With the coronavirus pandemic, the United States faces the greatest global challenge to its sanctions policy since the 1990s.
Facing a global sanctions backlash because of coronavirus concerns, Ukraine has mounted a lone appeal to the United Nations leadership to maintain economic pressure on Russia and other international scofflaws to comply with international law, saying any backtracking on sanctions at this moment would amount to “appeasement.”
“[W]e are witnessing attempts by some states to convince the international community that sanctions constrain their ability to counter the COVID-19,” Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, wrote in a March 30 letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “Those claims are artificial and groundless.”
“Sanctions remain an important tool to restore the respect to international law,” he added. “The only way for sanctions to disappear is not through their cancellation under the pretext of need to face and counter some new global pandemic, but through ensuring a thorough implementation of the UN Charter and complete halting of continuous violations of international law, including armed aggression, occupation and human rights abuses.”
The move comes as an unlikely but growing coalition of forces—including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Democratic lawmakers in the United States, relief agencies, and the U.N. leadership—have advocated an easing of measures in response to the coronavirus. It poses the greatest challenge to U.S. sanctions policy since the 1990s, when the Clinton administration faced charges that sweeping economic sanctions against Iraq were contributing to soaring levels of malnutrition.
“Sanctions imposed on countries should be waived to ensure access to food, essential supplies and access to COVID-19 tests and medical support,” according to a U.N. reportcommissioned by Guterres and made public on Tuesday. “This is the time for solidarity not exclusion.”
Several Democratic lawmakers in the United States—including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Tim Kaine—have urged the Trump administration to ease sanctions against countries struck hard by the coronavirus, including Iran and Venezuela, which they claim impede the import of medical supplies and protective gear.
“We should not feel guilty about sanctions, period. We didn’t put them on by accident. The sanctions were there for good reasons,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior diplomat who served as the State Department’s sanctions coordinator. “But in the coronavirus situation, the humanitarian impact of sanctions is a legitimate issue to raise.”
The Trump administration has issued exemptions to sanctioned countries for the delivery of humanitarian supplies. But Fried said the conditions the administration placed on these exemptions are too onerous to work. “It didn’t feel like a serious initiative. … It felt like a bureaucratic sleight of hand.”
“The right to health is a human right,” added Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, which published a report last year on the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iranians’ health. “What we see in Iran is exemptions from sanctions for medicine and humanitarian aid don’t work. We have a global health crisis, we’ve got a pandemic, and countries need to make sure they are not doing anything to worsen it.”
China and Russia are leading a coalition of countries—including Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela—that are seeking to parlay the coronavirus pandemic into a case for easing U.S. sanctions.
“[W]e respectfully urge you to request the complete and immediate lifting of such illegal, coercive and arbitrary measures of economic pressure,” the eight governments wrote in a joint letter to Guterres on March 25. “As you are well aware, we live in an interconnected world; hence, in the context of the global pandemic, ‘impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.’”
“[W]e cannot allow for political calculations to get in the way of saving human lives,” they added. “This is a time, as you have stated over and over again, not for fostering chaos, but for global solidarity, cooperation and prudence.”
The anti-sanctions campaign appeared to be gaining some traction in Washington, though officials and experts say the Trump administration is highly unlikely to permanently lift any sanctions on Iran.
But on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would consider lifting sanctions against Venezuela if its de facto leader, Nicolás Maduro, agreed to step aside and make way for a transitional government. (Maduro’s government swiftly rejected the offer after it was made.)
On Tuesday, Pompeo floated the idea that the United States might be prepared to ease up on some sanctions to help other countries, including Iran, in response to the health crisis. Asked if Washington might reevaluate its sanctions policy as the death toll mounts in countries like Iran, Pompeo said: “We evaluate all of our policies constantly. So the answer is, would we ever rethink it? Of course, we’re constantly trying to make sure we have our policies right.”
The appeal for sanctions has received a mixed response from key players, particularly in Europe, where governments largely disagree with U.S. unilateral sanctions against countries like Cuba, Iran and Venezuela.
On Tuesday, Britain, France, and Germany said they would seek to channel medical aid to Iran through an electronic payment system—called Instex—that was set up to enable European countries to get around U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
But European governments have doubled down on sanctions against regimes in other parts of the world. Ambassador Jürgen Schulz, a senior diplomat from Germany, which presides over the U.N. Security Council’s North Korea sanctions committee, expressed concern Tuesday about the “humanitarian situation in North Korea.”
But he said the council had responded to all of Pyongyang’s requests for exemptions from sanctions to fight the coronavirus with “unprecedented speed and urgency.”
“The sanctions are therefore no impediment to effectively combating COVID-19 in the DPRK,” he said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“We have to sadly note that the DPRK unfortunately continues to give priority once more to its illegal weapons programs, instead of working with the WHO and the U.N. family to make best use of the assistance on offer. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of transparency in DPRK’s cooperation with the U.N. over COVID-19, which we find dangerous and cynical.”
Russia has been the target of U.S. and European sanctions since 2012, when President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, a first round of penalties imposed on Russian officials in retaliation for the death of the imprisoned tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. The U.S. and European governments imposed a fresh round of sanctions against Russia following its military intervention in Ukraine, and its annexation of Crimea, in early 2014.
On Friday, Russia drafted a U.N. General Assembly resolution that calls on states to refrain from applying “any unilateral coercive measures undertaken without the mandate of the Security Council,” a provision that runs counter to U.S. and European sanctions on Russia.
The resolution is unlikely to secure more than a handful of supporters.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, meanwhile urged states to keep the pressure on Russia, saying it continues to shell Ukrainian territory despite a U.N. appeal for a global cease-fire.
“The international community has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its armed aggression against Ukraine. This has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic,” Kuleba said Monday in a statement. “Russia’s misuse of the pandemic for political purposes, its calls to lift sanctions are a dirty manipulation and an attempt to benefit from the suffering of millions.”
Foreign Policy staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.