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Lift Sanctions, Save Lives

#Articles & Analysis#Human Rights Defense
April 2020


Grassroots International joined dozens of other civil society organizations to demand the United States government lift economic and political sanctions on other countries. These sanctions are deadly enough, but in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are already increasing the virus’s threat among civilians. To read the coalition’s full letter, visit Lift Sanctions, Save Lives.


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.

Denying people access to lifesaving resources now represents a risk to the entire world. The U.S. must rethink its approach.”

— Daniel Jasper, the American Friends Service Committee.

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.

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.”

— Teri Mattson, CODEPINK

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… During this pandemic crisis, the U.S. needs to remove all barriers, like sanctions, so countries can counteract COVID-19.”

— Paul Kawika Martin, 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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