Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced a package of bills on Feb. 12 that seek to redefine U.S. foreign policy with a new progressive baseline, which she dubbed the “Pathway to Peace.” One bill, the Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act (HR 5879) would increase Congressional oversight over declarations of national emergencies and Presidential sanctions powers. Although this bill raises important issues on sanctions and emergency powers, more work needs to be done in order to provide adequate humanitarian safeguards and to enable peacebuilding projects to reach their full potential in sanctioned countries or areas where listed terrorist groups are present.
The ambitious set of bills would also guarantee that U.S. security aid is granted only to countries that protect human rights. It would redirect $5 billion from defense spending to a “global peace-building fund,” have the U.S. join the International Criminal Court (ICC), ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Child, and create a global agreement on migration.

HR 5879 would amend the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to provide a safe harbor for exporting equipment for maintenance of civilian healthcare, energy or educational facilities, or water infrastructure. It would authorize incidental transactions that support communications with sanctioned individuals or entities if such communications serve to eliminate violence through diplomatic negotiations or reduce the suffering of civilian populations. However, the bill does not expressly authorize such communications, which are currently barred by the prohibition on material support (i.e. as expert advice and assistance, training, services, personnel).

Additionally, HR 5879 would require the President, when seeking to take action under IEEPA and levy sanctions, to report to Congress on the following:

• Expected goals and outcomes the sanctions expect to achieve;
• a list of countries imposing sanctions in accordance with the sanctions proposed by the President;
• if no other country imposes sanctions, an explanation as to why;
• a compliance strategy for entities in the private sector including financial institutions;
• criteria for the sanctioned person or entity to meet before sanctions may be lifted;
• a report from the President, within a year, on how authorities exercised under IEEPA advanced the goals and objectives that the President set forth in his/her initial report to Congress.

The effect of sanctions on humanitarian action is widespread. It limits access of humanitarian organizations have with financial institutions, restricts transport of life saving supplies across borders and the threat of legal action from breaking complicated sanctions law often discourages nonprofits from working in sanctions hit countries where aid is often needed most. Alice Debarre’s report, Making Sanctions Smarter: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action, outlines the impact of sanctions, and the need to reform US and UN sanctions law. Read our summary of the report here.

Omar’s suggestions for amending the NEA reframes policy for declaring and monitoring national emergencies:

• Emergency powers are automatically terminated within 60 days unless approved by Congress via a joint resolution;
• renewed Congressional approval of emergency powers is required every 6 months;
• the president cannot declare a new national emergency based on “substantially similar facts” for one year after termination of emergency powers;
• State and Treasury to report on whether “national emergency” actions comply with US international treaty obligations.