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Why sanctions should be a key issue in this US election

‘Promoting respect for human rights by violating human rights only undermines the rule of law.’

Cars queue at a petrol station amid a fuel shortage in Sana'a, Yemen on 20 August, 2020. Nusaibah Almuaalemi/REUTERS
Cars queue at a petrol station amid a fuel shortage in Sana'a, Yemen on 20 August, 2020.

In the past almost four years of President Donald Trump’s leadership, the United States has pushed the envelope further than ever before with its use of sanctions as a geopolitical tool. 

Sanctions are moving in ominous new directions: Their scope, the justifications for them, and the types and number of targets are proliferating. In the process, a broad range of human rights are being violated, even the right to life, as people lose access to essential services, including medical care.

And while this expansion has been driven largely by the United States, other states and political groupings seem to be following its lead in the kinds of unilateral sanctions they are prepared to use that are of questionable legality under international law.

The US presidential election in less than two weeks’ time presents a pivotal opportunity to avoid a descent into a dangerous free-for-all that will further erode the fundamental human rights of millions of innocent private citizens – many of them already in perilous circumstances.

The legality of unilateral sanctions imposed by countries or regional groups is dubious in itself, especially when the sanctions are not authorised by the UN Security Council or go beyond its authorisation – most unilateral sanctions fall into one of these two categories. With narrow exceptions, the UN Charter designates the Security Council as the sole body that can authorise sanctions to enforce international law.

Too often, we face the contradiction that measures introduced ostensibly to deter human rights violations are themselves contributing to those very same violations – and some even create, or worsen, humanitarian crises, for example in Syria or Venezuela.

It is essential for the world’s nations to act against this harm.

Too often, we face the contradiction that measures introduced ostensibly to deter human rights violations are themselves contributing to those very same violations.

And the harm that unilateral sanctions cause to human rights is often immediate and pronounced. Take the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries facing US unilateral sanctions had trouble obtaining pharmaceuticals and medical equipment to fight the disease, while facing shortages of fuel, electricity, food – even water

Under sanctions imposed by the United States, third-country exporters and entities that finance exports to sanctioned countries can face financial penalties – or be sanctioned themselves for doing business with the country in question. These are called “secondary sanctions”. The recently applied “Caesar” sanctions on Syria are the most extensive example, and the legality of the extraterritorial jurisdiction claimed in such matters is extremely debatable.

Exemptions aren’t fit for purpose

While humanitarian exemptions are usually built into sanctions regulations, using them is complicated, slow, and costly – no good in emergencies. Moreover, they can be undermined by what they don’t cover, such as fuel for transporting humanitarian goods to sanctioned countries. 

Humanitarian organisations also work in these countries under fear of being subjected to secondary sanctions due to the routine transactions they undertake in the course of their work.

My study assessing the humanitarian impact of unilateral sanctions during the pandemic found that exemptions for humanitarian trade didn’t solve the problem, as sanctioned countries like Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela – to name a few – couldn’t get the vital assistance they needed. 

Due to the humanitarian problems that result from unilateral sanctions against entire economies or key sectors, one tactic is to apply “targeted sanctions” against the individuals, companies, and organisations that the sanctioning states believe are directly responsible for a country’s behaviour – or contribute to it.

But these too raise human rights concerns.

Sanctions against specific officials include freezing financial accounts, prohibiting property transactions, and banning travel into the sanctioning countries. Entities doing business with these individuals may face penalties or become targets of secondary sanctions.

Yet human rights apply to everyone, and targeted sanctions against individuals violate many of their rights, including due process rights – to fair trial, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to defend oneself.

With no criminal proceedings, the right of freedom of movement is violated when sanctions prevent an individual from travelling, and the right to freedom of expression is violated when a sanctioned person can’t have social media accounts.

The Magnitsky example

To illustrate the importance of an individual’s rights, take the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax expert who, while working on behalf of an American company, uncovered alleged corruption by Russian authorities. He was then charged with tax evasion and died in prison under disputed circumstances, causing outrage in the United States that led to two laws named after him. 

The first imposed sanctions against Russian officials accused of corruption and involvement in his death. The second expanded this to target individuals anywhere in the world accused of corruption in their own countries. Other states have passed or are considering similar laws.

Yet, if this is about the rights of one person, Magnitsky, what about the rights of the individuals targeted? 

Promoting respect for human rights by violating human rights only undermines the rule of law. 

The United States now sanctions individuals connected with the International Criminal Court in an attempt to block investigations into American and allied personnel who allegedly engaged in war crimes. Besides the investigators’ rights, the rights of the victims of the alleged war crimes are also being denied.

Other new sanctions target Russian research laboratories. The United States alleges they are involved in the development of biological and chemical weapons. Russia says they were involved in the development of Sputnik V – an anti-coronavirus vaccine.

In September, the Trump administration also attempted to force the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran by countries that didn’t want to impose them, and without UN Security Council approval. An EU official said its move to impose sanctions against 18 Iranian banks on 8 October “exacerbates the shortage of foreign currency to pay for humanitarian imports”, including medicine, medical equipment, food, and other essentials.

And under the recent Caesar Act, the US president, acting alone, now has the authority to impose sanctions on anyone, anywhere, who provides support to the Syrian government’s efforts to revive oil and gas production and reconstruct the country’s devastated infrastructure, including hospitals.

People targeted by secondary sanctions under the Caesar Act can be denied rights that include the right to work and freedom of movement, while the Act violates basic rights of the Syrian people ranging from the right to housing to the right to life, as livelihoods and access to services and healthcare suffer.

These are just some of the recent examples I could cite.

In the longer term, unilateral sanctions hinder targeted countries’ ability to implement emergency response plans; result in breaches of existing regional cooperation schemes; make populations more dependent on humanitarian aid; and prevent the development and maintenance of infrastructure that can strengthen economies.

The 3 November elections offer a turning point at which I hope US policy will change, and begin to be exercised in accordance with the rule of law, human rights, and humanitarian standards.

The right to health, even the ultimate human right – the right to life – is at stake.

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