Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, U.S. Economic Sanctions on Iran, Venezuela a ‘Crime Against Humanity’

Interview with Alfred de Zayas, professor of law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and former first UN independent expert for the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, by Melinda Tuhus

In the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the residents of some nations that have been under U.S. economic sanctions face even steeper odds of weathering the crisis, as their health systems have been severely impacted by lack of access to medicines and life-saving equipment. This was true of Iraq all through the 1990s and is the case today in Venezuela, Iran and Syria. Over recent decades, Cuba, despite President Trump’s re-imposition of some of the sanctions lifted by President Barack Obama, has developed a strong health sector to the point that the island nation now exports medical personnel to countries struggling with the pandemic, and is developing medicines that may prove the best defense against this coronavirus.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Alfred de Zayas, professor of law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. From 2012-2018, he served as the first UN independent expert for the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order. He maintains that sanctions imposed by one country on another are illegal under international law, unless approved by the U.N. In late 2017, he visited Venezuela, investigating the impact of U.S. and international sanctions on the South American nation’s population.

Here, de Zayas explains why he believes that continued U.S. sanctions imposed now amid the coronavirus pandemic constitutes a “crime against humanity.”

ALFRED DE ZAYAS: It’s quite clear that when you impose sanctions on a country that the population is going to suffer. It’s ridiculous to pretend that the sanctions are only going to affect the government elite. In fact, the government elite usually continues living rather well. It’s the most vulnerable – women, children – who have to pay for the consequences of these illegal sanctions.

Now, when I went to Venezuela in November 2017, the situation wasn’t that bad. As a matter of fact, I went into supermarkets and I saw the supermarkets full. The point is that cumulatively, since the economic war started against Venezuela – and that is not just the sanctions from the time of Obama in 2015 and from 2017 – I’m talking about the economic war that has been waged against Venezuela since 1999. That has had a cumulative effect, and that has been greater difficulty on the part of the government to obtain life-saving medicines. The question is that the distribution chains and all of that, which has been impacted very badly by the economic war. Even worse is the financial blockade, which has made it almost impossible for the government of Venezuela to buy and sell, to transfer money, since the banks fear enormous penalties from the [U.S.] Department of the Treasury if they deal with Venezuela, so essentially the banks dropped Venezuela as they dropped Syria, as they dropped Iran, etc., etc.

As it’s been said before, sanctions kill. I mean, sanctions are not little inconveniences. Sanctions actually kill human beings.

MELINDA TUHUS: Alfred de Zayas, last year Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University and Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington issued a report about the number of deaths in Venezuela the year before. Can you talk about that?

ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Approximately 40,000 Venezuelans died as a result of the sanctions, that is, because they didn’t have access to medicines or didn’t have timely access to medicines or because they had malnutrition, etc., etc. Now, imagine with the pandemic, with Covid-19, the whole infrastructure in Venezuela, in Cuba, in Iran, in Syria, has been devastated by this economic war against them. They are already weak, and the U.S. wants to make these sanctions worse. That is nothing less than a crime against humanity. In my own report to the Human Rights Council, 2018, I explained why that adds up to a crime against humanity, susceptible to being prosecuted, being investigated by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. And on Feb. 13 of this year, the Venezuelan foreign minister personally presented to the International Criminal Court a complaint against these sanctions under Article 14 of the ICC statute, invoking Article 7. Article 7 is the article that defines crimes against humanity. Back in 2012, the then-High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a thematic study on the adverse impacts of unilateral coercive measures. And she condemned unilateral coercive measures, and asked that they be lifted, and explained why they violated international law. This is intentional murder! As I said, sanctions kill, and it is for every American citizen, including myself, to protest, and I do protest at every possible occasion.

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