The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has called (31 March 2020) for the immediate lifting of international sanctions to prevent hunger crises in countries hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The continued imposition of crippling economic sanctions on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and, to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe, to name the most prominent instances, severely undermines the ordinary citizens’ fundamental right to sufficient and adequate food,” said Hilal Elver.

These countries are already under stress and cannot handle the additional burden of sanctions. As the world exhibits new bonds of solidarity in response to the pandemic, it is now a matter of humanitarian and practical urgency to lift unilateral economic sanctions immediately.”

The late Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, commented on the hardship caused by US backed sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s. He said that “the sanctions had serious consequences not just for Saddam Hussein and his regime, against whom they were aimed, but also – and more importantly – for huge numbers of innocent people. Joy Gordon of Loyola University in Chicago has estimated that the sanctions led to 670,000-880,000 excess child deaths.

As the international community, recognizing the suffering that sanctions caused in Iraq, moved in the 2000s toward targeted, or so-called “smart”, sanctions directed at individuals or entities, there were concerns whether targeted sanctions could cause just as much collateral damage as the comprehensive country sanctions of the past. Such targeted sanctions can still hurt the livelihoods and wellbeing of ordinary citizens, though those consequences are often overlooked.

Sanctions can regrettably sometimes be a blunt instrument, which hurts large numbers of people who are not its primary target. Too often, innocent civilians have become victims not only of the abuses of their own government, but also of the measures taken against that government by the international community. They can, thus, often be doubly hurt, particularly in times of humanitarian crises.

Properly applied, it is clear that sanctions are not intended to displace or undermine fundamental human rights, such as the basic right to life, right to food and right to health, but instead to operate side by side with and uphold these rights. The current political debate regarding the proper use of particular sanctions during the COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of this.

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