70 Global Groups Call for Sanctions Relief

April 24th, 2020 - by American Friends Service Committee & 70 co-signatories

Civil Society Groups Urge Immediate Sanctions Relief and Legal Reform

Signed by 70 organizations representing more than 40 million supporters

Amid COVID-19 pandemic, a group of nonprofit organizations sends letter to President Trump urging an overhaul in sanctions regimes

WASHINGTON, DC (April 23, 2020) — Today, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, 70 organizations representing humanitarian, research, peacebuilding, faith-based, human rights, and other civil society groups with over 40 million supporters sent a letter to President Trump, Secretary Mnuchin, and Secretary Pompeo urging the administration to provide emergency sanctions relief for countries such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and other heavily-sanctioned locations. Emphasizing the need for a global approach in dealing with the pandemic, the letter points out the “critical state of health infrastructures and economies” in many of these places.

“The pandemic has illustrated that isolating populations for decades and continuously strangling national economies has left millions of people vulnerable to disasters such as a COVID-19,” said Daniel Jasper, Asia Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. “Denying people access to lifesaving resources now represents a risk to the entire world. The US must rethink its approach to sanctions.”

The letter puts forth a framework for universal safeguards that include six specific categories. These include aid that is directly related to containing and providing treatment for COVID-19 (such as testing kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators, etc.). The letter also calls for safeguarding aid needed to address simultaneous challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, such as providing adequate water supply, food security, and urgent health services for other infectious diseases.

The 70 organizations, some of which have decades of experience operating in heavily-sanctioned contexts, highlight the fact that sanctions can prevent the delivery of medical supplies and goods needed for things like childcare or food security projects, as well as limiting communication and partnerships necessary to deliver the aid and monitor ongoing projects.

The letter also urged authorities to address the concerns of financial institutions, which have been reluctant to work with humanitarian agencies. “While sanctions contain exceptions for food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian goods, in practice these exceptions do not work.

Banks often block purchases for these items out of fear of running afoul of sanctions, in what is known as over-compliance,” said Teri Mattson, the Latin America Campaign Coordinator for CODEPINK. “Over-compliance is one of the many ways that innocent civilians end up being harmed by sanctions regimes.”

The signatories say that more is needed than just emergency safeguards, however. The letter notes that the effectiveness of sanctions regimes is not properly assessed by US government agencies, referencing a report by the Government Accountability Office, which called into question official monitoring procedures for sanctions as well as the impact of sanctions on human rights abroad. To understand these impacts, signatories to the letter recommend putting into place “reporting protocols that monitor the impact and human cost of sanctions.”

Citing a growing body of independent literature that shows the impacts of sanctions on civilians, the letter also urges the administration to suspend “broad-based and sectoral sanctions that cause significant economic damage and leave populations more exposed to sickness and disease, food insecurity, and other humanitarian emergencies.”

“Sanctions kill innocents indiscriminately just like bombs. Historically, this type of economic warfare fails to positively affect the behavior of governments. During this pandemic crisis, the US needs to remove all barriers, like sanctions, so countries can counteract COVID-19,” stated Paul Kawika Martin the Senior Policy Director for Peace Action.

“Across the world, COVID-19 is deepening existing gender inequalities. Women and girls, who are typically tasked with care-giving, face an increased workload and heightened risk of contracting the disease when family members fall sick. They’re also the most exposed to the economic shocks we’re seeing,” said Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE. “These gendered impacts are only compounded by economic sanctions, which put lifesaving medical equipment and aid out of reach.”

Coalition Letter to the White House (April 23, 2020)

The Honorable Donald Trump

President of the United States

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Trump,

As a broad coalition representing humanitarian, research, peacebuilding, faith-based, human rights, and other civil society organizations with over 40 million supporters, we write to you out of deep concern for the health and well-being of ordinary people in Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and other heavily-sanctioned locations. We also seek relief for people in Gaza, the West Bank, Yemen, and other countries being sanctioned by US security partners and where US laws and policies sanction non-state groups that control territory or political structures.

The current COVID-19 pandemic highlights the precarious and, in some cases, critical state of the health infrastructures and economies of these sanctioned locations, and how, without immediate intervention, millions of people face severe economic hardship, infection, and death.

We support UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent call “for the waiving of sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic.” [1] Specifically, we urge you to:

1) Issue emergency universal exemptions for humanitarian goods. The exemptions could take the form of an emergency universal general license that would allow humanitarian agencies to respond to the crisis quickly and more effectively. The license would need to, at minimum, exempt:

1) Aid necessary for the treatment of COVID-19;

2) Equipment used in the recovery from the disease;

3) Goods required to address simultaneous needs and issues exacerbated by the pandemic such as food security, water supply, civilian energy infrastructure, and other health-related needs such as medical kits and equipment;

4) Necessary training required for the use of medical and humanitarian equipment; and,

5) Communication and partnerships with non-sanctioned organizations and individuals. (These exemptions would be necessary for contexts such as North

Korea where a specific license is required for partnerships with non-sanctioned organizations and individuals).

6) Transactions and communications ordinarily incidental and necessary to accessing civilian populations in need of assistance.

