The Impact of Sanctions on Humanitarian Response to COVID-19

In Idlib, Syria, workers inside a small laboratory manufacture protective masks using basic tools, March 26, 2020. (Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

As COVID-19 begins to spread to the most fragile regions of the world, humanitarian organizations are facing pre-existing hurdles—often diffuse and indirect—hindering the deployment of an appropriate and timely response to the virus in countries under sanctions. Sanctioned jurisdictions represent around 75% of the beneficiary states of the United Nations (UN) Global Humanitarian Response Plan to COVID-19. With urgency growing by the day, what can the UN system, particularly the UN Security Council, do to ensure that humanitarian organizations can fulfill their mission during the pandemic, in its immediate aftermath, and in the long-term?

Lifting sanctions: a political decision

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the debate on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian action has been gaining visibility. Calls to temporarily ease or suspend sanctions regimes have increased, aimed at ramping up medical and other life-saving assistance in response to COVID-19. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Secretary-General have been among these voices. Some states have called for a total lift of sanctions, writing a joint letter to the UN Secretary-General and proposing a draft resolution at the General Assembly. At national levels as well, including in the United States (US), numerous voices have risen in favor of sanctions relief.

However, this option has gone unacknowledged by many stakeholders and is unlikely to gain buy-in from the UN Security Council. Reasons underlying this debate are essentially political. Sanction measures are regarded as a tool “to advance a range of foreign policy goals” and cannot be lifted before these objectives are met, lest they be seen as “appeasement.” Moreover, there is a concern that a decision to lift sanctions even temporarily would not be reversible. Finally, opponents to the idea of temporarily lifting sanctions regard these calls as opportunistic since, they say, humanitarian aid is generally exempted from sanction regimes.

Humanitarian exemptions: no panacea

Humanitarian exemptions are provided by most unilateral sanction regimes imposed by the United States and the European Union (including the ones related to DPRK, Iran, and Syria) and by some UN sanctions regimes (including related to the situation in DPRK and Yemen). Although humanitarian exemptions have allowed humanitarian organizations to operate in contexts under sanctions, they have done so with delay and at high cost. Humanitarian exemptions (not to be confused with exceptions) are complex to navigate and are no panacea for several reasons.

First, humanitarian organizations must undergo an authorization process established by relevant sanctions authorities to obtain specific licenses to import certain goods (including the drugs and medical devices necessary to fight COVID-19) or to conduct certain activities in areas under the control of sanctioned individuals. This costly and lengthy process often does not match the urgency of the humanitarian response. In the past weeks, sanctions-related authorities have offered assurance that exemption requests pertaining to COVID-19 have been prioritized and expedited. However, some authorities have found themselves overwhelmed as they juggle increasing incoming requests and other activities linked to the pandemic. Additionally, humanitarian exemptions are granted on a case-by-case basis—either to an organization,  to specific activities or goods—putting further stress on sanction authorities to respond to each requesting organization but also leaving little to no flexibility to humanitarian entities to adjust their operations in a timely manner.

Second, the period preceding the launch of a formal request may also be quite extensive. Keeping abreast of evolving regulations and navigating humanitarian exemptions requires much due diligence that falls on humanitarian organizations, often disadvantaging smaller ones that don’t have the capacity, resources, or experience. To alleviate this process, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued last week a fact sheet on the “provision of humanitarian assistance and trade to combat COVID-19.” The European Union is also expected to issue guidelines in relation to its sanctions’ regimes. Even with such guidance, the process still requires meticulous work to untangle the multiple requirements and diligently follow the procedures, especially when dealing with highly sanctioned jurisdictions in which various regulations overlap.

Finally, humanitarian exemptions convey the impression that an exemption is always necessary to allow humanitarians to operate in sanctioned jurisdictions, and that previously agreed upon legal frameworks are not sufficient to safeguard humanitarian action. For example, in situations of armed conflict, such as in Yemen, where International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applies, requests to the Security Council’s sanction committees for humanitarian exemptions create an unnecessary layer of consent. Further, once the parties to a conflict have provided their consent, there is an obligation on all states to facilitate unimpeded humanitarian relief operations, which seems at odds with the additional procedures and red tape involving the Security Council or other sanction authorities to get exemptions.

The humanitarian exemption procedure— slow at the best of times— is under further stress from COVID-19, as organizations and countries grapple with responding to the global pandemic. As the High Commissioner on Human Rights clearly requested, “humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies.” Accordingly, relevant sanctions authorities could anticipate the growing demand for exemptions and put forth measures, including the approval of a white list for products essential to the fight against COVID-19 that would ease and expedite the exemption procedure.

Overcompliance: lasting and exacerbated impact 

Humanitarian exemptions alone have not been sufficient to solve other indirect hinderances, particularly overcompliance and the risk-averse behaviors of donors, financial institutions, private companies, and humanitarian organizations themselves. Legal and reputational concerns of intermediaries—notably financial institutions and private companies—have led to “de-risking” behaviors, whereby they refuse to facilitate transactions of humanitarian actors operating in jurisdictions subject to sanctions although it may not be prohibited. These effects continue to play out during the pandemic and are exacerbated by shortages of medical equipment and export controls on personal protective equipment put in place by multiple states. Companies have been called to remain extremely vigilant in their compliance efforts. Facing procedurally complex transactions, companies may assess that the risks of engaging with sanctioned jurisdictions outweigh the benefits. In this context, we can expect overcompliance to increase, continuing to indirectly impact humanitarian action.

It is urgent for relevant sanctions authorities to curb this effect by reassuring actors involved in the humanitarian supply chain. To this end, legal guarantees could be provided to the private sector from relevant sanctions authorities. Cross-cutting exceptions could be promulgated, including by the UN Security Council (similar to the one carved out in the sanction regime related to the situation in Somalia) and new mechanisms could be put in place to facilitate humanitarian transactions.

The UN Secretary-General recently underlined that the global response to COVID-19 is “only as strong as the weakest health care system.” To that end, and pursuant to international human rights law and IHL, states must support and facilitate the delivery of medical and humanitarian aid to countries in need, including those subject to sanction regimes. The UN should seize the opportunity to adopt operationally relevant and politically viable solutions, including those offered in a recent IPI report, that would stem the effects of sanctions on humanitarian assistance during the pandemic and in the long run.

Agathe Sarfati is a policy analyst at the International Peace Institute’s Center for Peace Operations.