The United Nations and Unilateral Coercive Measures

Continuing violation of the human rights of targeted populations by powerful states and how to demand accountability. 

Oral statement of 28 January 2023 at the Opening of the International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism and Sanctions.

The scourge of unilateral coercive measures (UCM’s) on the enjoyment of human rights by billions of human beings worldwide has been the subject of examination and condemnation by numerous United Nations bodies for decades, notably by the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and its Advisory Committee, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Working Group on the Right to Development.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights[1] has repeatedly organized panel discussions to document the adverse impacts of unilateral coercive measures on the right to life, the right to health, the right to food, the right to clean water and sanitation, the right to housing, the right to work, the right to education etc. In my capacity as UN Independent Expert on International Order, I have participated in these panels.

UCM’s have been condemned as contrary to the UN Charter and customary international law, particularly because of the illegal extra-territorial application of domestic legislation, their assault on the sovereignty of States, the violation of the norm of non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of States, freedom of commerce and navigation — principles which are enshrined in several international legal instruments.  Moreover, it has been noted that the destabilizing impact of UCM’s on international order can amount to a threat to international peace and security within the meaning of article 39 of the UN Charter.

In 2014 the function of the Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures was created and the first two Rapporteurs, the late Dr. Idriss Jazairy[2] and Professor Alena Douhan[3] have submitted to the HR Council and General Assembly detailed thematic and country reports demanding the lifting of sanctions, in view of their detrimental impacts on nearly all human rights.

In his 2018 report to the Human Rights Council[4] the Independent Expert on International Order analysed the adverse impacts of UCM’s and financial blockades on the Venezuelan population, which demonstrably have caused and continue to cause many deaths as a result of scarcity of foods, medicines, medical equipment and parts.  The report succinctly states: “Sanctions kill”[5]. UCM’s have also caused bankruptcies and  unemployment, leading to mass emigration.  Although these economic migrants are not refugees, their plight has been examined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Most recently the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 77/214  on 15 December 2022, condemning UCM’s and reaffirming prior resolutions, including. 76/161, 75/181, and 74/154.

Resolution 77/214 recalls inter alia 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, resolution 2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970[6], and the relevant principles and provisions contained in the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, proclaimed by the Assembly in its resolution 3281 (XXIX), in particular article 32 thereof, 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,

Resolution 77/214 further acknowledges that UCM’s are one of the major obstacles to the implementation of the Declaration on the Right to Development[7] and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development[8].

In the specific case of US sanctions against Cuba, it bears repeating that the General Assembly has adopted 30 Resolutions condemning the US embargo against Cuba, the last one, Resolution 77/7 on 3 November 2022, with nearly universal approval.  Only the US and Israel voted against it.

The last relevant Resolution by the Human Rights Council was Resolution 49/6 of 31 March 2022, reaffirming all prior resolutions including 46/1, recalling that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stipulate that in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence, which frequently is precisely the purpose of UCM’s.

Res. 49/6 urges all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures because they are contrary to international law, international humanitarian law[9], the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States, in particular those of a coercive nature with extraterritorial effects, which create obstacles to trade relations among States, thus impeding the full realization of the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments, in particular the right of individuals and peoples to development.  The Resolution calls upon States and relevant United Nations agencies to take concrete measures to mitigate the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on humanitarian assistance, which should be delivered in accordance with General Assembly resolution 46/182 of 19 December 1991.

Unlike the near unanimity of the General Assembly in condemning the US embargo against Cuba, 14 states members of the Human Rights Council voted against the HRC resolution – among them the US and European Union states.  This is a scandal, a disgrace for all of those states, who give lip service to human rights but bear responsibility for the deaths of the most vulnerable in Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbawe and other countries targeted by the US.

ex injuria non oritur jus – No right emerges from a wrong

We must conclude that notwithstanding the obvious illegality of UCM’s and their proven incompatibility with the ICCPR and ICESCR, powerful states still impose UCM’s in total impunity. This is a matter that should be addressed by the General Assembly under article 96 of the UN Charter, requesting the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the subject, in particular on the legal consequences of the continued violation of international law by those states that impose or comply with UCM’s and their obligation to make reparation to the victims.  The ICJ should also examine the question whether UCM’s constitute the “use of force” within the meaning of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.  Indeed, modern wars are hybrid wars and encompass many forms of force and coercion, which are surely against the letter and spirit of the UN Charter.

Those states who impose UCM’s may try to escape responsibility by arguing that international law has changed, because so many States including the US, Canada, UK and EU have hitherto imposed sanctions and gotten away with it, thereby “legitimizing” the practice.  This argument, however, contains a serious logical fallacy.  Violating international law with impunity does not and cannot change international law.  It simply illustrates the fact that at present there is no effective international mechanism to enforce international law.  The general principle of law (article 38 of the ICJ statute) ex injuria non oritur jus makes it clear that no right emerges from a wrong.

Moreover, besides the responsibility of states for international wrongful acts, the international criminal aspect of UCM’s should be examined by the International Criminal Court.  To the extent that tens of thousands of persons have demonstrably lost their lives as a direct or indirect result of sanctions regimes, it is provable that certain UCM’s constitute crimes against humanity for purposes of article 7 of the Rome Statute.

It is the duty of the international community to demand accountability from States imposing sanctions and to ensure that redress is provided for the victims of US imperialism and neo-colonialism.[10]






[5] Ibid., para 39.




[9] Collective punishment against civilian populations are contrary to the Hague and Geneva Conventions. See also Jeffrey Sachs and Marc Weisbrot —

[10] See Human Rights Council resolution 48/7 on the sequels of colonialism and neo-colonialism

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).