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Press releases Special Procedures

Humanitarian exemptions in unilateral sanctions regimes ineffective and inefficient: UN experts

24 November 2022

GENEVA (23 November 2022) – While acknowledging efforts by sanctioning countries to provide for humanitarian carve-outs or exemptions in unilateral sanctions regimes, UN human rights experts have called on the international community to pay heed to their ineffectiveness, structural weaknesses and superficial character in relation to the multifaceted negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the lives and rights of millions of people. The experts issue the following statement:

“We are seriously concerned at the deep social, economic and humanitarian disruptions caused by extensive and multifaceted restrictions emanating from both targeted, sectoral, economic and financial unilateral sanctions regimes, which can hardly be counter-balanced and mitigated by the existing humanitarian carve-outs, such as for food, medicines and medical equipment, among others.

Structural and application inconsistencies of such humanitarian exemptions have seriously affected the work and conduct of humanitarian operators, by challenging their principled humanitarian mission, seriously undermining their emergency response capabilities and resulting in a feeling of uncertainty and fear.

Humanitarian actors, as well as donors and financial institutions, often do not have the expertise or the financial and human resources to navigate the complex and interlinked sanctions regimes, and the current humanitarian carve-outs are often too technical and open to various interpretations, exacerbating existing uncertainties and fear for unintended transgressions, and thus leading to instances of over-compliance and de-risking.

Reports also indicate serious delays in the processing and granting of humanitarian exemptions licenses, even beyond the necessary timeframes for the delivery of the humanitarian assistance, which ultimately defeats the intended preventive and mitigating purpose of such exemptions, with serious adverse consequences on the life and rights of those who should benefiting of such assistance, in particular the most vulnerable.

At the same time, de-risking policies by banks, producers and donors vis-à-vis humanitarian actors may not be waived by proof of an approved humanitarian exemption license. Thus the otherwise authorised financial transactions may still be refused due to generalised fear of potential sanctions violations.

We remain concerned about the cumulative adverse effects of unilateral sanctions jointly with existing counter-terrorism and terrorism financing frameworks, such as the US material support statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§2339A and 2339B, and the 2022 European Commission’s Guidance Note which appears to shift the burden of proof for compliant conduct onto humanitarian actors, to preserve ambiguity around the issue of liability, as a sword of Damocles hanging over them.

We call on the international community to engage in a constructive and inclusive dialogue on the humanitarian impact of unilateral sanctions and to undertake concrete measures to address over-compliance, de-risking, as well as the sanctions-induced operational challenges faced by humanitarian actors in discharging their principled humanitarian work.

We have raised these concerns with the United States of America and the European Commission, and their responses are pending.”


*The experts: Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights; Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food

The 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.

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Damianos Serefidis ([email protected])

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Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected])

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