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Statements and speeches Multiple Mechanisms

Impact of sanctions

14 September 2023

Delivered by

Statement by Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


54th session of the Human Rights Council



Biennial panel discussion on unilateral coercive measures and human rights
"The impact of unilateral coercive measures and overcompliance on the right to development and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals"

Mr Vice-President,
Distinguished panellists,

This is a complex topic. Unilateral coercive measures – imposed outside the framework of the Security Council, under the UN Charter – can impact on the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to development.

In a number of cases, exemptions have been made to sanctions regimes, to authorise the passage of essential goods. Yet in practice, overcompliance by banks, insurance companies, financial institutions and businesses – whether located in the sanctioning State, or based elsewhere – can impede financial transfers to humanitarian actors and the delivery of essential items, jeopardizing legitimate and essential activities.

This risk-averse approach can be reinforced by exemptions processes that are administratively cumbersome, creating delays and straining the capacity of some actors. For example, individual operators who seek to work in – or export to – countries subject to sanctions can be required to obtain a special license from the sanctioning country, a process that as a practical matter is often arduous.         
We need effective, clear and universally respected systems for humanitarian exemptions from sanctions, to enable the swift, smooth passage of medication, healthcare equipment, food, humanitarian aid, and other assistance to critical infrastructure and services, such as water, sanitation, and electricity. I hope that the Council's discussions today will contribute to this vital effort.

Mr Vice-President,

By their purpose, sectoral sanctions create significant economic disruption. Such impact can also extend, however, to the distribution of basic goods to populations in need. The effect of sectoral sanctions can push the prices of basic food items out of reach of people with low incomes, and jeopardize the quality of available food items. They can also interfere with the ability to maintain provision of clean water, sanitation or electricity. They can have serious effects on the supply of medical equipment and medication, and may disrupt the supply of educational products.

As the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights has pointed out in its General Comment No. 8, in so doing, sanctions may extensively undermine the enjoyment of human rights. This is disproportionately true for the rights of people living in poverty, and people in situations of vulnerability, including children.

In these ways, sectoral sanctions can also impact progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, while pushing up unemployment and inflation, and putting pressure on tax receipts. Investment in human rights protections is often among the collateral damage.

Specifically on the right to development, which is in many ways the foundation of the 2030 Agenda, the Declaration on the Right to Development stands clearly for fair distribution of the benefits of development without any form of discrimination; and for the right of all individuals and peoples to freely and fully participate in decision-making, as an essential component of sustainable development. This addresses both Governments with respect to their own populations, as well as States, in their relationships with each other.

Put simply, giving effect to the right to development is central to realising the equal enjoyment, by people everywhere, of the full range of their human rights. 

Mr. Vice-President,

In response to human rights violations of particular severity, there is an appropriate place for tailored measures against individuals who are credibly identified as responsible for those violations  – as part of a wider range of accountability measures.

Any imposition of sanctions must be fully compliant with international law – including in fairness of process, and availability of effective review and remedy. I urge that implementation of any coercive measures be regularly reviewed and reassessed for their practical impacts on human rights. They need to be subject to appropriate human rights safeguards, including human rights impact assessments and independent monitoring, and limited in time. A 65 year-long embargo against an entire country clearly raises serious concerns in this respect.

My Office has repeatedly recommended that Member States suspend or lift any unilateral coercive measures that have a detrimental effect on human rights, and which are aggravating humanitarian needs. Sanctions that threaten people's lives and health need to be halted.

Clear and accurate information is essential – including data that is disaggregated to give clear insight into who is being affected. I encourage States impacted by unilateral coercive measures to provide detailed information regarding essential and humanitarian goods that are delayed or blocked, and to continue to assess and share evidence regarding the impact of these measures, including on particular groups that are severely affected. States imposing sanctions should assess such material fully and fairly, and take immediate and appropriate action to modify their practices as necessary to address negative human rights impacts.

Lastly I urge the widening of the scope of humanitarian exemptions, and work to streamline the exemptions process, including by extending renewable and standing exemptions for humanitarian programmes and goods. Sanctioning States also have a responsibility to address overcompliance directly, so that all exemptions are available and effective in practice.

I look forward to the outcome of this discussion. Thank you, Mr. President.