Although sanctions have been an important feature of the US foreign policy toward Iran since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the evolution of international unilateral sanctions is a relatively new development (which has taken place since 2006). In fact, although the use of sanctions as a tool to put pressure on Iran has existed throughout the post-revolution period, involvement of the United Nations Security Council and extensive efforts by the United States to expand the sanctions and encourage Washington’s allies to impose sanctions much more extensive than the Security Council’s sanctions against Iran, have totally changed the situation in the past year. One of the main features of the new conditions is their negative impact on the Iranian society and citizens who are directly bearing the brunt of the sanctions.
In fact, the main goal of the US sanctions since the 1980s has been to force Iran to stop its alleged support for terrorism and also to curb the Islamic Republic’s strategic clout in the Middle East. Since the early 1990s, however, such efforts have been spearheaded under the pretext of stopping nuclear activities of Iran. However, expansion of the sanctions by the United States and is allies in the European Union (EU) and also by countries in other regions, which are also allies to the Washington, to cover international transactions with the Central Bank of Iran and stop the country’s oil exports have caused serious problems for Iran. The refusal to provide monetary services to Iran by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) which has blocked Iran’s financial transactions with the rest of the world, especially since March 2012, and its direct and indirect consequences such as the difficulty of importing medicines, medical equipment and other requirements of a decent life have further complicated the situation.
The present research, which is based on the assumption that imposition of unilateral sanctions by one state or a number of states against one or a number of other states is against the international law, tries to discuss the unconstructed consequences of sanctions from two viewpoints. The first viewpoint is the incompatibility of unilateral sanctions with basic principles of human rights because they effectively block the access of the population under sanctions to a great number of their basic rights which have been stipulated by international human rights instruments. The second angle is the analysis of unilateral sanctions from the viewpoint of the damage that they do to the principle of cooperation and friendly relations among governments and nations. It should be noted that the subject of this research, throughout its length, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
To do this, the article begins with a brief review of the backdrop of sanctions against Iran before discussing the incompatibility of sanctions with international principles and regulations included in such major international instruments as the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as a number of conventions and resolutions, especially resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly.
Background of sanctions
This well-planned regime of US sanctions against Iran, which has been in gears during the past three decades, considered together with the latest sanctions imposed by the European Union, depict a dangerous picture of the West’s effort to use economic pressures in order to bring the Iranian government and nation to its knees, especially since 2011 when sanctions have become more intense and more explicit. Of special concern is the general restrictions imposed by the 27-member European Union bloc against Iran’s banking, shipping and gas export sectors which entered into force as of October 15, 2012, in addition to compliance of many important countries, which had been customers of Iran’s oil and gas for many years, with those sanctions. Let’s not forget that adoption of four sanctions resolutions against Iran by the US administration in 2011 followed by five unilateral sanctions resolutions also adopted by the United States in 2012 was a record which has had no precedence in the past 30 years. The European Union has been also hitting a new record. For example, since the beginning of 2013, a total of 490 Iranian institutions and 105 Iranian citizens have been included in unilateral sanctions which have been imposed by the European block against Iran.
It is noteworthy that imposing sanctions against various Iranian officials on charges of violating human rights of the Iranian citizens, is among the newest measures taken by the United States and Europe, especially since 2009, and has opened a new chapter in the history of sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, during past years, the United States has imposed sanctions against certain Iranian persons on charges of involvement in the suppression of domestic protests and violation of human rights. The bulk of those sanctions has been based on Iran Sanctions Bill which prevents Iranians identified as being in violation of human rights from traveling to the United States, and paves the way for freezing their property in accordance with the executive orders 13382, 13224, 13553, 13438, and 13572.
Also, in addition to the ban on issuing visas to some Iranian officials as a result of sanctions imposed against the country, the United States accompanied by Britain has banned more than 50 Iranian officials from traveling to the United States as of July 2011 under the pretext that they had been involved in the suppression of the political protests in the country.
