ACTION ALERT: Ilhan Omar Introduces Bill to Limit Presidential Sanctions

February 12th, 2020 - by Daniel Jasper / American Friends Service Committee & Hon. Ilhan Omar / US House of Representatives

ACTION ALERT: Ilhan Omar Introduces Bill to Limit Presidential Sanctions

Daniel Jasper / American Friends Service Committee

[Note: This is an edited version of a longer email alert.]

(February 10, 2020) — The American Friends Service Committee has announced their support for a new bill that would block the US president’s ability to order economic sanctions without explicit Congressional approval.

This bill, which is being introduced on February 12 by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MI), also mandates independent assessments on the impact of sanctions on human lives and requires reporting on whether presidential sanction measures comply with US treaty and international law obligations.

It is believed to be the first piece of legislation that seeks to develop strong congressional oversight over a US president’s use of sanctions.

Some of the signers so far include: American Friends Service Committee, Win Without War, World BEYOND War, Just Foreign Policy, Center for Economic and Policy Research, MADRE, Environmentalists Against War, National Iranian American Council Action, Mennonite Central Committee US Washington Office, Peace Action, Friends Committee on National Legislation, CODEPINK, Women Cross DMZ, Center for International Policy, and the Chicago Religious Leadership Network.

Here is a quick summary of the basic contents of the legislation.

The bill includes amendments to the Emergency Powers Act (EPA) and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), as well as additional reporting provisions. The bill’s main objective is to impose Congressional control over US sanctions powers under the IEEPA and EPA. Here are the main points:

EPA Amendments:

•   Emergency powers are automatically terminated within 60 days unless approved by Congress via a joint resolution.

•   Renewed Congressional approval of emergency powers is required every 6 months.

•   The president cannot declare a new national emergency based on “substantially similar facts” for one year after termination of emergency powers.

IEEPA Amendments:

•   Authorizes exemptions for exportation of equipment and goods that support the maintenance of: civilian healthcare facilities; water infrastructure; civilian energy infrastructures; or primary or secondary educational facilities. 

•   Authorizes support for communication with sanctioned individuals or entities if such communication: serves to attenuate or eliminate violent conflict, e.g., through diplomatic negotiations; serves to reduce or eliminate the suffering of the civilian population.

•   When the President takes action under IEEPA s/he will need to immediately report to Congress:  the expected goals and outcomes s/he expects to achieve; other tools considered to address the emergency, and the reason for choosing sanctions instead; a list of other countries imposing sanctions in accordance with the sanctions imposed by the President, or if sanctions are unilateral, an explanation for why no other country is imposing these sanctions; the strategy of the President to provide compliance guidance to entities in the private sector including financial institutions, humanitarian organizations, and peacebuilding organizations; the criteria, if any, that a sanctioned person must meet before any sanctions imposed against him or her may be lifted.

Other Provisions:

•   GAO impact reports within 30 days and within one year of actions taken against a country under a “national emergency”:  on US economic interests; on targeted country’s economic and humanitarian situation; on US citizens.

•   State and Treasury report on whether “national emergency” actions comply with US international treaty obligations.

Report from the President, within a year, on how authorities exercised under IEEPA have advanced the goals and objectives that the President set forth in his/her initial report to Congress (see the last of the IEEPA amendments).

Sanctions Are Part of a Failed Foreign Policy Playbook. Stop Relying on Them

Hon. Ilhan Omar / US House of Representatives

WASHINGTON (October 23, 2019) — Less than three weeks have passed since President Trump spoke on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, setting off a cascade of destabilizing events that have endangered US national security, the Middle East and the world.

What has happened after Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria is a disaster — tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee, hundreds of Islamic State fighters have escaped, and Turkish-backed rebels have been credibly accused of atrocities against the Kurds.

Accountability for perpetrators and support for the Kurdish people are essential. But in Congress’s bipartisan condemnation of the Turkish incursion, Republicans and Democrats alike have jumped to pursuing one policy response: harsh sanctions. 

In the White House announcement on Oct. 14 of sanctions on Turkey, Trump said, “I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.” 

This is an unmistakable echo of the failed US strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran and Venezuela. And just as with those two countries, it would be a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster.

In so much of our foreign policy, we rely on muscle memory and a limited toolbox to decide the best course of action. And too often sanctions regimes are ill considered, incoherent and counterproductive. 

Research has shown that sanctions rarely achieve their desired goals. In the worst-case scenario, they hurt the people of a country — generally the very people we’re purporting to help — without making a dent in the country’s behavior. And in the case of human-rights abusers, research suggests that more abuses typically occur with economic sanctions in place than without them.

Sanctions are not meant to be an end in themselves, but we too often use them as a lever without a plan for what comes after, whether they achieve the desired result or not.

After years of improving relations between the United States and Iran, the sanctions put in place by the Trump administration have instead devastated that country’s middle class and increased hostility toward the United States, with tensions between the two countries rising to dangerous levels.

The sanctions have simultaneously strengthened the Iranian regime’s credibility at home and united human-rights activists and the Iranian leadership in opposition to the strategy. One dire effect of the sanctions has been an entirely preventable shortage of life-saving medicine.

A group of Iranian women’s rights activists recently wrote, “While sanctions proponents claim to care for the Iranian people, their policies have left an entire nation weary, depressed and hopeless. Sanctions, and economic pressure, target the fabric of society.” 

The same backward logic was applied to Venezuela, where the Trump administration intended to squeeze Nicolás Maduro out of power through increasingly sweeping sanctions on the state oil company and then the central bank — only to find itself involved in an intractable crisis that risks descending into civil war.

There’s no question that the bulk of the economic crisis in Venezuela was caused by Maduro’s government, which inherited fixable problems and failed to address them. But US sanctions have worsened Venezuela’s economic disaster — and handed Maduro a propaganda victory. He can now shift blame to the United States, while retaining his grip on power.

Both of these cases point to a larger problem. Too often, US policymakers are quick to place sanctions on regimes we disagree with, without considering the likelihood of success or the humanitarian consequences.

This is not a catch-all criticism of sanctions. The use of the Global Magnitsky Act, aimed at specific individuals responsible for gross human rights violations, can be an important mechanism for accountability if they are used consistently and not simply for our geopolitical rivals. And locally led boycott or divestment campaigns, such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, can be meaningful ways for those impacted to seek a peaceful resolution.

But economic and sector sanctions are too often designed to inflict maximum pain on civilians, not empower them. We had a full embargo on Cuba for decades, with little effect on the Cuban government but much pain inflicted on ordinary Cubans. It was only through diplomacy and direct conversation that President Barack Obama and the United States made progress in Cuba. 

The same strategies should be applied to Syria. We could have negotiated a buffer zone in northern Syria, so that people outside of the Assad regime’s control could create a peaceful life, without our greenlighting the slaughter of innocent Kurdish lives. We could ban weapons sales to Turkey (as Congress is contemplating), limiting Erdogan’s ability to wage war without targeting the Turkish people.

But addressing the root of the problem requires a foreign policy that doesn’t prioritize warfare — whether military or economic.

We need a vision for a US foreign policy that is rooted in the experiences of people directly affected and is sincere about putting human rights and democracy first. Questioning and changing the near-automatic reliance on sanctions is fully compatible with advancing our interests and defending national security. It’s time to stop relying on the same failed playbook. 

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.