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High Commissioner calls for critical re-evaluation of the human rights impact of unilateral sanctions

48th regular session of the Human Rights Council
Biennial panel discussion on unilateral coercive measures and human rights: "Unilateral sanctions:
jurisdiction and extraterritoriality"

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

16 September 2021

Distinguished President,
Excellencies,
Colleagues, 

I thank the Council for organizing this discussion about unilateral coercive measures –and particularly, the human rights consequences of extraterritorial application and over-compliance with sanctions.

We should be clear at the outset that the Security Council is empowered under the UN Charter, in broad terms, to authorize necessary measures to maintain international peace and security, which include sanctions, involving for example financial or commodity restrictions, travel bans and arms embargoes, whether deployed against States, armed groups or individuals.

At the same time, an increasing number of States, individually and collectively, have also resorted to sanctions of various forms, which can align – or depart from – the values promoted and protected by the UN Charter.  

Sanctions can create severe and undue suffering for individuals who have neither perpetrated crimes nor otherwise bear responsibility for improper conduct. When sanctions target an entire country, or address entire economic sectors, it is the most vulnerable people in that country – those who are least protected – who are likely to be worst harmed. And those sought to be targeted can in fact perversely benefit through gaming sanctions regimes and profiteering from the economic distortions and incentives introduced by them.

Moreover, punitive restrictions on banks and financial institutions –including those based in third countries – which routinely leads to over-compliance out of abundance of institutional caution. In some cases, it becomes difficult to import even basic food items, health-care equipment and other forms of humanitarian aid into sanctioned countries, despite the existence of applicable exemptions. Fearing penalties, third-country banks refuse to transfer funds, require oft-onerous certification for each transfer, or create additional costs and delays that impede assistance and reduce effectiveness. 

In March 2020, less than two weeks after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, I called for sanctions that could affect the health sector to be eased or suspended. This was vital, to ensure that millions of people in countries being targeted by sanctions regimes could access essential medical equipment and treatment. Continued sanctions risked causing more suffering and death and wider contagion around the world.

It has long been clear that obstacles to the import of vital medical supplies in countries– including over-compliance with sanctions by financial institutions – create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities. The people of 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 through no fault of their own. 

Sanctions regimes that constrain the actions of third parties are also problematic when overbroad, impacting individuals and economic actors other than those directly responsible for human rights violations. Individuals and corporate entities subject to such sanctions often have scant legal process prior to being brought under such regimes, and frequently have little if any effective recourse to any mechanism to appeal liabilities or penalties that are applied against them. These procedures may violate a number of fundamental due process principles.

Challenges also persist in the context of United Nations counter-terrorism sanctions. Despite significant reforms, counter-terrorism sanctions can often generate negative human rights impacts, including disruption of humanitarian action and infringement  of the rights of those affected by travel bans, asset freezing or confiscation of property without sufficient basis or possibilities for review.. With a view to mitigating their impact on principled humanitarian work, some States have excluded the activities of impartial humanitarian organizations from the scope of anti-terrorism legislation, and have provided humanitarian exemptions to otherwise prohibited travel to areas that are under the influence of groups designated as terrorist. Such flexibilities are important to facilitate the reconciliation of competing policy objectives.

Excellencies, 

A growing number of countries are applying sanctions to an increasing range of targets for an expanding number of reasons – including efforts to secure greater respect for human rights and foster accountability. But human rights cannot be adequately protected – indeed they are profoundly undermined - if sanctions and the means of enforcement themselves violate them. 

In considering the negative impacts of sanctions, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded that human rights should be taken fully into account when designing sanctions regimes, that effective monitoring should be undertaken throughout the period that sanctions are in force, and that the external entity imposing sanctions has an obligation to take steps, individually and through international assistance, to respond to any disproportionate suffering experienced by vulnerable groups within the targeted country. 

While there is a place for asset bans, visa restrictions and other measures against individuals who are credibly accused of perpetrating severe human rights violations, as part of a wider range of accountability measures, I believe that sanctions which target entire countries or sectors of economic activity– should be avoided. 

I call on sanctioning countries, in light of their own experience and that of others, to reassess and critically re-evaluate their use of unilateral coercive measures to avoid human rights-adverse impacts.

I also call authorities of countries subjected to sanctions to 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 that national and international organizations can carry out essential humanitarian work.

Thank you.