In a report submitted to the UN General Assembly in mid-October, Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, found that unilateral sanctions are making it harder to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and that humanitarian exemptions are “ineffective and inadequate” in this crisis.  Citing a long list of calls for suspending sanctions, ranging from UN leadership to civil society, she provides a detailed account of the impact sanctions have had on pandemic response so far. Sanctions programs from the United States, European Union and United Kingdom are particularly harmful, given their economic power.  She calls for suspension of restrictions on humanitarian trade, including vital medical items and access to clean water and food, “until the threat is eliminated.”

The Special Rapporteur focuses on the impact of “unilateral sanctions,” those imposed on one country by another. She notes that “The obstacles to obtaining medicines and supplies through standard trade channels made the challenge of fighting COVID-19 particularly severe for countries targeted by unilateral sanctions that already inhibited their participation in the international trading system.” [p.4] These countries include Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba Venezuela and the Russian Federation.

Examples of impact range from blocking access to online platforms like Zoom to facilitate training for doctors and telemedicine services to countries’ inability to purchase fuel and other supplies needed for their health systems. Access to banking, shipping, telecommunications and energy supplies have all been affected.  The Special Rapporteur notes that those most impacted are vulnerable populations: women, children, seniors, persons with disabilities, migrants and people in detention.

The report is particularly critical of current humanitarian exemptions, noting that:

The frequent inability of humanitarian exemptions to ensure that unilateral sanctions do not impede the shipment of items essential to fighting COVID-19 to sanctioned countries stems primarily from: (a) the nature of the items, as many supplies may be considered dual-use items; and (b) the requirements set forth in the sanctions themselves for humanitarian exemptions. The notion of humanitarian exemptions moreover, is fluid: an item that may be needed in a health emergency may not be necessary in a famine, or in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone.” [p. 19]

Licensing systems and similar pre-authorization systems are criticized because they “can be a costly and lengthy process that is conducted on a case-by-case basis and is generally not aligned with the emergency nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.” [p. 19] Citing the joint submission from the Charity & Security Network, the Center for Economic Policy Research and the American Friends Service Committee, the report notes that although the U.S. Department of Treasury issued General License 8 in February 2020 exempting some humanitarian transactions with the Central Bank of Iran, approval for some medical devices that were not included can take up to 77 days. [p.20]

The report also takes aim at the problem of “overcompliance.” Citing the same joint submission it notes that “In addition to humanitarian institutions, companies and banks that want to retain access to the world economy refrain from delivering humanitarian aid because of the risk of severe penalties, such as criminal prosecution, extensive jail terms of significant fines.” [p. 19]

In her Recommendations the Special Rapporteur calls on states to suspend any impediments to essential humanitarian goods, including medicine, medical equipment and food, as well as the financial transactions and transportation services necessary for these items to reach those in need.

In an Oct. 16 statement posted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, she further stated:

“I urge States, international organizations and other relevant actors to review and minimize the whole scope of unilateral sanctions, to ensure that the humanitarian exemptions are effective, efficient and fully adequate with the view to enable sanctioned States to protect their populations in the face COVID-19, repair their economies and guarantee the well-being of their people in the aftermath of the pandemic.”