On Unilateral Coercive Measures (Part I): A Conversation with Alena Douhan 

The UN Special Rapporteur talks about the devastating impact of economic sanctions on countries and people.

Dr. Alena Douhan is a professor of International Law, the Director of the Peace Research Center at the Belarusian State University, and an Associated member of the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany. Since March 2020, Douhan has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures [UCMs]. During her tenure, she has released multiple reports exposing the human rights impact of UCMs on targeted countries. In this two-part interview with Venezuelanalysis, Douhan talks about the consequences of UCMs and some legal mechanisms countries can employ to mitigate their effects 

[Note: Dr. Douhan frequently employs the term “designated country” to denote a nation subjected to – or targeted by – a unilateral sanctions regime.]

You have been the Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures since 2020, which gives you a privileged perspective to understand the social and political impact of sanctions. Could you provide a brief overview of how UCMs affect the population of targeted countries?

First, I would like to emphasize that I will refrain from commenting on the political landscape in the countries affected by unilateral coercive measures. I do this to honor the mandate granted me by the UN Human Rights Council.

When addressing the humanitarian impact of UCMs, it is crucial to recognize the different types of measures. There are the so-called primary unilateral coercive measures that directly affect entire countries and their financial and economic systems, including, for example, the prohibition of delivering specific goods or engaging in financial transactions with the designated country.

Additionally, there are the so-called targeted sanctions, ostensibly aimed at specific individuals or companies, which actually have broad-ranging effects. For instance, in the case of Venezuela, the sanctions on PDVSA [state oil company], which used to provide over 90% of the country’s external revenue, had a devastating impact on the national budget.

Then there are secondary sanctions, which are imposed on specific individuals and companies, but prevent third parties from dealing with the designated entity since doing so could result in sanctions. These sanctions are a punitive measure for cooperation.

Finally, there are penalties for “circumventing” a sanctions regime, which can be both civil and criminal, and apply to both primary and secondary sanctions. The extreme complexity of UCMs leads to the adoption of zero-risk policies and over-compliance. This is common, and it happens when individuals, companies, and countries that are not explicitly barred from economic activities opt for caution to ensure their safety.

Consequently, the reach of UCMs becomes nearly all-encompassing, affecting the entirety of the country under sanctions. In the targeted country, every company, every person — be they national or international — including diplomats and those who work for international organizations or companies, is affected. 

Interactive UCMs map. Access it here: observatorio.gob.ve/mapa-geopolitico-sanciones. (Observatorio Venezolano Antibloqueo)

What does this complex UCM architecture imply in terms of humanitarian impact?

Examining the humanitarian impact of sanctions reveals varying degrees of severity, contingent on several factors. The country’s ability to meet the basic needs of its people plays a crucial role. In nations with a strong agricultural base, capable of producing essential goods like fertilizers and other inputs, the impact on food supply may be mitigated. 

However, this is not the case for many countries; for example, African and Latin American nations heavily reliant on fertilizers from Belarus [a targeted country] face considerable challenges in finding alternative sources. The same happens with other types of equipment and inputs. 

As a general observation, the humanitarian impact of sanctions is almost always substantial. During my country visits to Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Syria, the impact I observed was devastating. In fact, it is common that people in these countries will express a loss of hope, particularly among the younger generations.

In these visits, it became evident to me that virtually every aspect of human life was affected. Healthcare (despite humanitarian exceptions that exist on paper) was significantly impacted; education suffered; the supply of food and medicine was disrupted; and economic conditions deteriorated, leading some individuals to participate in gray economies, including criminal activities. This results in increased violence. Additionally, access to clean water, heating, and sanitation is impaired.

During my visit to Venezuela in 2021, residents reported having access to water for only three hours every 5 to 7 days, with the available water often being unclean, so they would have to boil it for 40 minutes. Similar water-related challenges were observed in Syria and Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, the situation led to cholera outbreaks.

Water problems are not solely linked to availability, of course. The infrastructure, including pumps, water treatment plants, and pipelines, is essential and heavily reliant on electricity, which can be intermittent in these countries. But not only that; the machinery and implements required for water processing and delivery are often imported, and sanctions limit the purchase of these critical components.

Of course, the impact of UCMs is much broader, from access to healthcare, food, and education (which I mentioned before), to access to electricity. 

Finally, another significant challenge associated with UCMs is that transportation companies often refuse to deliver cargo to sanctioned countries, and when they do, cargo insurance becomes prohibitively expensive.

Infographic: The Blockade Against Venezuela (Venezuelanalysis)

UCMs impact the targeted country’s human rights, violate the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, and impede the peaceful settlement of international disputes. These are all principles of the UN Charter. Given these considerations, can we characterize UCMs as an illegal method of exerting pressure on a country?

In short, yes, but I will elaborate on my position further. The principles you mentioned are often cited in my communications and reports, especially when delving into the ramifications of unilateral coercive measures.

When examining the various means of pressure that countries apply on one another, it’s essential to recognize that some methods are entirely legal. For instance,  in the absence of an existing trade agreement, a state can opt not to engage in trade with another state. However, such decisions must adhere to international law and any relevant treaties. Generally, established protocols require a 12-month warning and the fulfillment of all existing obligations.

From the standpoint of international law, there are “countermeasure mechanisms” [actions or strategies taken by a country in response to perceived unfair trade practices or policies by another country]. These could involve a state deciding to not trade with another and are legal. However, such actions should be undertaken with the objective of encouraging the resumption of obligations, rather than intending to exert political influence, change the government, or serve as a punishment.

In essence, within the confines of international law and established agreements, states have the prerogative to determine their trading partners, but this must be done without violating the fundamental human rights of the country with which they discontinue trade.

These are “countermeasures” that are unfriendly but legal. Any measures falling outside these parameters constitute unilateral coercive measures, which are deemed illegal.

The foundational principles of international law, as outlined in the United Nations Charter, underscore the importance of considering international treaties, customary law obligations, and any existing treaties of amity when contemplating actions such as halting trade with a particular country or state.

In this regard, Iran has initiated legal action by bringing two cases before the International Court of Justice [ICJ]. These cases center on the violations of international treaties, specifically breaches of agreement on the protection of investments and economic cooperation, and infringements on mutual assistance in criminal and civil matters. Additionally, Iran has introduced another case against Canada at the ICJ, addressing issues related to the immunities of the state [the principle of one state not being under the jurisdiction of another].

Proactive action sets a good precedent. I consistently emphasize to representatives of states facing UCMs that they can take appropriate actions when other nations fall short of fulfilling their international obligations. This underscores the importance of leveraging legal mechanisms to address grievances and uphold the principles of international law.

You can download A War Without Bombs: The social, political and economic impact of sanctions against Venezuela, here: www.venezuelanalysis.com/opinion/a-war-without-bombs (Venezuelanalysis)