20 March 2020

Exacerbating the Public Health Emergency in Iran

US Blanket Sanctions and the Covid-19 Crisis

Iran is one of the hardest hit countries by Covid-19 – more than 1,000 had died and more than 18,000 had been infected as of March 19th, and both are likely underestimates. The Iranian government has serious culpability for this suffering, just as it has for numerous other gross and systematic rights violations perpetrated against its own population and other populations in the region. Responsibility for the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Iran is not limited to the Iranian government, however. Rather, that suffering has been exacerbated by the US blanket sanctions regime currently in place, a regime that was causing serious violations of the rights to health and to life in Iran even before Covid-19 magnified the dangers to public health.

Too often, international sanctions of considerably varying forms are lumped together under a single label. On one end of the scale are arms embargos on warring parties and governments engaged in widespread and systematic human rights violations and violations of the laws of war, together with targeted sanctions on individuals known to have a history of complicity in such violations. Such measures are not in violation of international law, provided the necessary due process guarantees are in place and they are appropriately tailored; in fact, they may be understood as required measures under international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law, insofar as they constitute steps that must be taken in order to avoid complicity in the harms being committed by the parties sanctioned.

On the other end of the scale are ‘blanket’ sanctions applied against a population as a whole. Such measures have a long history, and may be understood as a contemporary outgrowth of the collective punishments and attacks on civilian populations common to the colonial context as well as the brutal wars of the twentieth century. In more recent history, the sanctions regime applied against Iraq, estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, was widely criticized, including by human rights organizations, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and others. Sanctions against Haiti and Burundi came in for similar criticism in the 1990s as well, and sanctions on Venezuela have been received analogous assessment more recently. In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council created a new position, the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, with an eye towards the persistence of such issues. Even the United States government has acknowledged that US sanctions regimes may result in harms to public health and human rights violations, via a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Ineffective humanitarian exemptions

In theory, one might imagine that such failures could be mitigated by sufficiently capacious humanitarian exemptions, and that the reason past sanctions regimes have come in for such extensive rights-based criticism is because of their failure to include adequate exemptions. This potential begins to seem less credible, however, when one recognizes that humanitarian exemptions are not a novel feature of sanctions regimes. Such exemptions were already present, in fact, in the sanctions regime applied against Iraq in 1990 by Security Council Resolution 661, article 3(c) of which exempted “supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and, in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs.” Criticism of the sanctions imposed against Iraq, in other words, already recognized the ineffectiveness of de jure humanitarian exemptions in practice. In this regard very little has changed, as while humanitarian exemptions form a part of the Iran sanctions regime on paper, they are similarly ineffective in reality. Even prior to the current crisis, the International Court of Justice issued an interim ruling indicating that the United States should remove impediments to the importation of necessary medicines, medical devices, foodstuffs and civil aviation equipment into Iran; the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran expressed concern with the broader effects of the sanctions on the availability of food and medicines; and Human Rights Watch documented the ineffectiveness of the humanitarian exemptions regime in practice, observing, for instance, the manner it left those suffering from leukemia, epidermolysis bullosa, epilepsy and chronic eye injuries, among other medical conditions, unable to access necessary treatments.

The failure of humanitarian exemptions in practice, in short, has been consistently documented over the past three decades. Clearly, rendering such exemptions effective would represent a major improvement, and would temper the rights violations caused by existing blanket sanctions regimes, such as that imposed on Iran. Even if necessary foodstuffs, medical supplies and civil aviation equipment were allowed through freely, however, sanctions that target the population as a whole, including generalized economic measures, would still constitute a form of collective punishment, and involve the violation of numerous rights obligations, including not only the rights to health and to life, but other socio-economic rights guarantees as well. The needs imposed by the Covid-19 crisis provide one example of the close interconnectedness of rights, and of the ways in which additional rights violations may occur. Of course, appropriate medical supplies and equipment are required to respond effectively to the crisis. As many around the world are recognizing, however, a public health response alone will not be sufficient – rather, extensive social and economic support will also be required in order to ensure the well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be hit the hardest not only by the pandemic but also by the accompanying economic downturn. Even when a pandemic is not taking place, blanket sanctions similarly violate rights of the population at large not only by preventing the importation of much-needed medical supplies, but also by damaging the economy and thereby the wealth, health and life expectancies of the poorest members of society.

At the end of the day, therefore, it is important to recognize that the blanket sanctions applied by the United States with respect to Iran contributed to serious human rights violations even before the Covid-19 crisis hit. The harm caused by those sanctions is magnified several-fold by a public health crisis on this scale, however. In the face of Covid-19, it is all the more necessary that the blanket sanctions currently in place be suspended to allow for the delivery of humanitarian relief, including the medicines, medical equipment and support necessary to tackle the virus, similar supplies and support needed to respond to other serious healthcare issues, and the funding necessary to fashion an adequate response to the socio-economic effects of the crisis. In the longer term, respect for international human rights law requires that all blanket sanctions regimes, including that imposed on Iran as well as those targeting other states and populations, be rolled back and replaced by more precisely targeted approaches.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Roberts, Christopher: Exacerbating the Public Health Emergency in Iran: US Blanket Sanctions and the Covid-19 Crisis, VerfBlog, 2020/3/20, https://verfassungsblog.de/exacerbating-the-public-health-emergency-in-iran/, DOI: 10.17176/20200320-122856-0.

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