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Unilateral sanctions hurt all, especially women, children and other vulnerable groups – UN human rights expert

08 December 2021



Unilateral sanctions hurt all and are particularly harmful to the human rights of women, children and other vulnerable groups within the populations of countries targeted by the sanctions, an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said today.

“We already know that unilateral sanctions prevent the populations of targeted countries from fully enjoying their human rights; and that the impact is especially severe for vulnerable groups,” said Alena Douhan, the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights.

“Besides women and children, these groups include indigenous people, people with disabilities, refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, people living in poverty, the elderly, people affected by severe diseases and others who confront particular challenges in society,” she said.

Vulnerable groups are often those who rely and depend the most on social or humanitarian aid, but the aid very often can’t be supplied because of sanctions, despite existing exemptions. “The complexity of sanctions regulations, combined with extraterritorial enforcement and heavy penalties, have led to widespread over-compliance with unilateral sanctions by entities out of fear of the consequences of inadvertent violations breaches,” Douhan said.

“Because of this, banks are reticent to finance aid or process transactions for humanitarian purchases, and transport companies refuse to handle shipments of humanitarian goods. Humanitarian NGOs have sometimes stopped operating in sanctioned countries because of these difficulties.”

The Special Rapporteur notes that sanctions often include fuel embargoes and prevent targeted countries from getting parts to maintain essential life-supporting infrastructure, such as the food, water, sanitation, health and electricity supply systems. “This is the case when a country can’t obtain fuel, medicines and medical equipment can’t be delivered and people can’t reach hospitals for medical care, including for tests and control in the course of pregnancies, for delivering babies, for vaccination of children and getting medical aid.

“Besides impeding the transport of people and goods like food, the lack of fuel and the inability to get spare parts hurts electric power generation, preventing electric pumps from supplying water for drinking and sanitation,” she said.

“Women in particular are impacted heavily. They are the ones that often have to go to obtain clean water for their families, and when sanctions cause economic activity to decline they are typically the first to lose their jobs and be targeted by traffickers for sexual exploitation.”

She further noted that this can cause a country targeted by unilateral sanctions to slide backward on the development scale, and warned that sanctions may be a major threat preventing targeted countries from achieving the universal Sustainable Development Goals that are meant to improve the lives of everyone, and especially the lives of women, girls, elderly, people with severe or chronic diseases.

“I reiterate my call, from a human rights point of view, to the United Nations, NGOs and other humanitarian actors to focus attention actively on vulnerable groups in sanctioned countries through ongoing monitoring and assessments of their human rights consequences,” Douhan said. “I urge them to intensify their engagement through collaborating where possible and developing greater solidarity to ensure that the necessary humanitarian support gets through.

“Last but not least, I call on States and Governments that impose unilateral sanctions to lift or minimize them as required by international law; to take all measures necessary to avoid the adverse effect on human rights of unilateral sanctions; to take all necessary measures to avoid over compliance with sanctions regimes; to provide broader exemptions, simpler procedures, and to facilitate, in spite of sanction regimes, the delivery of humanitarian aid.”


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.

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