Since 2015, Venezuela has been the victim of a number of sanctions, or unilateral coercive measures, imposed by the United States and its global allies,, with the scope and impact of the measures intensifying under the current US administration.
Following Washington’s recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as “interim president” in January, a barrage of new measures has been levied, including financial restrictions on international trade payments, asset freezes and takeovers, and most importantly an embargo on Venezuelan oil.
After the international seminar reported below was held on June 27, more sanctions were announced by the White House, this time targeting suppliers of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAPs) food program which provides basic foodstuffs to around six million Venezuelan families at a highly subsidised cost.
The use of unilateral coercive measures (sanctions or UCMs) to vanquish an adversary in situations of conflict is an ancient tactic, considered by more recent international law to be contrary to people’s rights, as well as peace and coexistence between nations.
Studies, debates, reports and resolutions conducted independently and within the framework of the United Nations (UN) have demonstrated the illegitimacy and illegality of such actions, be they direct or secondary, imposed through different modalities outside the UN Security Council.
However, these measures are increasingly used by the United States government and their allies as a weapon of non-conventional warfare to try to force policy changes in other states, including, in some cases, the so-called strategy of regime change.
Sanctions against Cuba, Iran and Venezuela
President Donald Trump's current administration is leading the implementation of these measures, through economic and other sanctions, to twenty countries including Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela.
The economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed against Cuba for nearly six decades by successive U.S. administrations is the longest genocidal attack ever inflicted on any nation, with severe consequences for the people and economy of the island.
The stated objective of this policy of isolation is to generate hunger and disease to the Cuban people in order to prevent the development of their emancipatory project.
Condemned each year by the international community at the United Nations General Assembly, with the sole backing of the United States and Israel, the blockade is the main obstacle to the development of the Caribbean nation, with losses calculated as being upwards of US $933 billion until 2018.
To reach that estimated figure using conservative calculations, Cuban authorities took into account the dollar's depreciation against the price of gold on the international market.
The current US administration reversed the progress made under the previous government in normalizing bilateral relations [with Cuba], and took further action to escalate the blockade, such as the activation of article 3 of the Helms Burton Act.
Washington pursues a similar objective with its withdrawal from the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program and the re-establishment and reimplementation of UCMs against Tehran, which are also characterized by extraterritoriality and the violation of basic human rights of its people.
Another case that attracts international attention is that of the measures applied by the United States against the constitutional government of President Nicolas Maduro since 2014, 150 in total imposed in the last three years, as the State Department acknowledges.
Washington employs a varied repertoire of non-conventional weapons against Venezuela in the political, diplomatic and economic arenas, with the ultimate goal of achieving regime change and seizing Venezuela's vast natural resources, such as the immense reserves of oil, natural gas and gold.
To this economic, commercial and financial blockade, in the case of Venezuela one must add the arbitrary seizure of property and other assets, together with the recognition of a self-proclaimed interim president, moves in which the European Union and several Latin American governments are complicit.
According to the results of a study by US economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs published in April, sanctions against Venezuela have reduced the population's calorie intake, while diseases and mortality have increased in both adults and children.
The investigation concluded that the UCMs have caused about 40,000 deaths between 2017 and 2018 and fit the definition of collective punishment of a civilian population, as described in the international conventions of Geneva and The Hague, of which the United States is a signatory.
Regarding these cases, a seminar was organized by the permanent UN missions of Cuba, Iran and Venezuela in Vienna, with the participation of high-level experts, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, and the Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on the negative impact of UCMs, Idriss Jazairy.
Given the unprecedented increase in the application of such measures, Jazairy described the use of "unilateral sanctions to wage economic war in countries" as "astonishing."
"We see headlines in newspapers describing new unilateral sanctions directed against one country or another," said the official, who also explained that they are sometimes camouflaged within the language of human rights, although they always have the opposite effect.
The criminalisation of the measures
One of the most discussed aspects of UCMs and their increasing implementation is the absence of international legal tools to address them. [UN Independent Expert] Alfred de Zayas referred to this when he stated that under no circumstances can the UN Charter be used to implement them.
In this regard, he noted that a problem has been created as “many powerful states decide to break international law and do so with impunity," using the fictitious argument that there is a new "state practice," as if the violation of the rules could change the existing legal framework.
This is an approach, he said, which ignores general legal principles such as ex-injuria jus non oritur, from which it is unacceptable to use slander as a source of law. He also described the practice of violating a rule and then, by transgression, demanding that the rule cease to exist as a “fallacy.”
De Zayas stated that the situation which we have reached is that "There has been a breach of international law that for now cannot be punished due to the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism".
He also recalled parts of the report of his mission to Venezuela and Ecuador in 2017 as a UN independent expert, during which he underlined the principles on which the UN Charter rests on, such as multilateralism, international cooperation and the sovereign equality of states.
The law professor clarified, however, that while not all sanctions can be considered illegal, such as arms embargoes in justified cases, those affecting innocent people do contravene the spirit of the UN Charter.
The role of the media
Equally, [at the event] professor Ignacio Ramonet drew attention to how the United States has developed "a true and brutal offensive, with a great contempt for international law, so as to impose its own rules from Washington on almost all commercial and financial exchanges across the planet."
Having described the extraterritorial nature of UCMs as outrageous, Ramonet referred to how the dominant US mass media is "complicit, using the pretext that sanctions are a non-violent tool for pressuring specific governments and force some kind of democratic change."
Transnational manipulation of information contributes to demonize the attacked countries, the renowned expert in communication issues explained, which shows the importance and role of alternative and social media [in fighting] against this hegemonic discourse.
In the United States, he said, the news rarely mentions the deadly impact of the measures on ordinary people, and merely blames the resulting economic crises on the governments that are the subject of the US attacks. He went on to conclude his remarks with three questions.
How long will the world tolerate a state placing itself above all others and using unilateral coercive measures as the whimsical weapon of imperial politics, blatantly mocking international law?
Why does the European Union not classify these UCMs as an act of genocide under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide?
Finally, what is the United Nations waiting for before advancing in the criminalization of these unilateral coercive measures and insisting on their radical illegality?
In the joint statement read by Iranian Ambassador to the UN Kazem Gharib Abadi, the countries organizing the event highlighted US leadership in this "illegal behavior," and accused it of using UCMs as an instrument to impact or force a change in the policy of another state.
In this regard, the text highlighted that since 1984 the United States has imposed more than 27 different sets of sanctions on several countries, and just between 2009 and 2015 it has penalized different banks in seven countries with $13 billion worth of fines.
The day of discussions confirmed the illegitimacy and illegality of unilateral coercive measures and made a cry out for their criminalization. To help in this direction, those participating called for rigorous monitoring of the damage caused by UCMs and for systematic denouncements in national and international bodies.
On this issue there was consensus among the panelists, with Ramonet referring to it in his summary and Arreaza highlighting in statements made to Prensa Latina the seminar's call to take more concrete actions to confront UCMs. This, Arreaza said, is a call valid not only for Venezuela, but for all countries.
Frank Gonzalez is the Italian-based correspondent for Cuban news outlet Prensa Latina.
Introduction and translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.