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Unilateral sanctions make it harder to fight COVID-19, must be dropped, says UN expert

18 October 2020

NEW YORK (16 October 2020) – Unilateral sanctions impede the humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and must end immediately, a UN human rights expert said today.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every person today, and has made the negative humanitarian effect of unilateral sanctions more obvious and more disastrous,” Alena Douhan said as she presented a report to the UN General Assembly.

“Targeted countries face shortages of medications and medical equipment, including oxygen supplies and ventilators, protective kits, spare parts, software, fuel, electricity, drinking water and water for sanitation, cannot use foreign assets for humanitarian imports, their citizens and medical personnel cannot get access to information about COVID-19, telemedicine or use communication and educational platforms. In the long-term perspective unilateral sanctions hinder targeted countries’ ability to respond to COVID-19, to implement national response plans; result in breaches of existing regional and bilateral cooperation/integration mechanisms; make populations dependant on humanitarian aid and prevent the economic recovery of the targeted countries through the development and maintenance of necessary infrastructure” her report says. “This violates labour rights, right to education, access to information, right to food and right to health of their populations.”

“I welcome every effort to provide humanitarian relief, but I underscore that humanitarian exemptions remain ineffective and inadequate,” Douhan said. “The impossibility to obtain medicine, medical care, food, electricity and fuel results in the violation of the right to life of those who are infected by COVID-19, and also those who cannot get medical help and medication while suffering from other diseases or are unable to get to hospitals.”

The UN Human Rights Council established the Special Rapporteur’s mandate in September 2014. Since she took up the mandate in 2020, Douhan has expressed concern about the negative impact of unilateral sanctions on the human rights of civilians. She has called for the lifting or suspension of all unilateral sanctions, and has pointed out that humanitarian exemptions to these sanctions do not work.

However, many countries have expanded unilateral sanctions rather than lift them. She expressed concern that during the pandemic, unilateral sanctions – imposed against about 20 per cent of UN member states – discriminate against targeted populations, especially women, children, medical personnel, refugees, migrants, the elderly, and people suffering from chronic diseases.

Echoing her earlier guidance on how countries can limit the humanitarian impact of sanctions, she called for exemptions to be applied with a presumption that the stated purpose is actually humanitarian, with a burden of proof on others to show it is not, a reversal of the current system, and insists that no sanctions shall be imposed on the providers of medical aid or vaccine research laboratories.

“I urge again States, international organizations and other relevant actors to review and minimize the whole scope of unilateral sanctions, to ensure that the humanitarian exemptions are effective, efficient and fully adequate with the view to enable sanctioned States to protect their populations in the face of COVID-19, repair their economies and guarantee the well-being of their people in the aftermath of the pandemic,” she said.


The Expert: 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. Ms. Douhan has extensive experience in the fields of international law and human rights as, a Professor of international law at the Belarusian State University (Minsk), a visiting Professor at the the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed conflict, (Bochum, Germany) and the Director of the Peace Research Centre (Minsk). She received her PhD at the Belarusian State University in 2005 and obtained Dr. hab. in International Law and European Law in 2015 (Belarus). Ms. Douhan’s academic and research interests are in the fields of international law, sanctions and human rights law, international security law, law of international organizations, international dispute settlement, and international environmental law.

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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