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Permanent state of emergency cannot be used as a justification or ground for unilateral sanctions

04 March 2021

GENEVA (4 March 2021) - Emergency declarations by the U.S. Government that authorise unilateral sanctions are resulting in severe human rights violations and must be brought in line with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN human rights experts said.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliges states to protect a wide range of human rights. While it allows governments to suspend the protection of certain rights during emergencies, this can only occur when the very existence of states is endangered. The states may suspend the protection of rights only where necessary to deal with the emergency, and only for as long as the emergency exists.

U.S. emergencies often violate these rules. Domestic laws allow the U.S. President to declare emergencies and impose sanctions on the basis of national security threats, but also when the U.S. foreign policy or economy face threats, rather than only on the basis of threats to the very existence of the United States.

“Emergencies declared by the United States often last years, and in some cases decades, and so do the sanctions they authorise,” experts said. “Instead of being true emergencies, they seem like excuses to impose sanctions indefinitely.”

Among the reasons for U.S. emergency declarations and sanctions are allegations of domestic corruption and human rights abuses in foreign countries, and efforts by international prosecutors to investigate Americans suspected of war crimes. “None of these present an existential risk to the United States.”

“Two U.S. laws in particular, the National Emergencies Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, have become essentially an unlimited grant of authority for the President to exercise broad and highly discretionary powers through emergency declarations and sanctions that violate human rights,” the experts said.

“The sanctions authorised by U.S. on the base of announced states of emergency violate a wide range of human rights in China, Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Nicaragua, the Russian Federation, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and other countries around the world, including rights to freedom of movement, of association, to due process such as fair trial and the presumption of innocence, as well economic and social rights and the very right to life,” they said.

Some of the sanctions resulting from U.S. emergency declarations deny rights to people anywhere in the world who allegedly engage in certain activities, such as helping with post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. The United States also imposes secondary sanctions against people who allegedly interact with sanctioned people and governments. “These are penalties that are imposed without respecting due process rights in the ICCPR, like the right to fair trial,” the experts said.

The UN human rights experts urge the United States to fully and completely observe its obligations under the ICCPR to prevent any negative impact on the human rights of persons subject to sanctions authorised under the emergency declarations.


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

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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