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US must lift its Cuba embargo to save lives amid COVID-19 crisis, say UN experts

30 April 2020

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GENEVA (30 April 2020) – UN human rights experts* today called on the United States to lift its economic and financial embargo on Cuba that is obstructing humanitarian responses to help the country’s health care system fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We urge the US Government to 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 and other essential goods,” they said.

The UN experts said the US had ignored repeated calls to waive sanctions that undermine the capacity of Cuba and other countries to respond effectively to the pandemic and save lives.

COVID-19 is not only deadly it inflicts enormous physical and psychological suffering, especially in the countries where medical personnel is stifled to perform their professional duties due to absence of adequate medical equipment and medicine to treat their patients.

“In the pandemic emergency, the lack of will of the US Government to suspend sanctions may lead to a higher risk of such suffering in Cuba and other countries targeted by its sanctions,” the experts said.

“Bringing the virus under control can only be achieved through joint efforts by all States and international organisations in a spirit of multilateralism, cooperation and solidarity,” they said. “In the face of such global challenge, no one should be denied vital medical care.”

The UN experts explained that the US embargo on Cuba and sanctions on other countries seriously undermine international cooperation to curb the pandemic, treat the patients and save lives.

“This is a matter of utmost importance and great urgency,” they said. “The COVID-19 virus does not choose its victims. It crosses borders easily and targets people regardless of nationality, race, religion, political opinion or social status.”

The experts noted that the export and re-export of goods to Cuba requires a cumbersome and expensive licensing process because of the US embargo, which undermines the efficiency of buying medicine, medical equipment and technology, given that the issuance of licences or clearance for exemptions can take several months. Despite 16 April updates in the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Fact Sheet, which provides guidance on humanitarian exemptions (including ones for Cuba), these have not eased or changed the burdensome procedures.

“Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the comprehensive embargo has imposed additional financial burden, increased cargo travel time due to an inability to procure supplies, reagents, medical equipment and medicines necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 directly from the United States and therefore constrains the effectiveness of the response,” the experts said. “It also delays the development of e-health and telemedicine due to difficulties in accessing affordable technology.

“We are particularly concerned about the risks to the right to life, health and other critical rights of the most vulnerable sections of the Cuban population, including people with disabilities and older persons, who are at much higher risk of/when contracting the virus,” the UN experts said. 

The UN General Assembly have repeatedly expressed its concern about the continued promulgation and application by the US Government of laws and regulations, such as the Helms-Burton Act, the extraterritorial effects of which affect the sovereignty of other States, and requested “to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible” in the 28 resolutions deploring the blockade against Cuba.


*The experts: Ms Alena DouhanSpecial Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights; Mr. Saad Alfarargi,the Special Rapporteur on the right to development; Ms Catalina Devandas-AguilarSpecial Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; MsAgnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mr Livingstone SewanyanaIndependent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order; Mr. Obiora Okafor,the Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; MrNils MelzerSpecial Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups 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 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])

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