Current Concerns: For many years you have been opposing the application of sanctions. Now it is claimed that sanctions would also make it enormously difficult to combat the corona pandemic in the countries affected by sanctions. What do you have to say to this allegation?
Alfred de Zayas: Of course the prevailing economic war against Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, North Korea, as well as the financial blockade and the asphyxiating economic sanctions contravene the UN Charter, numerous international treaties, particularly human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They also violate the international law prohibition of interference in the internal affairs of other states, and the principle of non-intervention (which applies not only to military intervention, but also to non-conventional, hybrid warfare).
It has been shown that sanctions kill – not only unilateral coercive measures, but even ill-advised UN sanctions like those applied against Iraq 1991-2003, which led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis, deaths through malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, medicines, medical equipment etc. As early as 1995 UNICEF estimated that the sanctions had caused the deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children – but the warning went unheard. Or worse – it was discarded by the all-powerful United States. When asked about whether it was worth maintaining the sanctions against Iraq, in spite of the deaths of so many children, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright answered “yes” – as anyone can see on youtube. Still, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq 1996-98, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest and called the UN sanctions “a form of genocide.” His successor Hans Christof Graf von Sponeck (1998-2000) also resigned in protest and wrote a book about it entitled “Another kind of war”.
The General Assembly has adopted 27 resolutions demanding the lifting of the US embargo against Cuba, not only because it is contrary to international law, but also because it has significantly weakened the Cuban health infrastructures and made it nearly impossible to obtain spare parts for medical equipment such as scans and dialysis machines. Professors Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot wrote a report in 2019 estimating that the sanctions against Venezuela were responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans in the year 2018. The situation has become worse ever since. Over the years the health infrastructures of many countries targeted by sanctions were weakened, rendering them less prepared to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. On 31 March 2020 the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Professor Hilal Elver, called for the immediate lifting of sanctions in the light of the pandemic. Other rapporteurs, like the late Idriss Jazairy, had already documented the nexus between sanctions and death. The newly appointed rapporteur on the adverse impacts of unilateral coercive measures on 2 April pleaded for the lifting of the sanctions and will probably issue a report on the matter soon – but time is of the essence!
On 1 April 2020 the government of Cuba protested against the US’ “criminal blockade”, after the US embargo blocked the delivery of Covid-19 test kits and ventilators donated by Chinese e-commerce tycoon Jack Ma, owner of Alibaba. Cuban President Diaz-Canel tweeted;“The criminal blockade of the imperial government violates the human rights of the Cuban people.” Cuba’s envoy to Beijing, Carlos Miguel Pereira, explained that a private firm was hired to deliver medical goods necessary to fight Covid-19. However, the firm refused to deliver the shipment “at the last minute.” According to the Xinhua News Agency, the company had specifically invoked the possibility of being exposed to penalties from the UN Department of the Treasury for violating the 1995 US Helms-Burton Act.
Once again, it bears repeating, sanctions kill. The civil and criminal responsibility lies not only with the US but also with all States that have imposed or implemented sanctions.
To what extent is the UN advocating that sanctions be lifted?
With respect to sanctions against Cuba the General Assembly has repeatedly demanded their lifting, but the United States considers itself above international law and has imposed illegal sanctions against Cuba for six decades. Unless there are consequences for the American economy, this is not likely to change. But, of course, other countries like Canada, UK, etc. also impose sanctions or implement the US sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, etc. with regard to the extra-territorial application of US law and the imposition of penalties for “violating the sanctions”. The civil and criminal responsibility for imposing or implementing sanctions lies primarily with the US, but also with all States that have imposed or implemented sanctions and even with private corporations that put profit above human life.
What is the position of the international community on this issue? How do you assess the International Solidarity Report in this context?
The “international community” is not acting in a manner consistent with the UN Charter and the obligation to practice international solidarity. Back in 2017 the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity, Virginia Dandan, issued a Draft Declaration on the Right to International Solidarity, which, however, the General Assembly never adopted. It is time that the Secretary General remind the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council of their respective responsibilities and to advocate the formal adoption of the Declaration – and its concrete implementation.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on 24 March called for sanctions to be eased in order to combat the pandemic and thus limit its global spread. How promising are her demands?
