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Civil Society Groups Urge Immediate Sanctions Relief and Legal Reform

Amid COVID-19 pandemic a group of nonprofit organizations sends letter to President Trump urging an overhaul in sanctions regime

Child receiving medical aid in Gaza
Photo: Anne Paq / Active Stills

Washington, DC (April 23, 2020): Today, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, 70 organizations representing humanitarian, research, peacebuilding, faith-based, human rights, and other civil society groups with over 40 million supporters sent a letter to President Trump, Secretary Mnuchin, and Secretary Pompeo urging the administration to provide emergency sanctions relief for countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and other heavily-sanctioned locations. Emphasizing the need for a global approach in dealing with the pandemic, the letter points out the “critical state of health infrastructures and economies” in many of these places.

“The pandemic has illustrated that isolating populations for decades and continuously strangling national economies has left millions of people vulnerable to disasters such as a COVID-19,” said Daniel Jasper, Asia Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. “Denying people access to lifesaving resources now represents a risk to the entire world. The U.S. must rethink its approach to sanctions.”

The letter puts forth a framework for universal safeguards that include six specific categories. These include aid that is directly related to containing and providing treatment for COVID-19 (such as testing kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators, etc.). The letter also calls for safeguarding aid needed to address simultaneous challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, such as providing adequate water supply, food security, and urgent health services for other infectious diseases.

The 70 organizations, some of which have decades of experience operating in heavily-sanctioned contexts, highlight the fact that sanctions can prevent the delivery of medical supplies and goods needed for things like childcare or food security projects, as well as limiting communication and partnerships necessary to deliver the aid and monitor ongoing projects.

The letter also urged authorities to address the concerns of financial institutions, which have been reluctant to work with humanitarian agencies. “While sanctions contain exceptions for food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian goods, in practice these exceptions do not work. Banks often block purchases for these items out of fear of running afoul of sanctions, in what is known as over-compliance,” said Teri Mattson, the Latin America Campaign Coordinator for CODEPINK. “Over-compliance is one of the many ways that innocent civilians end up being harmed by sanctions regimes.”

The signatories say that more is needed than just emergency safeguards, however. The letter notes that the effectiveness of sanctions regimes is not properly assessed by U.S. government agencies, referencing a report by the Government Accountability Office which called into question official monitoring procedures for sanctions as well as the impact of sanctions on human rights abroad. To understand these impacts, signatories to the letter recommend putting into place “reporting protocols that monitor the impact and human cost of sanctions.”

Citing a growing body of independent literature that shows the impacts of sanctions on civilians, the letter also urges the administration to suspend “broad-based and sectoral sanctions that cause significant economic damage and leave populations more exposed to sickness and disease, food insecurity, and other humanitarian emergencies.”

“Sanctions kill innocents indiscriminately just like bombs. Historically, this type of economic warfare fails to positively affect the behavior of governments. During this pandemic crisis, the U.S. needs to remove all barriers, like sanctions, so countries can counteract COVID-19,” stated Paul Kawika Martin the Senior Policy Director for Peace Action.

“Across the world, COVID-19 is deepening existing gender inequalities. Women and girls, who are typically tasked with caregiving, face an increased workload and heightened risk of contracting the disease when family members fall sick. They're also the most exposed to the economic shocks we're seeing," said Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE. "These gendered impacts are only compounded by economic sanctions, which put lifesaving medical equipment and aid out of reach."

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The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the belief in the worth of every person and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.