Do unilateral sanctions violate human rights?

Do unilateral sanctions violate human rights?

The UN Human Rights Council commissioned an investigation

by Thomas Kaiser

The Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council met in Geneva during the week of 23 to 27 February. This committee – called the Advisory Board – is composed of 18 independent experts who are elected based on a key that reflects the continental distribution of the 47 member states of the Human Rights Council. Last Tuesday’s meeting included among other topics the report of the working group dealing with the issues of unilateral sanctions and their result on the human rights situation. Thus, an important issue has been taken up by the Human Rights Council that was debated for some time by international lawyers: To what extent do unilateral sanctions violate human rights?
For the general public, it has almost become habit-forming: If a state has adopted a policy that does not fit the powerful of this world, reasons are created to impose sanctions on that country. Even within the EU, the sovereign state of Austria was subjected to a sanctions regime in 2000 for alleged democratic deficits. Quite often, there are economic sanctions, whose effects are desastrous. A look at history shows that especially the US and its allies have repeatedly taken unilateral coercive measures or unilateral sanctions. Cuba, for example, is still a victim of Western coercive measures that have left an immense economic damage. The Latin American country of Venezuela is affected by US sanctions because it simply does not abide by the neoliberal dictate of the United States. Other states suffer from this western power politics as well. The most recent example in this series of unilateral coercive measures and political sanctions against Russia: They were imposed unilaterally by the US and the EU because they accused the Russians of supporting the separatist military in eastern Ukraine. A concrete proof has not been submitted, but the sanctions were imposed. Member countries are forced to participate, although several EU member states including Greece and Austria have taken position against a prolongation of sanctions. The fact that these arbitrary unilateral sanctions are highly problematic with respect to human rights can be seen by reading the investigation report, the working group has prepared on behalf of the Advisory Committee. The working group has investigated the effects on several states which are under a sanctions regime: Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran and the Gaza Strip. The effects of these sanctions are desastrous and are apparently a violation of fundamental human rights. The report adds that especially the “adverse effects in the Civil Society” are felt, because “the most vulnerable in society, such as women, children, old and disabled people and the poor” are the most affected. The working group’s report recommends, among other things, to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate human rights violations as a result of unilateral coercive measures and to document them.
By reading the report in more detail, one can imagine the impact on the sanctioned countries and what they mean for the population living there.


Here especially children and women are affected. It is reported, “that the embargo had contributed to malnutrition that mainly affected women and children, poor water supply and lack of medicine”. In addition, the embargo meant that “the State has no access to chemicals that it needs for drinking water treatment”, which has inevitably led to a higher morbidity and mortality rate. Since the embargo has already persisted for more than 50 years and has not been abolished by President Obama today, one can only imagine the suffering in the country.


In 2002, the country’s leadership was sanctioned by the EU. The origin of these sanctions came from the land reform under President Robert Mugabe. According to the report “the country’s population of 13 million people has suffered from the sanctions. Poverty and unemployment rates are high […]. Diseases such as HIV/AIDS, typhoid and malaria give the country an average life expectancy of between 53 to 55 years. […] UNICEF found that some 34 percent of children under 5 were underdeveloped, 2 percent were stunted and 10 percent underweight.” The poor conditions in the country have led next to a high death rate and to a strong migration with big risks.


The economic situation of the Iranian people, according to the report, is desastrous. “The sanctions have triggered a collapse in industry, skyrocketing inflation and massive unemployment.” In addition, the health care system is severely affected in Iran. “Although the United States of America and the European Union claim that the sanctions do not apply to humanitarian items, in actual fact they have deeply affected the delivery and availability of medical supplies […] every year, 85,000 Iranians are diagnosed with some form of cancer; the facilities for providing them with chemotherapy and radiotherapy are, however, scant. While the financial sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran do not, in principle, cover medicine and medical equipment, they make it almost impossible for Iranian importers to finance the import of medical equipment and medicine.” The sanctions have “made international payments to Western companies almost impossible. As a result, Western pharmaceutical companies – often the sole producers of these medicines – have all but stopped exporting to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and every year tens of thousands of patients die as a result.”

Gaza Strip

“The Government of Israel”, the report says, “treats this area [the Gaza Strip] as a foreign entity, submitting its inhabitants to a severe financial and economic blockade. During the 52 days of fighting in July and August 2014, Israeli bombs destroyed or severely damaged more than 53,000 houses in the Gaza Strip. The ongoing blockade violates the social, economic and cultural rights of the people suffering from the unilateral sanctions. Undernourishment is rampant, especially among children. Tens of thousands of families live in the ruins of their houses or in unheated containers furnished by the local authorities. In December 2014, the death from cold of a number of children under the age of 10 was reported to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East”.
After the report was presented by the working group, there was initially a discussion among the members of the Advisory Committee and thereafter, the president of the Committee opened the discussion for the ambassadors present.
The diplomatic representative of Cuba seized the opportunity to draw attention to the injustice of the US sanctions against his country. He condemned the sanctions, which came into force over 50 years ago, as a violation of human rights. The imposition of sanctions was an act of despotism, which means an unlawful interference in the internal affairs of another state. He also sees no change in the US position and denounces them as a blatant violation of human rights and the UN Charter.
Sanctions are an unlawful interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, was argued by the diplomatic representative of Venezuela as well. The aim of these sanctions was to bring about a change of government (regime change). Measures against a State should only be taken by the UN, i.e. by the Security Council, and not unilaterally by a powerful state, simply because the country concerned was unwilling to submit to the dictates of this powerful state. He sees this as a violation of the principles of the UN Charter.
During the 28th session of the Human Rights Council, which will take place from 2 to 27 March this report – which was started by the Human Rights Council in September 2013 – will be presented and voted on for its adoption. If it is accepted, a special rapporteur can be established and possibly, international norms and standards can be created.     •

Source: A/HRC/28/74 Research-based progress report of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee containing recommendations on mechanisms to assess the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights and to promote accountability

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