The High Commissioner should have condemned the sanctions because of their direct violations of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of the populations targeted. Already Bachelet’s predecessor as High Commissioner Navi Pillay condemned unilateral coercive measures and called for their termination in her 2012 Report A/19/33. Easing the sanctions is not enough. They must be condemned as crimes against humanity. There is no possible legal or moral compromise here. Sanctions violate human rights. Sanctions kill. Bachelet should have called for the complete lifting of sanctions and for the payment of reparations and compensation to the victims. If the Secretary General of the United Nations were to endorse Bachelet’s demands and refer the matter to the General Assembly as a matter of urgency, maybe the demands will be met. Of course, there is the problem of “image” – a fear of “losing face”. The United States, Canada, the European Union do not like losing face. They auto-define themselves as “the good guys”. How could they be in the wrong by imposing sanctions? This requires a paradigm shift, a recognition of the fact that even “the good guys” have committed and are committing crimes against humanity such as slavery, the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, etc. Here lies a major obstacle to lifting the sanctions – a culture of “exceptionalism”. At the same time, there is no denying that many in the US, Canada and the EU do recognise that sanctions are illegal and criminal, but they also know that it is difficult to stop a moving train, and thus US, UK and European leaders have developed a kind of internal solidarity – the same kind of solidarity that criminal cartels like the Mafia observe among themselves. And yet what is needed is a recognition that in the modern world “unilateralism” is no longer acceptable. That in the light of the pandemic, only international solidarity and cooperation among States can slow down and eventually defeat the common enemy.
With regard to the pandemic: would lifting the sanctions on medicines and medical equipment be sufficient as a first step? What is the overall importance of sanctions for a country affected by the pandemic?
It is a necessary first step. But International Solidarity also requires that countries whose health infrastructures have been sabotaged by sanctions be given external assistance. However, genuine humanitarian assistance must be unpolitical, with no strings attached and not part of ulterior geopolitical strategies of “regime change”. Priority must be to prevent further contagion and to give prompt medical assistance including with respirators to those who have contracted the disease. Priority must be saving lives now – the universal condemnation of sanctions and of the countries imposing them must follow.
What role can Switzerland play in lifting the sanctions?
“Calamitas virtutis occasio” (Seneca, De Providentia, 4,6, Calamity is an opportunity to prove one’s courage.) A calamity gives the opportunity to demonstrate virtue, solidarity, ethics. Switzerland has a tradition of neutrality and considerable experience in mediation. Surely Switzerland could take the lead in publicly calling for a lifting of sanctions and offering its good offices to reach peaceful solutions between countries imposing sanctions and countries suffering them. Switzerland has a good reputation as an honest broker and it should discretely approach the government of the Unites States and try to broker deals with the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, North Korea etc. – deals based on the United Nations Charter and international law.
What do you consider to be the most important thing now?
The post-pandemic world should be a world of international solidarity – without unilateral coercive measures. This is the moment for the international community to reaffirm the principles of multilateralism contained in the UN Charter and demand that unilateral coercive measures that cause death and suffering be condemned by the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity. An investigation before the ICC is currently being conducted, after the Foreign Minister of Venezuela, Jorge Arreaza, submitted the Venezuelan case to the ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on 13 February 2020, pursuant to article 14 of the ICC statute. Arreaza announced this in his speech to the UN Human Rights Council on 24 February 2020. I was there when Arreaza also referred to my UN report A/HRC/39/47/Add.1. I am convinced that the US sanctions against Venezuela do constitute a “crime against humanity” under article 7 of the ICC statute.
In the meantime it would be important to obtain precise, empirical evidence concerning the nexus between sanctions and death, between sanctions and Covid-19. The World Health Organization could establish a working group to study the matter and issue a report as a matter of urgency. UNICEF could make an estimate of the number of children who have died as a consequence of sanctions, and the number of persons likely to die as a consequence of the inability of States to cope with the pandemic. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation should similarly establish a study concerning the adverse impact of sanctions on the agriculture and nutrition of targeted countries.
It is time for the General Assembly to adopt a resolution pursuant to Article 96 of the UN Charter, elevating the legal issues to the International Court of Justice, demanding as a matter of urgency an Advisory Opinion on
It’s quite clear that when sanctions are imposed on a country that the population is going to suffer. It’s ridiculous to pretend that the sanctions are only going to affect the government elite. In fact, the government elites usually continue living rather well. It’s the most vulnerable – women, children – who have to pay for the consequences of these illegal sanctions.
Professor de Zayas, thank you very much for the interview. •
* Alfred de Zayas (United States of America, Swiss citizen since 2017) is a writer, historian and leading expert on the Area of human rights and international law. In 2012, he was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the first UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order; he held this office until May, 2018.
A UN human rights expert on 3 April 2020 called for the lifting of all unilateral sanctions that obstruct the humanitarian responses of sanctioned States, in order to enable their health care systems to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives.
“I urge the international community to take immediate measures to lift, or at least suspend, all sanctions until our common threat is eliminated,“ said Ms. Alena Douhan1, the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. This aligns with the recent appeal of the UN Secretary-General to wave sanctions that undermine countries‘ capacity to respond to the pandemic.