Finally, the universal general license must address the reluctance of financial institutions, as well as other entities within supply chains, to carry out transactions required for the delivery of this aid.

2) Implement reporting protocols that monitor the impact and human cost of sanctions. High COVID-19 related death rates in heavily-sanctioned countries illustrate the grave consequences of deficient healthcare infrastructures, weakened in part by sanctions. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that noted, “[s]anctions may also have unintended consequences for targeted countries, such as negative impacts on human rights or public health.” [2] In addition, the report concluded that unilateral sanctions measures are difficult to assess and are not necessarily effective in achieving foreign policy aims. We urge the implementation of regular assessments to better understand the human costs of sanctions and whether sanctions are effective in achieving their purpose.

3) Suspend broad-based and sectoral sanctions that cause significant economic damage and leave populations more exposed to sickness and disease, food insecurity, and other humanitarian emergencies. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of humanitarian and human rights experts warned of the impacts of sanctions on ordinary civilians.

For example, various experts have noted that sanctions were already causing shortages of medical supplies, decimating livelihoods, blocking banking channels, and exacerbating already dire situations in sanctioned countries such as Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, and other heavily-sanctioned locations. [3, 4, 5, 6]

These problems are not only devastating for the millions of people living in sanctioned regions, but, at the present moment, they also are a threat to the health and safety of non-sanctioned countries around the world. The swift spread of COVID-19 to every corner of the globe clearly shows that an out-of-control epidemic in just one country is a public health threat for all of us. Broad, sectoral sanctions should be suspended in order to help strengthen, and in some cases rebuild, critical health infrastructures.

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has stated:

“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.” [7]

The urgent appeals listed above are based on a commitment to save human lives and build global environments of cooperation. The collective decades of research and on-the-ground experience of signatories to this letter have led us to the conclusion that broad, unilateral sanctions are harming ordinary civilians and inhibiting effective international cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

We therefore urge you to take immediate emergency measures, and consider long-term measures as well, that would allow the peoples of sanctioned countries to respond to the devastating human and economic fallout of COVID-19.


About Face: Veterans Against the War

American Friends Service Committee

Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security

Center for Constitutional Rights

Center for International Policy

Center on Conscience & War

Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation

Charity & Security Network

Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America

Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy

Church World Service

Churches for Middle East Peace


Congregation of Our Lady of the Good Shepherd, US Provinces

DC International Womxn’s Alliance (DIWA)

Defending Rights & Dissent

Democratic Socialists of America

Environmentalists Against War


Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ

Grassroots Global Justice Alliance

Grassroots International

Heartland Initiative

Helping Hand for Relief and Development

Human Security Collective

Institute for Policy Studies, New Internationalism Project

International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)

JASS/Just Associates

Just Foreign Policy


Korea Peace Network

Latin America Working Group


Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Mennonite Central Committee US Washington Office

National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd

National Association of Korean Americans (NAKA)

National Council of Churches

National Iranian American Council Action

National Students for Justice in Palestine

No More War Campaign

Nodutdol for Korean Community Development

Pax Christi International

Pax Christi USA

Peace Action

Peace Action Maine

Peace Action New York State

Peace Appeal Foundation

Peace Corps Iran Association, Board

Peace Direct

Peace Philosophy Centre


Presbyterian Church USA

Project Blueprint

Rethinking Foreign Policy

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas – Justice Team

The Board of the Peace Corps Iran Association

The Korea Peace Committee of the Korean Association of the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society

TLtC Justice & Peace Committee

United for Peace and Justice

United Mission For Relief and Development UMR

US Labor Against the War

Veterans for Peace Korea Peace Campaign

War Prevention Initiative

War Resisters League

Western States Legal Foundation

Women Cross DMZ

World Beyond War

Zakat Foundation of America

CC: Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Secretary Michael Pompeo


1 Lynch, Colum. UN Calls for Rolling Back Sanctions to Battle Pandemic. Foreign Policy, 24 Mar. 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/24/un-coronavirus-cuba-iran-venezuela-north-korea-zimbabwe-sanctions-pandemic/.

2  Office, US Government Accountability. “Economic Sanctions: Agencies Assess Impacts on Targets, and Studies Suggest Several Factors Contribute to Sanctions’ Effectiveness.” US Government Accountability Office (US GAO), 2 Oct. 2019, www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-145.

3 “‘Maximum Pressure’: US Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health.” Human Rights Watch, 29 Oct. 2019, www.hrw.org/report/2019/10/29/maximum-pressure/us-economic-sanctions-harm-iranians-right-health.

4 Sachs, Jeffrey, and Mark Weisbrot. “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, 19 Apr. 2019, cepr.net/report/economic-sanctions-as-collective-punishment-the-case-of-venezuela/.

5 “Report of the Panel of Experts.” S/2019/691 – E – S/2019/691, 31 July 2019, undocs.org/S/2019/691.

6 “Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures.” The Intercept, 28 Sept. 2016, theintercept.com/document/2016/09/28/humanitarian-impact-of-syria-related-unilateral-restrictive-measures/.

7 “Bachelet Calls for Easing of Sanctions to Enable Medical Systems to Fight COVID-19 and Limit Global Contagion.” OHCHR, 24 Mar. 2020, www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25744&LangID=E.

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