The Sanctions Kill Coalition, a group of nonprofit and human rights organizations, produced the independent report, “‘We don’t deserve this.’ The Impact and Consequences of U.S. Sanctions” (tinyurl.com/f3cstrwz), released September 12. The following takes direct excerpts from the report, edited with small changes and additions for this newsletter. See the complete report at sanctionskill.org
There is silence here when it comes to discussing sanctions. Most people in the U.S. don’t know how the sanctions imposed by their own nation directly affect the lives of millions of people around the world, and that sanctions cause misery and death. When foreign countries struggle with food, medicine, and other shortages, it is too often assumed the result of incompetent or corrupt governance. But the role of sanctions must be taken into account. Sanctions serve as economic warfare to achieve political ends and are an act of war.
The report from the Sanctions Kill coalition provides a few examples of what U.S. officials have said about 20th and 21st century sanctions used as instruments of foreign policy in Latin America:
In 1960, a State Department memorandum declared, “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba…. denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” Sanctions against Cuba continue as policy to this day.
In 1970, when Dr. Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile, before he was even inaugurated, President Richard Nixon instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to “make the [Chilean] economy scream”.
In 2018, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield said, “The best solution would be to accelerate the collapse [of the economy], even if it produces suffering for months or years.”
We add to these examples the stunning response of Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1996, when journalist Lesley Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview asked her whether the deaths of half a million children in Iraq, as the result of sanctions, was worth it. Albright responded, “It was a very hard choice, but we think the price was worth it.”
The Sanctions Kill report includes quotes from people in currently sanctioned countries, providing a glimpse into how they feel and how their lives are affected materially. The quotes report ruined food and medicines and health systems in peril due to lack of fuel to generate electricity; short supply and inflated prices for gasoline and other goods; lack of supplies for the maintenance and replacement of water systems. Those economically disadvantaged to begin with, children, and the elderly are the first and most affected, but other ordinary people also suffer.
The report lists 39 nations, in a 2019 list, under direct or indirect U.S. sanctions. The report highlights the impact on some of the currently most severely sanctioned countries where the people suffer: Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe.
How do sanctions work? (For a quick summary, see the chart that follows.)
Sanctions are U.S. decrees and legislation, “extraterritorial” in nature when they assume the right to impose regulations, restrictions, and penalties on non-U.S. countries, companies, and individuals. Most of these sanctions are not authorized by the United Nations Security Council and many of them are enacted by the U.S. alone.
There are many types of sanctions: economic or financial restrictions, trade prohibitions, and blocking or seizing assets of individuals, organizations, and countries.
Greatly increasing the reach of sanctions are “secondary sanctions” that target non-U.S. entities which are interacting with the “primary” target.
How is it possible for the U.S. to have so much control? The U.S. dollar is the globally recognized national currency used in international trade and global finance – “the reserve currency” held by banks. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), based in Belgium, has been the primary transaction network governing transfers between banks in every country of the world. Although SWIFT is based in Belgium, because of the position of the U.S. dollar, the U.S. has been able to monitor and disrupt transactions to impose extraterritorial sanctions on secondary or third parties, penalizing them if they deal with targets sanctioned by the U.S.
Will Biden change sanctions policy?
According to the report, President Biden’s administration is currently reviewing U.S. sanctions policy. On January 21, 2021, the first National Security Memo of the Biden administration called for a review to determine whether U.S. sanctions are hindering response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, administration leaders raised a second concern, saying that “the goal of sanctions should not be to punish ordinary citizens for the actions of their leaders.” Then, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expressed a third concern that sanctions are undermining “the U.S.’s leadership role in the global financial system.” The Biden administration review of sanctions is being conducted by an interagency team including State and Treasury Departments. As of mid-September 2021, the results of the review have not been released. Currently it seems the Administration is not changing policy. In the past three months, more sanctions have been imposed on several of the countries already under sanctions: Nicaragua, Syria, Cuba, and Iran.
Findings of the Sanctions Kill Coalition report: U.S. sanctions are killing civilians and hurting the U.S. economy.
Sanctions primarily hurt civilians. Humanitarian “exceptions” have not worked.
