As the United States works to contain the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic, resorting to extraordinary measures to limit health and economic damage to its own population, it should also suspend economic sanctions that are making it harder for some countries to fight COVID-19 and keep their citizens safe.
The mostly unilateral economic sanctions and export controls imposed by the United States affect 48 countries, home to a third of the world’s population. Eight of those countries, with the great majority of the affected population, say that the sanctions are undermining their response to COVID-19.
Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba are under the most severe economic sanctions and face extreme risk of health, economic, and security failure, especially now. Expanding these sanctions on Iran during a pandemic, as the U.S. is threatening, is cruel.
Of these countries, Iran has been hit hardest by the pandemic – with over 114,000 confirmed infections and 6,800 deaths – and the numbers are rising rapidly. Other countries, including Syria, are reporting unrealistically low numbers of infections and deaths because they do not have the ability to test or are wary of unfavorable public reaction. A devastating eight-year war, that forced displacement of half of its population and severe sanctions combine to make Syria terribly vulnerable to a catastrophic spread of the epidemic.
Though reported cases in the occupied Palestinian territories are still less than 400, Palestinian authorities are also severely hampered in their effort to control COVID-19 because of the Israeli siege of Gaza and cuts in U.S. financial contributions, which are in essence another form of sanctions.
Most sanctions regimes provide for “humanitarian exceptions” to accommodate the provision of goods and services to the civilian population of countries affected by sanctions. However, the exception rarely works because the web of sanctions is often too complex for humanitarian organizations to navigate without violating one provision or another.
For humanitarian reasons, it’s time for the U.S. to suspend sanctions that affect the target nation’s health sector broadly. This would be a gesture of compassion in an extraordinary worldwide crisis, permitting the leaders of countries and international organizations to assist civilian populations under extreme threat. These measures should remain in effect for the duration of the health crisis – and extend beyond the crisis where possible.
An uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in countries under sanction will have a ripple effect. In an April 5 statement, a bipartisan group of American and European national security leaders urged the U.S. government to ease sanctions on Iran, arguing, “We must remember that an outbreak anywhere impacts people everywhere. … reaching across borders to save lives is imperative for our own security and must override political differences among governments.”
Such measures are not unprecedented. In 2003, during a period of high tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the U.S. military sent planeloads of relief supplies to the government of Iran after an earthquake struck the city of Bam. In 1988, the U.S. sent aid to the Soviet Union for the first time since the 1940s when an earthquake hit Soviet Armenia.
In addition to the obvious health benefits, lifting sanctions could help thaw the icy relations between the U.S. and adversaries, opening doors for peace with some. On March 23, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for waiving international sanctions around the world, stating “this is the time for solidarity not exclusion.” He added, “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” calling for a global ceasefire “in all corners of the world” to make it easier to fight the pandemic. Some warring parties have responded positively to the call.
The goodwill generated by suspending or easing sanctions would only save lives, it could also be the catalyst for peace talks. Chances for peace would increase if countries benefiting from sanctions relief reciprocated by at least temporarily ceasing war activities, releasing prisoners and hostages, initiating dialogue, or taking other meaningful steps toward resolving disputes.
The time to act is now; sanctions are impeding the effort to fight COVID-19. Suspending sanctions is both the compassionate and the smart thing to do.