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UN rights expert urges Governments to save lives by lifting all economic sanctions amid COVID-19 pandemic

03 April 2020


GENEVA (3 April 2020) – A UN human rights expert today called for the lifting of all  unilateral sanctions that obstruct the humanitarian responses of sanctioned States, in order to enable their health care systems to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives.

"I urge the international community to take immediate measures to lift, or at least suspend, all sanctions until our common threat is eliminated," said Ms. Alena Douhan, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. This aligns with the recent appeal of the UN Secretary-General to wave sanctions that undermine countries' capacity to respond to the pandemic.

"The defeat of this enemy can only be achieved through joint efforts of all States and international organisations in a spirit of multilateralism, cooperation and solidarity," she said. "In the face of the global challenge, no one shall be denied vital medical care.

"I call on all Governments that use sanctions as foreign-relation tools to immediately withdraw measures aimed at establishing trade barriers, and ban tariffs, quotas, non-tariff measures, including those which prevent financing the purchase of medicine, medical equipment, food, other essential goods," said the UN expert.

The Special Rapporteur stressed that the current pandemic is challenging the whole system of human rights, including such fundamental rights as the right to life and right to health. "A sensitive human-rights approach is needed to confront the COVID-19 crisis, and that includes the lifting of any coercive measures among States," she said.

"I welcome all efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the countries affected by the disease." Douhan noted that some Governments and international organisations are often unable to provide the even most basic aid to the population of the sanctioned countries because unilateral sanctions use the global financial system to force third countries, companies and financial institutions to avoid any transactions related to those States.

"This is a matter of utmost importance and great urgency. The COVID-19 virus does not choose. It crosses borders easily and targets people regardless of nationality, race, political approaches, religion or social status," she said, noting that in sanctioned countries, in particular Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and Yemen, medical equipment is rather often outdated, and suffer shortages of medicine and protective means.

"Sanctioned countries are especially hard-hit as they cannot use their revenues to purchase imports of equipment, medicines, antiviral and food from global markets," the UN expert said. "The pandemic is triggering a serious economic crisis with serious negative humanitarian effects, especially for the most vulnerable ones in the poorest sectors of the population: women, elderly, youth, and children," Douhan said. 

"I reiterate my predecessor's long standing position that the use of economic sanctions for political purposes violates human rights and the norms of international behaviour. As earlier as May 2019, he warned that such actions may precipitate man-made humanitarian catastrophes of unprecedented proportions.

"This is what we are witnessing now with regard to the health system worldwide and in sanctioned countries in particular."


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.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of the 'Special Procedures', the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, which brings together the investigative and monitoring mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council to address specific country situations or thematic issues around 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 act in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests please contact Sharof Azizov (+41 22 917 9748 /   [email protected])

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9445 / [email protected])

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

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