Sanctions proving deadly during COVID pandemic, humanitarian exemptions not working
by OHCHR, United Nations News, agencies
3:40am 20th Jul, 2020
A group of UN independent human rights experts have called on countries to lift – or at the very least, ease – sanctions to allow affected nations and communities access to vital supplies to fight against the global coronavirus pandemic.
People in countries under sanctions cannot protect themselves against the disease or get life-saving treatment if they fall ill because humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions are not working, the experts said in a news release on Friday.
“Sanctions that were imposed in the name of delivering human rights are in fact killing people and depriving them of fundamental rights, including the rights to health, to food and to life itself”, they said.
Water, soap, and electricity needed by hospitals, fuel for delivering vital goods, and food, are all in short supply because of the sanctions.
“Sanctions are bringing suffering and death in countries like Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen”, said Alena Douhan, special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, one of the experts highlighting the issue.
Nothing has improved, she added, since her appeal in April, for lifting of all unilateral sanctions that prevent sanctioned States from adequately fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, or since the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies made a similar appeal.
“We renew our call for sanctioning countries to urgently lift, suspend or minimize their sanctions so that medicine, medical equipment, food and fuel can get through,” the experts said.
The experts welcomed efforts by many States, intergovernmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations, to try to help sanctioned countries fight COVID-19.
“We particularly welcome the willingness of the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Russia, China, the United States and other donors to ship much needed medical supplies”, they said.
Humanitarian exemptions key
However, in place of time-consuming and often costly procedures for getting humanitarian exemptions to sanctions, the UN experts said exemptions should be granted on the presumption that the stated purpose is actually humanitarian, with a burden of proof on others to show it is not.
“To guarantee human rights and solidarity in the course of the pandemic, licenses for delivery of humanitarian aid should be provided in the easiest way – preferably automatically upon request”, Ms. Douhan said.
“Individuals and humanitarian organizations involved in the delivery of such aid should in no way be subjected to secondary sanctions”, she stressed.
Along with Ms. Douhan, the independent human rights experts making the appeal include Obiora Okafor, the Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food; and Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Broad sectoral sanctions should urgently be re-evaluated in countries facing the coronavirus pandemic, in light of their potentially debilitating impact on the health sector and human rights, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said this week.
"It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country's medical system – given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering and wider contagion," Bachelet said. "At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us."
"Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies," Bachelet said.
For example, in Iran, where at least 1,800 people have died from COVID-19, human rights reports have repeatedly emphasized the impact of sectoral sanctions on access to essential medicines and medical equipment – including respirators and protective equipment for health-care workers.
More than 50 Iranian medics have died since the first cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus were detected five weeks ago. The epidemic in Iran is also spreading to neighbouring countries which will strain health services in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A variety of sanctions may also impede medical efforts in Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, Bachelet said. "The majority of these states have frail or weak health systems. Progress in upholding human rights is essential to improve those systems – but obstacles to the import of vital medical supplies, including over-compliance with sanctions by banks, will create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities. The populations in these countries are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions, and to varying degrees have already been living in a precarious situation for prolonged periods."
In Venezuela, some hospitals regularly suffer water and electricity cutoffs and lack medicines, equipment, disinfectant and soap. While this situation pre-dates the imposition of sectoral sanctions, easing them could mean more resources could be allocated to treating and preventing the epidemic.
"It is especially important to protect the health of health-workers themselves, and medical professionals should never be punished by the authorities for pointing out deficiencies in the response to the crisis," Bachelet said. "Doctors, medics and all those working in health structures are in the front line, protecting us all."
She called for world leaders to come together. "International cooperation and solidarity are essential at all times, to advance human rights; they are also vital to advancing every country's national interests at this time."
Ms. Bachelet also noted that the countries under sanctions should provide transparent information, accept offers of necessary humanitarian assistance, and prioritize the needs and rights of vulnerable people. They should also adopt measures to guarantee national and international organizations can carry out their humanitarian work unhindered.
"No country can effectively combat this epidemic on its own. We need to act with solidarity, cooperation and care," she said – echoing last week's call by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for "coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action" to counter the spread of COVID-19. http://bit.ly/39KZ1h6
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