistency and effectiveness of action by the EU in the area of the CFSP.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) assists the HR/VP in fulfilling his/her mandate and has a key role in the preparation, maintenance and review of sanctions, as well as in the communication and outreach activities concerning them in close cooperation with Member States, relevant EU delegations and the European Commission.

In the legislative process in the Council regarding sanctions, the EEAS has a particular role to play. This includes preparing, on behalf of the High Representative proposals for a decision, and jointly with the European Commission proposals for regulations which are subsequently reviewed and adopted by the Council. Decisions are binding on the Member States themselves. Regulations are directly applicable within the European Union and are binding on individuals and entities, including economic operators.

For its part the European Commission presents proposals, jointly with the High Representative for regulations. Once regulations are adopted the Commission works to facilitate their implementation in the EU and addresses questions of interpretation by economic operators.

The European Commission is responsible for ensuring the uniform application of sanctions.

Sanctions work best when they are applied by the broadest possible range of international partners. The EU cooperates with like-minded countries, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland, the United States etc. where policy goals are shared in order to make sanctions more effective and limit unintended consequences.

EU sanctions apply within the jurisdiction (territory) of the EU; to EU nationals in any location; to companies and organisations incorporated under the law of a Member State – including branches of EU companies in third countries; on board aircraft or vessels under Member States´ jurisdiction.

The EU refrains from adopting sanctions having extra-territorial application in breach of international law.

EU candidate countries, European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area countries (e.g. Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, the Republic of North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine) are systematically invited to align themselves with EU restrictive measures. Countries that have aligned with a Council Decision ensure that their national policies conform to the Council Decision in question.

Implementation and enforcement of EU sanctions is primarily the responsibility of the EU Member States. The competent authorities in the Member States have to assess whether there has been a breach of the legislation and to take adequate steps.

The European Commission has prepared guidance on how to implement the provisions concerning sectoral cooperation and exchanges with Russia (the “economic” sanctions), as well as guidance regarding Crimea and Sevastopol, Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Human rights are under attack around the world. The new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime will be a powerful tool to hold accountable those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses around the world. This is an opportunity for Europe not only to stand up for its values but to act

“We need a global regime to gain more flexibility to go after human rights violators and abusers regardless of where they are. With the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, we will be able to proceed quicker and to be more efficient.”

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President for a Stronger Europe in the World


On 07/12/2020, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which seeks to address serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide. To do so, it can impose a travel ban and an asset freeze on individuals and entities responsible for or involved in violations and abuses such as crimes against humanity, torture, sexual and gender-based violence or the suppression of the freedom of religion or belief. For details, please see the links below.


Legal acts

The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime is set out in two legal acts:



The below EEAS Q&A and Commission guidance further explain the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime’s legal acts and assists EU citizens and economic operators in complying with the restrictive measures:

Press releases

Other material

Further information

Editorial Sections: