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UN expert urges States and businesses to refrain from implementing sanctions enforcement policies

19 October 2023

NEW YORK (19 October 2023) – Rapid expansion and enforcement of unilateral primary sanctions, secondary sanctions, as well as imposition of civil and criminal penalties for alleged violations exacerbate uncertainty and fear among stakeholders, resulting in over-compliance and excessive de-risking, said Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on human rights.

In her thematic report to the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, Douhan outlined several underlying conditions giving rise to over-compliance. The report pointed to complex, unclear and overlapping sanctions regulations, threats of sanctions and maximum pressure campaigns, reinforcement of national frameworks criminalising alleged violations and circumvention of unilateral sanctions regimes, growing use of non-legal or quasi-legal interpretative documents, which are often treated as legal acts in sanctions-related judicial proceedings, continued expansion of the scope of extraterritorial jurisdiction and unavailability of review mechanisms and mechanisms of protection and appeal for those targeted by such unilateral coercive measures.

“Contemporary unilateral sanctions regimes create an environment which renders over-compliance unavoidable. Such conduct may be qualified as a discriminatory practice based on nationality, origin, residence and other grounds, and contradicts international human rights standards and obligations,” she said.

Douhan said over-compliance by banks and other businesses has become a fundamental element and natural consequence of unilateral primary and secondary sanctions. It is often portrayed by sanctioning states as falling outside the realm of their responsibility or control, overlooking well-established human rights obligations and due diligence responsibilities provided in international human rights treaties and frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the expert said.

“The illegality of unilateral coercive measures, and thus of the overwhelming majority of unilateral sanctions, has been reaffirmed in numerous resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly,” Douhan said. “It follows that the imposition of secondary sanctions and civil and criminal penalties for alleged violations of such measures, and through them, the extraterritorial application of jurisdiction, constitute undeniably violations of international law,” she said.

The report made also specific reference to the adverse effects of unilateral sanctions, over-compliance and secondary sanctions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the work of humanitarian actors, even in emergency situations. It also stressed that unilateral sanctions and over-compliance may even undermine the effective implementation of humanitarian provisions of UN Security Council resolutions.

The expert called on states and regional organisations to take all necessary legislative, institutional and administrative measures to eliminate or mitigate over-compliance, and urged businesses to avoid zero-risk policies, particularly with regard to essential goods and services. Douhan urged UN entities and specialised agencies to include the humanitarian impact assessment of sanctions in their respective programming.


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 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.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups 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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