Lessons from COVID-19: A Catalyst for Improving Sanctions?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, efforts by states and humanitarian actors to stop its spread and to treat the sick are being hindered by existing sanctions and counterterrorism measures.

Expert comment
Published 26 August 2020 Updated 3 February 2021 3 minute READ
Syrians walk past a mural painted as part of an awareness campaign by UNICEF and WHO, bearing instructions on protection from COVID-19, in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, Syria, on 16 August 2020. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images.

Syrians walk past a mural painted as part of an awareness campaign by UNICEF and WHO, bearing instructions on protection from COVID-19, in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, Syria, on 16 August 2020. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images.

If sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the EU, or states unilaterally, are not sufficiently targeted, and do not include adequate safeguards for humanitarian action, they can adversely affect the very populations for whose well-being they were imposed in the first place. This is not a new concern, but one brought starkly to the fore by their impact on responses to COVID-19.

The detrimental impact of sanctions, which can prevent the supply of medical or personal protective equipment (PPE), or the provision of technical support or training to local health authorities is evident. Sanctions can also affect remote learning if support cannot be provided to local education authorities, export licences cannot be obtained for the necessary equipment and software, or if the companies providing reliable internet coverage are designated under the sanctions.

A comparison of US and EU sanctions on Syria reveals key challenges, but also opportunities for improving current arrangements for the imposition and implementation of sanctions so as to minimize adverse consequences in Syria and more generally.

The US has imposed broad sanctions, such as restrictions on the provision of funds, goods or services – even charitable contributions – to the Syrian government, including the health and education ministries, now playing a central role in the COVID-19 response.

UN agencies are exempted from these restrictions. A general license authorizes NGOs to conduct activities to meet basic needs, but it excludes those involving the government. So NGOs wishing to provide medical devices, PPE, training or other support to ministry of health staff have to apply for a specific licence.

But procedures for applying for licences are complicated, and the approval process notoriously slow. No accommodation has been made to facilitate the COVID-19 response: no interpretative guidance – that would be valuable for all NGOs – has been issued, and no procedures established for reviewing applications more quickly. There is no statement of policy indicating the circumstances under which specific licences might be granted.

Transactions with designated entities other than the government, such as internet providers whose services are necessary for remote learning, remain prohibited, and regulations expressly preclude applying for specific licences.

US sanctions frequently have a broad scope, both in direct and indirect application. NGOs registered in the US, and staff who are US nationals, are directly bound by them, and grant agreements between the US government and non-US NGOs require the latter to comply with US sanctions.

This leaves the non-US NGOs in a Catch-22 situation – as they are not ‘US persons’ they cannot apply for specific licenses, but if they operate without such licences they may be violating grant requirements. This lack of clarity contributes to banks’ unwillingness to provide services, and may lead NGOs to curtail their activities. This situation is regrettable in Syria, where the US is the first donor to humanitarian action, and also arises in other contexts where the US has imposed similar sanctions.

The EU’s sanctions for Syria are far more targeted. Of relevance to the COVID-19 response, they do not include prohibitions on the provision of support to the government that could impede assistance in the medical field. There are, however, restrictions on the provision of certain types of PPE or substances used for disinfection, and also on transactions with designated telecommunications providers that affect continuity of education during lockdowns. Although not prohibited, these activities must be authorized by member states’ competent authorities. Similar concerns arise about the complexity and delays of the processes.

The EU sanctions framework is complex, so the recent European Commission Guidance Note on Syria providing official clarification of how it applies to humanitarian action is welcome. Although the note only explains the existing rules rather than amending them to facilitate the COVID-19 response, it does include a number of important elements relevant not just to Syria, but to the interplay between sanctions and humanitarian action more broadly.

First, it notes that ‘in accordance with International Humanitarian Law where no other option is available, the provision of humanitarian aid should not be prevented by EU restrictive measures’. This recognizes that humanitarian assistance takes priority over any inconsistent restrictions in sanctions, and it also applies both to UN sanctions and unilateral measures. It is a starting premise that is frequently overlooked in discussions of whether sanctions should include exceptions for humanitarian action. Its reaffirmation is timely, and it must guide states in drawing up future sanctions.

Second, the note states that sanctions do not require the screening of final beneficiaries of humanitarian programmes. This means that once someone has been identified as an individual in need on the basis of humanitarian principles, no further screening is required. This is extremely important to COVID-19 responses as it reflects a foundational principle of IHL that, to the fullest extent practicable, everyone is entitled to the medical care required by their condition without distinction.

Third, while responsibility for the implementation of sanctions, including the granting of authorizations, lies with member states, the note nudges them to adopt a number of measures to expedite and streamline such processes. These include the suggestion that states could issue a single authorization for the provision of humanitarian aid in response to the pandemic.

The European Commission is to be commended for this initiative, which should be replicated for other contexts where the COVID-19 response may be undermined by sanctions. These include Gaza, where it would be important to highlight that the designation of Hamas under EU counterterrorism sanctions must not prevent the provision of assistance to relevant ministries.

Failing to draw a distinction between the designated political party and the structures of civil administration risks turning targeted financial sanctions into measures akin to comprehensive sanctions.

The pandemic should serve as a catalyst for improving the system for the adoption and implementation of sanctions by the UN, the EU and individual states, including the UK as it elaborates its sanctions policy post-Brexit. The principles are clear: without prejudicing the aims for which sanctions have been imposed, humanitarian needs must always be prioritized, and met.