Apart from the United States, the European Union has been a forerunner in imposing sanctions on Iranian entities by imposing sanctions against three Iranian and four Syrian officials in April 2011 on charges of violating human rights norms and suppressing protesters; adding the names of 61 Iranian real entities on charges of violating human rights in June and October 2011; putting 39 Iranian officials and 141 Iranian companies allegedly involved in the country’s nuclear energy program on its blacklist in December 2011; and also extending sanctions to 17 more Iranian officials on charges of violating human rights in March 2102. In the latest instance of such measures, the US Treasury Department on November 8, 2012, imposed sanctions against eight Iranian persons and nine Iranian institutions on charges of taking part in the censorship, violation of human rights, supporting terrorism and having ties to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).
Incompatibility of sanctions with human rights principles and regulations
Since all the members of the international community have sovereign rights, in case of the violation of international law, the states can take independent measures in order to punish the violator. Such measures cover a wide range from diplomatic protests to cutting diplomatic or trade ties and even unilateral abrogation of a contract. However, as the public international law develops and relations among the members of international community become more intricate, the need for gradual transfer of the qualification for the administration of punishment from the states to international organizations has been felt more than any time before. In fact, this is why promotion of friendly relations, controlling all kinds of bilateral or multilateral tension, finding solutions through negotiations, and finally arbitration for the settlement of disputes among the states have been among the most important principles underlying the establishment of the United Nations. A glance at the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and hundreds of international covenants, conventions, and resolutions over about seven past decades will prove that all the efforts made by international community during this long period of time has been to promote the spirit of cooperation, equality and friendship among the states in order to prevent the human society from facing the ominous fate of another global war. The interesting point is that the UN literature has only made cursory reference to the enforcement or the legitimacy of economic sanctions, especially in a unilateral and bullying form.
Quite the opposite, the UN literature is full of emphases on the respect for human rights; recourse to arbitration, investigation, fact-finding and judgment; necessity of increasing international cooperation; and avoidance of unilateral forceful measures either economically, or militarily. This issue will become more important, especially if human rights approaches embedded in these international instruments are taken into account. In line with this approach, some of these instruments will be briefly reviewed below.
1. The Charter of the United Nations
The opening articles of the United Nations Security Council’s anti-Iran sanctions resolutions, including resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, and 1929, derive their legitimacy from Chapter VII of the Charter. However, the UN Charter should be considered an integrated whole in which those chapters and articles which are about imposing sanctions or even sanctioning military punishment against a Member State will become understandable only when taken into account in parallel to other chapters and articles which are about promotion of friendly relations, and the protection and respect for human dignity regardless of all apparent characteristics of human beings. There are many instances in the Charter which prove that its authors had made their best to imbue intergovernmental relations with a powerful sense of human rights. For example, the opening articles of the Charter clearly say that “the Purposes of the United Nations are:”
- to practice tolerance and living in peace with one another as good neighbors; to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security; to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest; and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
- to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
- to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion .
- to create conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,
- to promote higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;
- to promote solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation; and
- to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
In fact, according to Para. 2, Article 1 as well as Article 55 of the Charter of the United Nations, which were given above, unilateral sanctions affect the rights of the target country’s citizens to self-determination one way or another. At the same time, the restrictive measures and sanctions also leave their mark on the right of the target country to development and pose both short- and long-term threats to it.
2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Similar to the Charter of the United Nations, the issue of protecting the human dignity and developing friendly relations among human beings has been mentioned in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been clearly reflected in some of its articles. Although the highest emphasis by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been put on personal freedoms, rather than collective freedoms, there are many instances of rights mentioned therein and deprivation of people from these rights as a result of the sanctions can be considered as an example of the violation of the Declaration’s contents. Some examples include:
- Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.
- Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
- Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person .
- Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality .
- Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
- Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized
It is noteworthy that other major human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, have made references to many instances of the importance of the human right to life and good living conditions as well as the importance of international cooperation. For example, two articles of the aforesaid Covenant should be mentioned here:
- The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international cooperation based on free consent. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international cooperation, the measures, including specific programs, which are needed…
- The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
On the whole, such rights as the right to life, the right to avail oneself of a suitable standard of living (including food, clothing, housing, and medical care), the right to be free from hunger, and the right to enjoy medical care are among explicit principles of human rights which come under powerful negative impact of general or unilateral sanctions when the civilian population of the target country is involved.
3. Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations
Approval of the Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, which took place through the UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV) on October 24, 1970, was another stride by international community toward more emphasis on the importance of friendly relations among nations. In general, ensuring peace and establishment of friendly relations as well as promotion of cooperation among the states are among the most important goals of the United Nations. As a result, all the UN member states should not only avoid using force or threat to force in their international relations, but should also avoid any measure which may undermine international cooperation. The aforesaid declaration underlines this point and stipulates that any threat by the states against political, economic and cultural interests of other states is against the principles of international law. It also denounces recourse to economic measures in order to achieve any kind of benefit. Some of the most important highlights of the Declaration, which are critical of unilateral economic restrictions and sanctions, include:
- Recalling the duty of States to refrain in their international relations from military, political, economic, or any other form of coercion aimed against the political independence or territorial integrity of any State .
- Considering it essential that all States shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations .
- No State may use or encourage the use of economic political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.
- Every State has the duty to promote, through joint and separate action, realization of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, in accordance with the provisions of the Charter, and to render assistance to the United Nations in carrying out the responsibilities entrusted to it by the Charter regarding the implementation of the principle, in order to promote friendly relations and cooperation among States… .
- States should cooperate in the economic, social and cultural fields as well as in the field of science and technology and for the promotion of international cultural and educational progress. States should cooperate in the promotion of economic growth throughout the world, especially that of the developing countries .
4. Resolution on the prohibition of unilateral coercive measures
The prohibition on the unilateral coercive measures is among those concepts which have been pursued by and draw attention of developing countries, especially such groups of countries as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), within various international institutions such as the former Human Rights Commission, the UN General Assembly, as well as the UN Human Rights Council, for many years. Of course, such measures are usually taken by some states under the pretext of forcing the target state to change and improve the situation of the human rights within their borders. In reality, however, they are meant to prevent the target country from enforcing its right to free political, economic, and social development, and can also serve as a stumbling block on the way of the citizens of the target state for taking full advantage of their basic human rights such as the right to have food, security and medical care.
At any rate, the issue of forceful unilateral sanctions and their impact on the citizens’ basic human rights has been the subject of a great many of international human rights instruments. For example, from 1995 up to February 2013, six UN secretary-general reports,(1) one report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, (2) six resolutions adopted by the former Human Rights Commission, (3) and also five resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council (4) have formed the basis of international literature related to coercive restrictive measures within human rights institutions affiliated to the United Nations. Also, in 1989, a resolution was drawn up at the UN General Assembly by the South countries, which was entitled “Economic Measures as a Means of Political and Economic Coercion against Developing Countries” and was passed through 118 ayes, 23 nays, and 2 abstentions. This resolution has been frequently put to vote alternatively at the UN Third Committee and the UN General Assembly, both alone (up to 1995) and along with the resolution entitled “Human Rights and Unilateral Coercive Measures,” (since 1996), and in every voting it has been passed through a high positive vote at both international bodies.
The Non-Aligned Movement has also adopted many resolutions on this subject.
The most recent instrument on this subject is resolution A/HRC/RES/19/32, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on April 18, 2012. Some articles of this resolution which are concerned with restrictive economic measures are as follows:
- Condemns the continued unilateral application and enforcement by certain powers of such measures as tools of political or economic pressure against any country, particularly against developing countries, with a view to preventing these countries from exercising their right to decide, of their own free will, their own political, economic and social systems .
- Reaffirms, in this context, the right of all peoples to self-determination, by virtue of which they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their own economic, social and cultural development.
- Recalls that, according to the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, and to the relevant principles and provisions contained in the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 3281 (XXIX) of 12 December 1974, in particular article 32 thereof, no State may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measure to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.
- Underlines the fact that unilateral coercive measures are one of the main obstacles to the implementation of the Declaration on the Right to Development and, in this regard, calls upon all States to avoid the unilateral imposition of economic coercive measures and the extraterritorial application of domestic laws that run counter to the principles of free trade and hamper the development of developing countries.
- Invites all special reporters and existing thematic mechanisms of the Human Rights Council in the field of economic, social and cultural rights to pay due attention, within the scope of their respective mandates, to the negative impact and consequences of unilateral coercive measures .