“The defeat of this enemy can only be achieved through joint efforts of all States and international organisations in a spirit of multilateralism, cooperation and solidarity,“ she said. “In the face of the global challenge, no one shall be denied vital medical care.”
“I call on all Governments that use sanctions as foreign-relation tools to immediately withdraw measures aimed at establishing trade barriers, and ban tariffs, quotas, non-tariff measures, including those which prevent financing the purchase of medicine, medical equipment, food, other essential goods,“ said the UN expert.
The Special Rapporteur stressed that the current pandemic is challenging the whole system of human rights, including such fundamental rights as the right to life and right to health. “A sensitive human-rights approach is needed to confront the COVID-19 crisis, and that includes the lifting of any coercive measures among States,“ she said.
“I welcome all efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the countries affected by the disease.“ Douhan noted that some Governments and international organisations are often unable to provide the even most basic aid to the population of the sanctioned countries because unilateral sanctions use the global financial system to force third countries, companies and financial institutions to avoid any transactions related to those States.
“This is a matter of utmost importance and great urgency. The COVID-19 virus does not choose. It crosses borders easily and targets people regardless of nationality, race, political approaches, religion or social status,“ she said, noting that in sanctioned countries, in particular Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and Yemen, medical equipment is rather often outdated, and suffer shortages of medicine and protective means.
“Sanctioned countries are especially hard-hit as they cannot use their revenues to purchase imports of equipment, medicines, antiviral and food from global markets,“ the UN expert said. “The pandemic is triggering a serious economic crisis with serious negative humanitarian effects, especially for the most vulnerable ones in the poorest sectors of the population: women, elderly, youth, and children,“ Douhan said.
“I reiterate my predecessor‘s long standing position that the use of economic sanctions for political purposes violates human rights and the norms of international behaviour. As earlier as May 2019, he warned that such actions may precipitate man-made humanitarian catastrophes of unprecedented proportions.
“This is what we are witnessing now with regard to the health system worldwide and in sanctioned countries in particular.“
1 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.
ev. In view of the coronavirus crisis, various countries demanded an end to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US. Even in the US itself, voices are calling for an immediate end to such measures, especially in view of the global coronavirus crisis. So say US economists in a case study on Venezuela, one of the editors also in an interview that Amy Goodman has conducted on Democracy Now with Jeffrey Sachs and the Venezuelan Miguel Tinker Salas, professor at Pamona College in California. Although the demands for the lifting of sanctions were once again emphatically raised on the occasion of the Corona crisis, the statements on this were of much more fundamental importance.
Today, the US economist Jeffrey Sachs deals with health policy, sustainable development and he demands debt relief for extremely poor states. However, he is best known for his neo-liberal economic concepts, for example his recommendations for privatisation and liberalisation in the style of a shock therapy, as a result of which countless companies in various countries, especially in Eastern Europe, went bankrupt. This makes it all the more interesting that there are also calls from such sides for the immediate lifting of unilateral coercive measures - the unilateral US sanctions – against countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela or Cuba.
In a report by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, edited by Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot entitled “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela,” they examine the consequences of US sanctions on food availability and pharmaceuticals in Venezuela and how it increased disease and mortality. Literally the report writes: “American sanctions are deliberately aiming to wreck Venezuela’s economy and thereby lead to regime change. It’s a fruitless, heartless, illegal, and failed policy, causing grave harm to the Venezuelan people.”
In the interview conducted on the occasion of the publication of the report, Jeffrey Sachs comments on the figures they quoted – including 40,000 fatalities due to the sanctions: “I don’t want anyone to think that there is precision in these numbers. What is certain, though, staring us in the face, is that there is a humanitarian catastrophe, deliberately caused by the United States, by what I would say are illegal sanctions, because they are deliberately trying to bring down a government and trying to create chaos for the purpose of an overthrow of a government.”
After all, regardless of any mistakes a government may have made, as Sachs continued, it was the sanctions that “pushed Venezuela into this catastrophic, spiraling decline and hyperinflation. It’s always blamed in our press on but people don’t even look and understand how the US has the instruments of sanctions blocking access to financial markets, pushing enterprises into default, blocking trade, confiscating the assets owned by the Venezuelan government, precisely to and with the design of creating this kind of crisis, because the idea is, if the pain is enough-in the thinking of people like Bolton then there will be a military overthrow. So they’re trying to create absolute disaster.”
It would be high time that all states finally put an end to these measures that are contrary to international law and a mockery of all humanity and put an end to their hostage-taking as a result of such illegal actions.
Source: www.democracynow.org, https://www.democracynow.org/2019/5/1/economist_jeffrey_sachs_us_sanctions_have
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