Many sources report how devastating sanctions are for ordinary citizens. Targeted countries are unable to import essential medicines and material to sustain infrastructure for adequate water and food.
Sanctions have hindered the response to COVID-19. As a result, many civilians have died, and the pandemic has spread further.
Sanctions and extraterritorial claims have led to the imprisonment of businesspersons and diplomats and the violation of international treaties.
Two prominent cases: In 2020, Alex Saab, a Venezuela diplomat, was arrested on a U.S. extraterritorial “charge,” while en route to Iran to acquire basic food, medicine, and medical equipment; he has been imprisoned since. In 2018, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer for the Chinese company Huawei, was arrested in Canada for bank business dealings in Iran. [Update: After nearly three years of confinement, Wanzhou was released under a delayed prosecution agreement from a U.S. court, and able to return to her family in China.]
Sanctions are spurring countries to sell U.S. securities and establish alternatives to the U.S.-dominated financial system.
China, Russia, the EU, and other foreign countries are reducing U.S. holdings and exploring alternatives to the SWIFT financial system that is dependent on the U.S. dollar.
[Update: Iran has joined China, Russia, India, and several Central Asian states as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCC), linking Iran to a multilateral economic structure. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt became ex-officio as “dialogue” members.]
Many U.S. industries and farmers want to trade with sanctioned countries and call for a change in policy.
Millions of U.S. farmers and workers depend on exports of their crops and commodities. They want to be able to export and trade with China, Cuba, and other countries where it is prohibited or severely restricted. Sanctions harm North American industry and agriculture and do not improve national security or achieve stated goals of changing behavior in targeted countries.
Many U.S. sanctions are based on false claims of an emergency and threat to national security.
U.S. sanctions are sometimes authorized by Congressional legislation, or they may be authorized by the President, declaring that there is an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the “national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.” Just one example of many which were authorized, providing this as a rationale: In March of 2015, President Obama declared a “national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” The claim that Venezuela posed then or poses today a security threat to the United States is not credible.
A large majority of world nations believe U.S. sanctions violate international law.
Sanctions are called “unilateral coercive measures” at the United Nations. In December 2020, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 75/181 on “Human rights and unilateral coercive measures [sanctions].”: “Unilateral coercive measures and legislation are contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States.”
The current UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of the Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights Alena Douhan reported, “Sanctions are bringing suffering and death in countries like Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen…. Sanctions that were imposed in the name of delivering human rights are, in fact, killing people and depriving them of fundamental rights including the rights to health, to food and to life itself.”
There has been virtually no reporting [in U.S. corporate, mainstream media] on international criticism and recommendations regarding U.S. sanctions.
The report from Sanctions Kill raises important questions such as Why don’t more Americans know about the impact of U.S. sanctions? Could U.S. officials face criminal and civil liability for implementing sanctions? Are U.S. unilateral sanctions in fact illegal and in violation of the United Nations Charter? Why is this policy continuing? What should be done?
The report concluded, in sum: Unilateral coercive sanctions violate basic human rights, sanctions undermine peaceful relations and the sovereign equality of nations, sanctions create potential criminal and civil liability for U.S. authorities, media has failed to inform the public about the consequences and global condemnation of U.S. sanctions.
The report makes the following recommendations for the U.S. government:
Implement the plan proposed by UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan. Excerpt: “States shall not take measures preventing other states from getting external aid of any character… No national law or regulation of regional international organizations shall have extraterritorial application…. Humanitarian exemption regimes shall not be limited to the medicine or medical equipment and software necessary to treat COVID-19 or for imminent life-saving activity only.”
Undertake and apply a review of U.S. foreign policy with respect to UN Charter principles regarding multilateralism and the sovereign equality of nations. Abrogate all unilateral coercive measures adopted outside the UN Security Council.
Require congressional oversight regarding presidential claims that there is an “extraordinary threat” to national security. The current situation, whereby the president can impose warlike sanctions on other countries without any oversight, should be reformed.
Sign the petition calling on President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and members of Congress to end economic sanctions: sanctionskill.org/petition
Call your members of Congress to end sanctions.
Senator Amy Klobuchar: (202) 224-3244 Senator Tina Smith: (202) 224-5641
From any state:
The Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121 will connect you with your Congressional representatives.
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