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Human rights and unilateral coercive measures

The term “unilateral coercive measures” usually refers to economic measures taken by one State to compel a change in the policy of another State. Examples of such measures include trade sanctions in the form of embargoes and the interruption of financial and investment flows between sender and target countries. More recently, so-called “smart” or “targeted” sanctions such as asset freezing and travel bans have been employed by individual States in order to influence persons who are perceived to have political influence in another State (Human Rights Council resolution 19/33).

The continuing practice of imposing various forms of unilateral coercive measures and the potential impact of such measures on human rights, has drawn the attention of a large number of Member States (e.g. resolution A/67/118 “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba,” adopted by a recorded vote of 188 to 3 with 2 abstentions.) Furthermore, United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms including Special Procedures have considered this issue (e.g. see reports A/67/327 p. 41, 42, A/67/181, A/67/118, A/66/138 and the Sub-Commission study E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/33.)

Several discussions, resolutions and reports presented to the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and the former Commission on Human Rights have addressed the issue of the impact of unilateral coercive measures on the full enjoyment of human rights. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 called upon States to “refrain from any unilateral measure not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations that creates obstacles to trade relations among States and impede the full realization of the human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international human rights instruments, in particular the rights of everyone to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food and medical care, housing and the necessary social services”.

Numerous United Nations studies have also been carried out on unilateral coercive measures and human rights including the issue of legality of such measures. For instance, Working Paper “The Adverse consequences of economic sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights” (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/33); Human Rights Impacts of Sanctions on Iraq, Background Paper prepared by OHCHR for the meeting of the Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs of 5 September 2000 (A/HRC/19/33); OHCHR thematic study on the impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, including recommendations on actions aimed at ending such measures, 11 January 2012; and Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, general comment No. 8 of 1997 on the relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights (E/C.12/1997/8). All these studies have analysed the legitimacy of unilateral coercive measures from a human rights perspective and the complex and divergent views around this topic. They have also stressed the need to further examine the linkages between unilateral coercive measures and human rights.

Workshops and panel discussions

Panel discussion on unilateral coercive measures and human rights (Geneva, 17 September 2015)

Workshop on the impact of the application of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights by the affected populations, in particular their socioeconomic impact on women and children, in the States targeted (Geneva, 23 May 2014)

Workshop on the various aspects relating to the impact of the application of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights by the affected populations in the States targeted (Geneva, 5 April 2013)