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UN expert issues sanctions guidance amid COVID-19 aid concerns

GENEVA (10 December 2020) – A UN human rights expert today released a series of guidelines to ensure that humanitarian assistance - including medicine, medical equipment, food and other essential goods - reaches countries affected by unilateral sanctions during COVID-19.

Unilateral sanctions are currently imposed against about 20 percent of UN Member States, whose populations are generally more vulnerable to the disease than in other countries.

“Humanitarian organisations refer to unilateral sanctions as the main obstacle to the delivery of aid, including medicine, medical equipment, protective kits, food and other essential goods,” said Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights.

She added that the sanctions were complex, confusing and non-transparent while “humanitarian exemptions remain ineffective, inefficient and inadequate”.

Douhan issued the set of 16 guidelines following a two-day expert consultation with the world leading humanitarian groups in October. The participants examined the multiple forms of humanitarian exemptions and practical impediments they create for delivery of aid to the most vulnerable people, including in the context of COVID-19.

Douhan urged States to prioritise saving lives during the pandemic over their political or other interests. The guidance urges States to refrain from expanding sanctions, to make humanitarian exemptions clearer and simpler to speed up humanitarian aid to sanctioned countries, and to ensure that the exemptions cover all possible goods that may be essential for fighting COVID-19.

Humanitarian operators shall not bear the burden of proof that deliveries of essential goods will be for purely humanitarian use. Humanitarian exemptions should be forward-looking and anticipate broad categories of international emergencies such as pandemics, natural disasters, economic crises and others in order to require minimal adjustment to be effective.

In the case of certain medical equipment and substances like chemicals that might also have military uses, she said that in the current context these goods should be presumed to be destined for humanitarian use “for the sake of saving human lives”.

She said that her calls to curtail sanctions had been echoed by the UN Secretary General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but “the level of international solidarity and cooperation was not sufficient”.


Ms Alena Douhan (Belarus) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights by the Human Rights Council in March 2020. Ms. Douhan has extensive experience in the fields of international law and human rights as, a Professor of international law at the Belarusian State University (Minsk), a visiting Professor at the the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed conflict, (Bochum, Germany) and the Director of the Peace Research Centre (Minsk). She received her PhD at the Belarusian State University in 2005 and obtained Dr. hab. in International Law and European Law in 2015 (Belarus). Ms. Douhan’s academic and research interests are in the fields of international law, sanctions and human rights law, international security law, law of international organizations, international dispute settlement, and international environmental law.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact please contact Sharof Azizov (+41 22 917 9748 in Geneva / sazizov@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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