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Unilateral sanctions hurting civilians must be dropped, says UN expert

Unilateral sanctions

17 October 2018

NEW YORK (17 October 2018) – Unilateral sanctions that deprive innocent people of food and medicines must end immediately, a UN Special Rapporteur on the effect of sanctions on human rights said today.

“Unilateral sanctions that restrict nearly any financial transaction, or which seek to prevent third countries from engaging in legal trade with a country, are illegal and immoral forms of coercion, particularly when they harm the human rights of people living in targeted countries,” Idriss Jazairy said in a report presented to the UN General Assembly.

“There is a need for differences between States to be resolved through peaceful means as advocated by the UN Charter, while avoiding exposing innocent civilians to collective punishment.”

The UN Human Rights Council established the Special Rapporteur’s mandate in September 2014, following concern by the UN human rights system and the international community about the negative impact of unilateral sanctions on the human rights of the civilian population. 

The independent expert said that international human rights law demands free and unfettered access for humanitarian goods.  “The International Court of Justice has recently made two preliminary rulings that reiterate the obligation of States to ensure effective humanitarian exemptions in their sanction regimes, including for aviation safety equipment.”

Jazairy cited the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states the “inhabitants of a given country do not forfeit their basic economic, social and cultural rights by virtue of any determination that their leaders have violated norms relating to international peace and security.”1

Referring to Syria, the Special Rapporteur said complex financial sanctions prevented the government and humanitarian actors from buying food, medicine or spare parts for water pumps or electrical generators from Western countries, imposing further suffering on innocent civilians. “I call upon States to address this issue by creating a UN-led procurement mechanism, which will provide for the human rights of civilians,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur said there was a clear risk that Iran, Syria, Gaza and possibly Venezuela were or would have to cope with a blockade situation. His report to the General Assembly proposes that the war-time protections of the Geneva Convention should be applied to countries under blockades even in peacetime.

“People under economic attack deserve no fewer protections than those under armed attack,” said Jazairy.  “I call upon the international community to see that this imposition of sufferings on innocents is illegal and morally repugnant and to join in elaborating a general declaration on unilateral coercive measures and the rule of law.”


Mr. Idriss Jazairy was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the first Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. He took office in May 2015. Mr. Jazairy has extensive experience in the fields of international relations and human rights with the Algerian Foreign Ministry, the UN human rights system and international NGOs. He holds a M.A. (Oxford) in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and an M.P.A. (Harvard). He also graduated from the Ecole nationale d’Administration (France). Mr. Jazairy is the author of books and of a large number of articles in the international press on development, human rights and current affairs.

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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This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human


1. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 8: The relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights, 12 December 1997, E/C.12/1997/8.