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Opening statement by Mr. Craig Mokhiber for the Workshop on the impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights

23 May 2014

Madam Chairperson,
Distinguished panellists and participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this workshop on behalf of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the outset, I would like to thank Professor Vera Gowlland-Debbas for agreeing to chair and moderate today’s discussion. I have no doubt that her extensive expertise will contribute to the successful outcome of this meeting. It is a great honour to have her with us today.

Mandated by the Human Rights Council, this workshop aims to provide a platform for the exchange of views among States, human rights experts and mechanisms, academics and civil society on the impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights by affected populations, in particular their socioeconomic impact on women and children in the States targeted.

The distinguished panellists gathered here will address how we might assess this impact, possible accountability mechanisms, and how we might learn and apply lessons from the past to develop basic principles to redress adverse impacts in contemporary cases of unilateral coercive measures. We anticipate rich and lively interactive dialogues with all stakeholders present today. Your deliberations and their outcome will also contribute to the forthcoming research-based report of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on mechanisms to assess the impact of unilateral coercive measures and promote accountability. The Advisory Committee will give a short presentation of its work in this regard at the end of this morning’s session, and I encourage you to engage with the Advisory Committee as it undertakes this important study.

Of course, unilateral coercive measures have potential impact on all three pillars of the UN: peace and security, development and human rights. With regard to human rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action calls 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 impedes the full realisation of the human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 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” (para 31, VDPA). The thematic report prepared by OHCHR on this topic, presented to the Human Rights Council in 2012, stressed that international human rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of national affiliation, and international humanitarian law prohibits collective punishment. Every effort must therefore be made to limit overly-broad unilateral coercive measures. Even where States implement targeted sanctions, they must be subject to stringent conditions as to their duration and proportionality to the legitimate and lawful aim sought. Furthermore, they must include explicit human rights safeguards, including monitoring by an independent body. Today’s panels provide us with an opportunity to exchange views on the forms that such safeguards and monitoring mechanisms should take.

The subject of today’s workshop may be as controversial as it is topical. There will certainly be disagreement as to the legitimacy of any unilateral coercive measures; whether they in fact meet their aims; the effect, nature and purpose of sanctions currently being imposed; and even as to what constitutes a unilateral coercive measure. However, where there can be no disagreement is that all human beings have human rights, wherever they reside. No State should ever impose measures against another that are in breach of its human rights or humanitarian law obligations under treaty or customary international law, and States which are subject to unilateral coercive measures remain duty bearers obligated to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons under their jurisdiction.

Unilateral coercive measures are by their nature political, resorted to when diplomatic relations between the States concerned have become hostile or broken off altogether. This workshop aims to take the focus away from the politics of such sanctions and on to their very real effects on human rights. It provides a forum for constructive debate, with respectful consideration of all views towards our shared goal of ensuring all human rights for all. I take the opportunity to welcome you once again, and look forward to your active participation in today’s debates.

Thank you.