US Sanctions and COVID-19

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Much ink has been spilled over the potentially disastrous consequences of President Donald Trump’s impulsive and foolhardy foreign policy decisions. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, his nuclear game of chicken with North Korea, the assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, and other reckless moves imperiling millions of lives have been roundly criticized by scores of policymakers and editorial writers.


But one particularly brutal set of White House measures that has already caused tens of thousands of casualties abroad has been ignored by most of Trump’s critics. Since taking office, the president has unilaterally imposed a number of deadly, sweeping economic sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. These sanctions have not, by any reasonable measure, advanced U.S. foreign policy interests. They have, however, wreaked havoc and destruction in the lives of countless innocent human beings. And now they are fanning the deadly flames of the COVID-19 pandemic.


In Iran, Trump’s sanctions have severely limited the country’s access to medicines and medical supplies, thereby directly contributing to the high rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths there. Researchers in Tehran have drawn up chilling simulations that forecast as many as 3.5 million deaths. This hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from imposing new sanctions directed at Iran’s petrochemical industry, which provides a critical source of revenue to the country.


Venezuela may soon face an even more disastrous situation. Economic sanctions imposed by Trump in 2017, and then vastly expanded in 2019, have already resulted in increased disease and caused tens of thousands of excess deaths, according to a 2019 study by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs. In recent years, the country has been unable to cope with outbreaks of diphtheria, measles, and malaria; with most Venezuelan doctors reporting that they have no masks, gloves, or even soap, public health experts fear that the country is on the brink of a major catastrophe.


The media has generally failed to inform the public about the harmful impact of Trump’s sanctions on innocent people in Iran, Venezuela, and other countries. Few of the many alarming reports on the economic and humanitarian situation in Venezuela, for instance, have mentioned the significant role of US sanctions in deepening the country’s severe economic crisis and preventing recovery. With COVID-19 now putting the spotlight on the extreme difficulties that sanctioned countries have in addressing public health emergencies, more media outlets are beginning to connect the dots between sanctions and human suffering.


Why hasn’t there been, until now, more tangible concern about the brutal “collateral damage” caused by Trump’s economic sanctions? One likely explanation is that the US foreign policy establishment has traditionally supported sanctions, despite studies showing that they generally don’t produce the desired political outcome.


As a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder explains, “sanctions, while a form of intervention, are generally viewed as a lower-cost, lower-risk course of action between diplomacy and war. Policymakers may consider sanctions as a response to foreign crises in which the national interest is less than vital or where military action is not feasible.”


The negative human consequences of sanctions aren’t immediately apparent and, when reports on sanctions-linked deaths emerge ― as was the case in the early 1990s when economic sanctions were imposed on Haiti ― they are often ignored.


Fortunately, some US policymakers have begun bucking the cynical bipartisan consensus on sanctions and have been speaking out against their dire effects and lack of tangible results. In December 2018, 14 members of Congress sent a letter to the administration seeking “answers regarding the humanitarian impact that recently imposed US sanctions are having on the Iranian people.” In March 2019, 16 members of the House signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposing Trump’s economic sanctions against Venezuela and noting that they were having “lethal effects on innocent people” and “contributing to the ongoing outbound migration of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans.”


On March 18, Bernie Sanders noted that Iran faces “a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic” and called on the US government to “lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions.”


But the first to take decisive action to rein in the president’s unilateral use of sanctions is Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN), with a new bill entitled the Congressional Oversight over Sanctions Act (or COSA). Part of a bold, new package of legislation aimed at promoting peace, human rights, and respect for international law, COSA would amend the National Emergencies Act and the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, which ― together ― allow the president to order sanctions of all types without congressional approval, simply by invoking a “national emergency” (regardless of whether there is evidence of such a thing).


Omar’s bill establishes strict legislative control over the executive branch’s use of sanctions by requiring congressional approval within 60 days of the announcement of emergency sanctions powers ― as well as requiring additional approval for the renewal of these powers every six months thereafter. The legislation will also force a reckoning over the actual impact of sanctions by mandating studies on the impact of unilateral sanctions before and after their implementation. The US government would be required to report whether sanctions advance stated goals and benchmarks. Importantly, the legislation would also require that the State Department report on whether or not presidential sanctions comply with US international treaty obligations (many international law experts would argue that they do not).


COSA has already garnered strong support from a broad coalition of civil society groups. A letter urging members of Congress to cosponsor the legislation has been signed by over 40 groups, including faith-based organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, United Church of Christ, and Justice and Witness Ministries; peace groups like Veterans for Peace and Win Without War; and think tanks like the Center for International Policy. As the letter notes, “the power to impose sanctions (…) should not be in the hands of a single individual. Too many lives are at stake and there is too much potential for abuse or overuse.” The reality of these words is now all too apparent as sanctioned peoples struggle to protect themselves against a raging pandemic.


- Alexander Main is Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.


This article was published by Al Jazeera English on March 20, 2020. To reprint it, please contact CEPR
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