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Over-compliance with US sanctions harms Iranians’ right to health

19 October 2021



Geneva (19 October 2021) – A Swedish bandage maker's decision to halt shipments to Iran shows how over-compliance with U.S. sanctions harms the ability of Iranian patients to enjoy their human rights, particularly the rights to health, to be free from physical and psychological pain, inhuman treatment and the right to life, UN human rights experts* said today.

The people affected suffer from a severe and life threatening rare skin condition, epidermolysis bullosa (EB), which causes extremely painful wounds. Many patients are children – often referred to as "butterfly kids" because their skin is as fragile as a butterfly's wings. The bandage produced by the Swedish company reportedly offered the most effective treatment to alleviate pain and prevent life-threatening infections.

The experts said the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Iran in 2018 led the Swedish company to stop doing all business with Iran, including authorized humanitarian trade, until the political situation changes, for fear of secondary sanctions as a part of over-compliance.

"Many banks and businesses, including pharmaceutical and medical companies around the world over-comply with sanctions out of fear of potential penalties," the experts said. "They refuse to finance exempted trade or to conduct the corresponding transactions with sanctioned countries. This has prevented the Iranian business partner of that Swedish company from being able to import the bandages, even though medical and other humanitarian goods were announced to be exempt from the sanctions."

The result in this particular case is that children and others suffering from EB in Iran can no longer fully enjoy the right to health, the experts said. Another UN Special Rapporteur earlier determined that denial of access to pain relief violates the right to be free from inhuman treatment if the result is severe pain and suffering, even if it occurs unintentionally, they noted.

"This is only one of many examples sadly illustrating the plight of thousands of people, including children, caused by over-compliance with sanctions by third parties out of fear of being sanctioned in turn," the experts said.

Although the Swedish company has a human rights policy, its decision, as well as the actions of the Swedish Government, breach their international responsibility to ensure the entire range of human rights, the experts said.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a duty to avoid infringing upon human rights throughout their operations and wherever they do business, and Governments have a duty to ensure that companies' actions are aligned with this objective. Governments are also bound to ensure the right to health, or at the very least to refrain from any action or omission that may cause violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The situation reveals apparent gaps in the due diligence processes applied by the company and by the Swedish Government to anticipate and prevent human rights consequences arising from the actions of business enterprises and their partners, the experts said.

"While companies are free to decide where to sell their products, companies that produce critical medical and humanitarian goods have a special responsibility," they said. "When sales of a medical product that improves the right to health and prevents suffering are halted in a country, and no equivalent alternative product is available, that right is harmed for people who were helped by it."

Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, has contacted both the company and the Swedish Government with a view toward resolving this problem and addressing any broader shortfalls that exist in their human rights due diligence processes.


*The experts: Ms. Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights; Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionsMr. Nils Melzer , Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Mr. Obiora Okafor ; Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; Mr. Livingstone Sewanyana ; Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order; Ms. Tlaleng MofokengSpecial Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

The Independent Experts and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures 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 Laura Pardo ([email protected])

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]).

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