The US sanctions target ordinary citizens
The Trump administration’s broad sanctions on Iran have drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines, causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threatening their right to health. The administration in Washington should take immediate steps to ensure a viable channel exists for trade of humanitarian goods with Iran, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
The report, documents how broad restrictions on financial transactions, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from United States officials, have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.
While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch found that in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. The result has been to deny Iranians access to essential medicines and to impair their right to health.
Under international law, the US should monitor the impact of its sanctions on Iranians’ rights and address any violations sanctions cause. “Trump administration officials claim they stand with the Iranian people, but the overbroad and burdensome US sanctions regime is harming Iranians’ right to health, including access to life-saving medicines,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The comprehensive web of US sanctions has led banks and companies to pull back from humanitarian trade with Iran, leaving Iranians who have rare or complicated diseases unable to get the medicine and treatment they require.”
Since the Trump administration formally withdrew the US from the international nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018, it has re-imposed previously suspended nuclear related economic sanctions, including on oil exports, and added new sanctions. The US Treasury Department predicted the sanctions would lead to Iran’s “mounting financial isolation and economic stagnation.” Open-ended and comprehensive sanctions such as those that the Trump administration has imposed on Iran have negatively impacted the humanitarian needs and the enjoyment of the right to health for millions of Iranians, Human Rights Watch said.
On October 25, 2019, with the announcement of new sanctions on Iran, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said that “This administration remains committed to the unfettered flow of humanitarian aid to the Iranian people, who have suffered for forty years under the mismanagement of this corrupt regime.” However, US officials also have sent a contradictory message, saying that the strategy is in fact to cause enough distress for the Iranian people that they force the government to change its behavior – a recipe for infringing on Iranians’ economic rights.
"The recent US Treasury and State Department announcement of a 'new humanitarian mechanism' for trade with Iran is a rare implicit acknowledgement that broad US sanctions on Iran have restricted the flow of humanitarian goods into the country,” Whitson said.
Human Rights Watch found that US economic sanctions on Iran, despite the humanitarian exemptions, are causing unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens afflicted with a range of diseases and medical conditions. Some of the worst affected are Iranians who have rare diseases and/or conditions that require specialized treatment and are unable to acquire previously available medicines or supplies. This includes patients with leukemia, epidermolysis bullosa (EB, a type of disease that causes fragile, blistering skin), epilepsy, and chronic eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
People with severe forms of EB have been unable to get specialized bandages and are significantly more likely to get bacterial infections and develop sepsis. Children with epilepsy resistant to common treatments and unable to get imported medicines have frequent, uncontrolled seizures that risk injury and over time severe and permanent brain damage.
Over the past year, the US Treasury Department has added a large number of institutions, including Iranian government and private banks, to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List for the sanctions. US and non-US companies and financial institutions that engage in transactions with these entities can be prosecuted in the US. The serious regulatory and due diligence requirements placed on international firms trading with Iran have left only a small number of companies and banks with the capacity to finance trade with Iran and a willingness to accept the increased financial and legal risks.
Excessive caution or “overcompliance” by banks and pharmaceutical companies is a significant factor for this, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch found, for instance, that a European company refused to sell the special bandages needed by patients with EB despite the humanitarian exemption. Human Rights Watch reviewed correspondence with two other banks in which they refused to authorize humanitarian transactions with Iran.
Under international law, a country or coalition of states enforcing economic sanctions should consider the impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially their access to goods essential to life, including medicines and food. Human Rights Watch opposes sanctions that have a disproportionately negative impact on the human rights of the affected population, or that create unnecessary suffering, in particular for vulnerable populations.
The Human Rights Watch made some recommendations to the US government:
- Publicly clarify at the highest level that banks or companies face no legal or financial risks in exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods to Iran.
- Establish a mechanism to expedite financing of humanitarian exports to Iran.
- Encourage other states to establish mechanisms for financing humanitarian imports to Iran, such as the INSTEX mechanism proposed by several European states.
- The US should initiate diplomatic efforts, including direct talks with Iran, to ensure that humanitarian channels remain open for Iran to import essential medicine and medical equipment in order to safeguard Iranians’ right to health.
- Publicly clarify that US and non-US banks and companies face no legal risks if transactions with Iran involve only exempted humanitarian goods.
- Authorize a financial channel for humanitarian trade, either directly or through governments that have expressed interest, such as the Swiss government.
- Publish the list of licenses granted for humanitarian trade and other steps taken to address the humanitarian need of Iranians since August 2018 and going forward publish monthly information on humanitarian trade licenses.
- Dedicate resources for direct outreach to companies and financial institutions to clarify humanitarian exemptions.
- Hold public hearings on the impact of US sanctions on the impact of sanctions on the health of Iranians and their access to medicines.
- Put in place and make public humanitarian exemption provisions for the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian banks involved in financing imports of medicines and other humanitarian goods.
- Appoint a designated staff with authority to ensure continuation of humanitarian trade with Iran.