- 5. Resolution on the enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights
The concept of enhancing cooperation among the member states of the United Nations is one of the most basic and most primary concepts of human rights contained in international human rights instruments. The emphasis put on this concept by the Charter of the United Nations and the fact that the necessity and inevitability of cooperation among the states has been taken as the bedrock of all human rights treaties, covenants and conventions, attests to the high importance of this concept. This concept is also among the main topics which have been pursued for many years by the developing countries, especially within framework of such groupings as the Non-Aligned Movement or within various international bodies such as the former Human Rights commission, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Human Rights Council. At the moment, the most recent instrument in this regard is the resolution A/HRC/RES/19/33 which was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on April 19, 2012. To prove the logical inference that sanctions and restrictive economic, social and cultural measures are totally at odds with the concept of cooperation, certain relevant articles of this resolution are mentioned here to shed more light on the importance and necessity of promoting cooperation among the states:
- Emphasizing the need for further progress in the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms through, inter alia, international cooperation (introductory articles);
- Underlining the fact that mutual understanding, dialog, cooperation, transparency and confidence-building are important elements in all activities for the promotion and protection of human rights .
- Urges States to take necessary measures to enhance bilateral, regional and international cooperation aimed at addressing the adverse impact of consecutive and compounded global crises, such as financial and economic crises, food crises, climate change and natural disasters, on the full enjoyment of human rights (Article 15);
- Takes note of the study of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights, prepared pursuant to the mandate given by the Council, in its resolution 13/23 of March 26, 2010, to the Advisory Committee to explore ways and means to enhance international cooperation in the field of human rights .
It should be noted that during the 21st meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (September 2012), a similar resolution entitled “enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of human rights” and registered under number A/HRC/21/L.11 was presented by a group of developing and developed states in which part of the second paragraph of its executive articles, emphasizes on the significance of cooperation among the states by saying that the resolution:
- Emphasizes the need to promote a cooperative and constructive approach and international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights.
On the whole, when it comes to cooperation among the states, the most important point is that this concept is much more comprehensive to be contained in the simple phrase of “enhancement of cooperation for the promotion of human rights.” In fact, this concept has some sort of direct effect on the “promotion of international peace and security” and due to the development and current focus on the concept of friendship among human beings, it is too important to be taken into account simply for the observance of its human rights aspects.
Conclusion and roundup
1. All the instances explained above merely encompass a small part of international instruments and regulations related to the prohibition of economic tools such as sanctions against a state, and also aim to serve as a critique of confrontational approaches which are not based on cooperative mechanisms. These concepts have been also frequently, and sometimes indirectly, mentioned in other international instruments. For example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its articles 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 18 has elaborated on the people’s right to fair and equitable working conditions; the right to leading a suitable life; the right to have access to adequate food, clothing and housing; the right to education; as well as the right to take advantage of the latest advances in science and technology in addition to the right to have access to theoretical and artistic achievements of humanity. These instances clearly indicate the importance of this issue and the necessity of showing respect for it in the basic relations and interactions among the states.
2. In the general comment expressed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2007 on the relationship between economic sanctions and respect for economic, social and cultural rights , four basic rights, namely, the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, the right to freedom from hunger, and the right to health, have been enumerated as the main indices which determine the extent to which legal economic sanctions can be imposed. On this basis, one may conclude that if sanctions encroach upon any one of these basic rights, it would be justified to consider them inhumane and in violation of the basic principles of human rights.
Comparison of these facts with the US sanctions against Iran will clearly prove that even sanctions imposed on certain goods such as radio medicines, airplane parts, or certain goods known as dual-use goods, have deprived some Iranian nationals of the right to life or have seriously endangered that life and continue to do so. Also, the expanding sanctions which cover the assets of certain Iranian officials and ban their traveling abroad under the pretext of being involved in violation of the citizenship rights in Iran, regardless of the grounds that have led to the imposition of such sanctions, violate their property right and can also have a negative effect on their right to avail themselves of fair trail and enjoy adequate standard of living.
3. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) included a very important clause in its May 31, 2012, mandate, which is also known as Doha Mandate, on the results of UNCTAD’s 13th session in the Qatari capital city of Doha. The article clearly denounced unilateral economic measures by the member states, especially against developing states. According to the article, the Doha Mandate:
– strongly urges States “to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial, or trade measures not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations that impedes the full achievement of economic and social development, particularly in developing countries, and that affects commercial interests. It might be argued with some credibility in the present instance that the measures considered are an example of “unilateral coercive economic measures.”
4. After comparing the contents of the aforesaid instruments and resolutions, which were already explained in this report, with the current sanctions against Iran, one may conclude that although the European and American officials claim that foodstuff and medicines have been excluded from unilateral sanctions, complicated embargo imposed on all forms of financial transactions by the Western and non-Western banks with the Iranian banks, have practically made it impossible for the buyer (Iran) and the seller (other countries) of medicines to interact and transact effectively. A cursory glance at a recent report published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which is an American institution, will shed more light on this issue:
“Not only are the existing sanctions exemptions flawed and insufficient, but also the de facto implementation of these laws far exceed their de jure requirements. Draconian penalties for a potential US sanctions violation are discouraging the involvement of international banks in humanitarian trade with Iran. Even when the most reputable American and European pharmaceutical companies are involved, and their lawyers have completed all the necessary paperwork from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), nearly all banks that Iran deals with prefer to err on the side of caution. Their hesitation is understandable given that a mistake could earn a bank the wrath of the US Treasury Department and fines that exceed $1 billion.
The recent experience of a reputable Iranian pharmaceutical group shows the magnitude of the problem. When a senior company representative flew to Paris to present a French bank with documentation showing that the trade was fully legal, he was told: “Even if you bring a letter from the French president himself saying it is OK to do so, we will not risk this.”
With Iranian banks blacklisted and international banks hesitant, very few options are left for Western companies trying to sell their medicines and humanitarian products to Iran. In fact, the companies we interviewed gave reference to only a single banking channel being used for opening letters of credit in order to carry out pharmaceutical trade with Iran. Consequently, humanitarian trade is greatly reduced; what is taking place is delayed due to the extra checks involved that ensure the legality of every transaction and also because the volume of trade exceeds the said bank’s capacity. These delays, in turn, play a prominent role in causing shortages of medical supplies.
A similar situation exists in terms of shipping, insurance, and other services needed for trade..
5. The important point which should be taken into consideration when studying the effect of the unilateral sanctions on human rights principles is the emphasis put and differentiation made by most international instruments, especially resolutions which ban unilateral coercive measures, with regard to the impact of “unilateral” sanctions on the human rights of citizens in the target country. In fact, such international instruments have paid less attention to the impact of multilateral sanctions (such as sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council and the European Union). As a result, when a government like the Islamic Republic of Iran is suffering from both kinds of sanctions at the same time, it would be almost impossible to differentiate between the impact of sanctions on the state and their untoward effects on the human rights of the Iranian citizens. In this state, in addition to the fact that the untoward impact of sanctions is increased, it is very difficult for impartial international observers to get feedback on them.
6. In conclusion, the Iranian nation has been living under the threat of this phrase, which is frequently used by the US officials, for many years: All options are on the table. In the meantime, according to paragraphs 3 and 4, Article 2, of the Charter of the United Nations, “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” Unfortunately, this solution has been so far ignored by such global powers as the United States and the European Union, and has not been pursued with transparency, impartiality, and justice, especially with regard to Iran. On the whole, this issue, as well as all other facts, which have been mentioned in this article, constitute major instances of the incompatibility of unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran with human rights principles. This is true both from the viewpoint of the violation of basic norms of human rights, and from the standpoint of conflict with stipulated principles regarding the necessity of enhancing cooperation and friendship among all nations, which is one of the main foundations of the United Nations. Let’s hope that a legal approach to unilateral sanctions against Iran will, as soon as possible, replace the currently dominant political approach to this issue. In this way, the incompatibility of sanctions with the basic principles of human rights will be revealed more than before on the basis of the aforesaid principles of international law and resolutions adopted by various international bodies. This will help increase the determination of all the states and international institutions to strongly prohibit such inhumane sanctions.
By US Close Up
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