Advocacy Groups Blast US Treasury Sanctions Review for Failing to Address Civilian Harm

The US Treasury Department’s sanctions review sparked criticism for focusing on how to “modernize” coercive measures.


Guayaquil, Ecuador, October 21, 2021 ( – US-based advocacy groups have criticized the US Treasury Department for conducting a sanctions policy review that failed to address these measures’ harmful impact on millions of people worldwide.

In a joint press release published on Tuesday, three organizations noted that the seven-page review “at no point considers how sanctions hurt millions of human beings as a result of the dire effect […] on entire economies.” Instead, the text focuses on how to “strengthen or modernize” the unilateral measures and link them to a “policy objective.”

The statement was signed by Cavan Kharrazian, Progressive Foreign Policy Campaigner from Demand Progress; Alexander Main, Co-Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR); and Erik Sperling, Executive Director at Just Foreign Policy.

The signatories went on to stress their disappointment with the long-expected report, which was announced by the Joe Biden administration on January 21 and is the first assessment in 20 years. The review “fails to address […] whether sanctions work, what economic or humanitarian effects they have on ordinary citizens,” they argued.

The advocacy groups likewise recalled that what prompted the Treasury’s sanctions review was the Covid-19 emergency, with multilateral bodies urging a relief of unilateral coercive measures that hamper countries’ response. However, “the words ‘pandemic’ and ‘Covid-19’ aren’t mentioned once in the review.”

The three progressive organizations pointed that the Treasury’s document suggests that the Biden White House “is prepared to carry on” with the sanctions policy of its Republican predecessor.

“We can only hope that this is merely a preliminary report that precedes a far more meaningful review that acknowledges the economic and humanitarian effects of sanctions,” concludes the statement.

On October 18, the US Treasury Department released the results of a ten-month-long revision of its economic and financial sanctions policy against over 100 nations. The text lays out a series of “recommendations to preserve and enhance their effectiveness” as well as identifying “new challenges” in enforcement procedures.

The review explicitly recommends efforts to shut down alternative payment methods and digital currencies that sanctioned countries have begun using to circumvent Washington’s blockade. It goes on to congratulate cases of alleged sanctions “success,” among them Iran and Libya. The report, however, fails to consider a number of independent findings on the measures’ impact on civilian populations.

CEPR’s Alexander Main argued that by “labeling the brutal Iran sanctions regime as successful,” the Treasury Department’s definition of “effective” means “provoking the economic and human damage that these sanctions were designed to cause.”

“Concern about sanctions eroding the power of the dollar is well-founded,” he added in an interview with Venezuelanalysis, stating that “even the European Union (EU) has been developing alternative platforms to get around US sanctions on Iran, for instance.”

In what concerns Venezuela, UN independent human rights experts Alena Douhan published a 19-page document after her 12-day visit to the country in February. Presenting the findings at the 48th UN Human Rights Council session on September 15, the Belarusian lawyer reiterated that the wide-reaching sanctions program against the Caribbean nation has had a “devastating” effect on the population’s living conditions.

Previously, Washington-based CEPR had linked sanctions to at least 40,000 Venezuelan deaths between 2017-18, a figure acknowledged in a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. UN expert Alfred de Zayas has claimed that the number of deaths has likely exceeded 100,000 since then.

The calls have also come from US representatives, with the chair of the House Rules Committee, Jim McGovern (D-MA), urging President Biden to “lift all secondary and sectoral sanctions imposed on Venezuela,” calling them “misguided and immoral.” His letter followed earlier requests from Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Jesús García (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) to alleviate sanctions amidst the pandemic.

The Treasury’s review recognized that sanctions programs have increased tenfold in the last 20 years, with Venezuela currently one of the main targets.


Page 3 of the Treasury 2021 sanctions review.

Washington’s sanctions have targeted key sectors of the Venezuelan economy, including mining, banking, food imports and especially the oil industry, drastically reducing the country’s revenue. Since 2017, the US Treasury Department has imposed financial sanctions against state company PDVSA, an oil embargo, secondary sanctions and a raft of other measures to strangle crude exports.

The South American country has also faced acute fuel shortages after Washington banned diluent and fuel imports in June 2019 and put an end to crude-for-diesel swaps in October 2020.

“Cruelty as usual for the US”

Speaking to Venezuelanalysis, Latin American policy expert and campaigner with CODEPINK Leonardo Flores said it was “no surprise that the so-called review was going to be terrible.”

Flores recalled that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is blocking Venezuela from accessing its $5 billion in SDRs [Special Drawing Rights]. “It is understood that this is a decision by the US Treasury Department,” he explained, concluding that there is no intention to “honestly assess the devastation caused by sanctions.”

“It’s cruelty as usual for the US,” added the activist, reassuring that CODEPINK would “continue to push for an end to sanctions, particularly unilateral ones.” The organization plans on “keeping up the pressure on Congress to address the human toll of sanctions.”

For his part, Main agreed that the way forward involves expanding grassroots pressure to “push legislators to pass laws curtailing sanctions use,” given that the Treasury’s review confirmed that “the US foreign policy elite is incapable of engaging in any meaningful reform of its own volition.”

Edited by Ricardo Vaz from Mérida.