GENEVA (14 February 2023) – UN experts* said today that thalassemia patients in Iran were being penalised by over compliance with United States sanctions against the country, which have reduced their access to vital medication from abroad.
Thalassemia is a serious hereditary disease that affects the production of haemoglobins, which regulate the lifecycle and functioning of red blood cells. It afflicts people from birth and requires specialised medication to eliminate overload during blood transfusions. Iran has a particularly high number of thalassemia patients.
“The lack of access to medication has resulted in many more deaths. Since the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran by the US in 2018, over-compliance with sanctions has escalated, affecting the import of life-saving iron-regulating medicines for Iranian thalassemia patients. This not only violates their right to health, but also results in increased complications and mortality rates,” the experts said.
The experts said the supply of such medications from the Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis – the leading supplier – and key ingredients for these medicines produced by the French company Roquette Frères – was denied to Iran.
“The humanitarian exemptions for medical goods in US sanctions regulations are complex and unclear,” they said. “In addition, recent US practices impose high fines on pharmaceutical companies selling medicine to Iran, triggering fear in medical, delivery and insurance business sectors.
The UN experts said foreign companies – whether producers, shippers, insurers, or banks – were reluctant to do business with Iran out of fear of aggressive US sanctions enforcement and penalties, even when the supply is authorised.
“All it takes is one link in the supply chain to be absent for the medicines to not reach thalassemia patients in Iran, exposing them to fear, pain and premature death,” the experts said.
Companies involved in the process of supplying thalassemia medications have the responsibility to protect the human rights of patients in Iran under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the experts recalled.
“The legality of the US unilateral sanctions against Iran is doubtful under international law, and so is the legality of their extraterritorial enforcement,” they said. “Still companies outside the US feel obliged to comply to avoid facing legal or business repercussions.”
“I call on the US Government to ensure that humanitarian exemptions for medicines are effectively implemented, that any obstacles in financial transactions for medical purposes are lifted, and that no secondary sanctions are imposed on those individuals or entities engaging with Iran and Iranian businesses in this regard,” the experts said.
The experts urged States to make sure that businesses within their jurisdictions comply with their human rights obligations and ensure thalassemia patients in Iran can access life-saving medicine.
*The experts: Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights; Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity
The 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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