Review sanction regimes to facilitate Covid-19 response

Published 22. Apr 2020
Recent statements from US and EU authorities say the sanctions they impose do not target aid. NRC welcomes those statements but calls on states and multilateral bodies to now take concrete action to ensure that sanctions do not hinder the response to the Covid-19 pandemic in countries already suffering humanitarian crises.

“Current sanction regimes are stifling our ability to help people in need in many places,” said Jan Egeland, NRC’s Secretary General. “Maintaining measures that obstruct aid delivery in the face of a global pandemic is short-sighted and reckless, whether intentional or not.”

In statements on 3 and 9 April, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the US Treasury Department stressed that exemptions and exceptions to sanctions they impose allow for delivery of items like food, medicine and medical devices. On 16 April, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a factsheet summarising humanitarian exemptions and exceptions in its sanctions. This week the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs repeated a call for the use of humanitarian exemptions. These statements are a welcome step, but in practice they do not go far enough.

Exemptions and exceptions are not included in all sanctions regimes. And where they are in place, humanitarian organisations and private sector companies are often unable or unwilling to make use of them owing to uncertainty over their scope, burdensome compliance requirements, and fear of inadvertently breaching sanctions. Banks are often particularly risk-averse, making it difficult to transfer funds for aid activities to countries under sanction.

The EU and US statements came after UN Secretary-General António Guterres encouraged G-20 economic powers to waive sanctions to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and Covid-19 medical support.

NRC calls on states and multilateral bodies imposing sanctions to individually review each sanction regime to address any intended or unintended consequences impeding humanitarian assistance and to swiftly:

  • broaden the scope of existing humanitarian exemptions, waiving burdensome compliance requirements, and where they are not in place, issue new exemptions to enable aid delivery including medical and other relief supplies to areas impacted by sanctions;
  • issue clear guidance to all stakeholders, including humanitarian organisations and private companies, to clarify how they can quickly and legally respond in countries under sanction, without fear of falling foul of sanctions;
  • engage directly with the banking sector to ensure fund transfers for humanitarian goods can continue unimpeded and donor funds to support aid can reach countries under sanction quickly.

“Those who impose sanctions need to carefully consider how humanitarian organisations and the private sector respond to them. No matter what the intentions, if people can’t get medical treatment or go hungry because of fear of falling foul of sanctions, then those imposing them bear the responsibility,” said Egeland.

In a 2018 report, NRC documented how counterterrorism measures and sanctions impacted the delivery of humanitarian aid to communities in areas under the control of non-state armed groups.