The World Does Not Need Illegal Sanctions. The World Needs Peace and Development.

UN HQ. Photo: UN.

(Statement made at the United Nations Economic and Social Council Chamber on October 30, 2023).

Good afternoon. My name is Vijay Prashad. I am the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. I am grateful to the Group of Friends in Defence of the United Nations Charter, and in particular to Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Joaquín Pérez Ayestarán of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, for this invitation.

My institute, Tricontinental, has spent the past eight years closely studying the impact of unilateral sanctions, looking closely at the laws around these instruments and looking at their impact on the societies that have been sanctioned. Before I begin to present some of our thinking on these issues, I want to say that it is hard to focus on anything, really anything, while this cruel genocide takes place before our eyes in Gaza. That more Palestinian children have died in these three weeks due to the Israeli bombing than have died in total in conflict zones across the world since 2019 is shocking. No child should die so cruelly before they can flourish. Neither due to this incessant bombardment, nor by the hunger induced by unilateral sanctions.

There is no easy way to define sanctions. When a conflict arises between countries, any measure short of war belongs in the category of sanctions. Sanctions could be diplomatic (withdrawal of ambassadors) or economic (barriers on trade). Even though sanctions are not like bombs, their impact can be as lethal as has been demonstrated by the several reports by UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, Professor Alena Douhan (for example, in her reports on Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe).

Several questions emerge even with this basic definition of sanctions:

1) Who gets to determine when a country poses a danger or deserves to be sanctioned?

2) How does one differentiate between extreme economic sanctions and armed conflict? Is not a complete embargo tantamount to a declaration of war?

In the modern world, these questions are to be adjudicated by the United Nations. The United Nations Charter (1945) is the legal document that binds countries in the UN General Assembly and in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to consider cases of conflict and find measures to settle disputes or to pressure countries to reconsider their course of action.

The central text in the UN Charter is Article 41.

The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.

There are several important points raised in this article.

1) It is the Security Council that is given the authority to decide on a course of action based on the Council’s understanding of events in the world.

2) It is the Security Council that acts based on this interpretation.

3) Article 41 provides a list of possible tools to be used but suggests that these are not comprehensive.

Each member state of the United Nations must have faith in the Security Council if this procedure is to work. Sadly, the UNSC is not a perfect representative of world opinion. This is largely because the UNSC has an undemocratic structure. Of the fifteen seats on the Council, five are held by permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). There are no permanent members from Africa or from Latin America, and the world’s most populous country – India – is not amongst their number. The composition of the permanent members (three of them NATO countries) does not provide confidence around the world. That these countries use their veto power to exercise their own narrow political agenda rather than to defend the UN Charter further delegitimizes the UNSC. Pressure by powerful countries – particularly the United States – has limited the UNSC’s ability to appear as a neutral arbiter.

Furthermore, the United States has – outside the UN system – exercised a sanctions policy in a unilateral manner. These US sanctions are not conducted through a discussion in the UNSC, nor have they any international credibility. In fact, US sanctions are illegal. They are a violation of the UN Charter and of a range of international treaties.

The impact of these sanctions is grotesque, and it has been documented by the United Nations and by the various human rights groups. Not only does the United States refuse to allow its nationals (including corporations) to conduct normal commercial activity with the country it decides to sanction, but it uses its power over the financial system to get other countries and firms from other countries to halt their trade relations. These are called secondary and tertiary sanctions, and they have the impact of a total blockade on countries by those who only act in this way out of fear or coercion by the United States. Overcompliance of the unilateral coercive measures becomes the rule, not the exception, as Special Rapporteur Dohan shows in her report to the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Realizing the harshness of these unilateral coercive measures, Western countries have argued for “humanitarian carve-outs” that allow food, medicine, and other essential goods to break the sanctions wall. This argument resulted in UN Resolution 2664 in December 2022 to allow exemptions to sanctions to “ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance or to support other activities that support basic human needs.” But these “humanitarian carve-outs,” however well-intentioned, do not work since they only provided on a case-by-case basis and are used as “rewards” by the illegal party that operates the sanctions. These “humanitarian carve-outs” end up legitimizing an illegal process.

Since these unilateral sanctions are illegal, they need to be banned rather than accepted and then moderated with “humanitarian carve outs.” What is important to bear in mind is that the unilateral sanctions have undermined the ability of the sanctioned countries to meet their important obligations to the Sustainable Development Growth (SDG) agenda. We have seen a retreat in terms of meeting the SDG goals: only one-third of countries in the world would have halved their national poverty rates between 2015 and 2030 and nearly one in three (2.3 billion people) will remain moderately or severely food insecure. These basic developments are squandered by $2.3 trillion expenditure on weapons, more than 75% of that spending done by the United States and its NATO allies.

Why has there been this retreat in the SDGs, however limited they are in scope and ambition? Because of a range of factors, but sharply because of the permanent debt crisis enforced by the International Monetary Fund and by the illegal sanctions regime enforced by the United States.

The world needs peace.

The world needs development.

The world does not need war.

The world does not need poverty.

The world does not need illegal sanctions.

The world does not need despair.

The world needs hope.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).