Economic sanctions and Covid-19 pandemic


Unilateral coercive measures continue to proliferate during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is all the more worrying in the context of a deep economic crisis which because of the pandemic is becoming more acute.

Unilateral coercive measures are instruments used by some governments for political purposes. Such measures may take the form of economic and financial sanctions, trade embargoes or other such measures. They aim to establish trade and banking barriers to prevent, for example, the purchase of medicines, medical equipment, food and other essential goods. The adverse consequences of such measures are dramatic, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting virtually all human rights, in particular the right to life. In this sense, the continuation of these measures is simply criminal.

Today, many countries are subject to multiple forms of sanctions[1]. While some of them are decreed by the UN Security Council (e.g. arms embargoes for certain countries in armed conflict), most of these sanctions are imposed unilaterally by the United States and followed by its close allies such as the European Union. Contrary to official discourse, the objective of these States, taking advantage of their dominant position on the international scene, is to destructure the economic apparatus of the targeted country in order to overthrow any government that does not submit to their will.

Among the examples of economic sanctions imposed by the United States is the case of Cuba, subject to sanctions that hold the sad record of being the longest (since 1962) and cruelest (total blockade). This small island country alone has all the characteristics and suffers the adverse consequences of unilateral coercive measures, affecting practically all sectors: energy, industry, technology, real estate, infrastructure, agriculture, construction, tourism, banking and finance. In addition, Cuba is deprived of foreign exchange earnings and is hindered in the supply of basic necessities, including food and medicine, and in the export of its products.

Recently, some companies have refused to supply Cuba with breathing apparatus, which is essential for saving the lives of people affected by Covid-19, because such equipment has not been sanctioned by the United States. Sometimes a country like Switzerland, which is considered neutral, contributes to these unilateral sanctions. Indeed, in addition to Swiss private banks, PostFinance Switzerland (a public financial institution) has also recently suspended all money transfers to Cuba[2], thus preventing Swiss associations from collaborating with Cuban medical entities.

This blockade is the main obstacle to the development of the full potential of the Cuban economy. As we have stressed on several occasions, these measures “cost the Cuban people above all immeasurable sacrifices, depriving them of the enjoyment of their basic human rights, including those of self-determination and development”[3].

Similar repercussions can be observed in other countries such as Venezuela, Iran and Syria, also targeted by coercive measures imposed by the United States.

Unilateral coercive measures are, under all circumstances, contrary to and violate international human rights law, in particular the UN Charter and the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their two Protocols. UN bodies (the General Assembly[4] and the Human Rights Council[5], among others) have repeatedly condemned such measures.

Recently, UN human rights experts have called on the United States “to lift its economic and financial embargo on Cuba, which impedes humanitarian responses to help the country’s health system combat the Covid-19 pandemic[6].

Ms Alena Douhan, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the negative effects of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, stressed that in the context of the current pandemic, “a human rights approach is necessary to address the crisis of COVID-19, and this requires the lifting of coercive measures between States”. In her earlier individual statement, she noted that “sanctioned countries are particularly affected because they cannot use their revenues to import equipment, drugs, antiviral treatment and food from global markets”.[7]

We are facing a crisis of exceptional magnitude, affecting all aspects of life and normal functioning of societies worldwide. The fight against Covid-19, which knows no borders, requires a spirit of mutual respect, international cooperation and solidarity among peoples and States, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

For Alfred de Zayas, former United Nations Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, the United States and all other States that resorted to unilateral coercive measures have civil and criminal responsibility, and as such, the International Criminal Court must condemn those practices as crimes against humanity, under article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.[8]

Unilateral coercive measures undermine the ability of countries concerned to deal with the pandemic and to follow the development model they have chosen, in accordance with the right of peoples to decide their future. This is why CETIM reiterates its demand for the immediate and complete lifting of all unilateral coercive measures without conditions.


[1] These countries include: Belarus, Burundi, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, Zimbabwe…

[2] See the campaign launched by the « Swiss solidarity and human rights organisations – Cuba ».

[3] See, among others, the written statement of the CETIM, submitted to the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council, September 2017.

[4] See, inter alia, resolution 74/200, adopted on 19 December 2019.

[5] See, inter alia, resolution 40/3, adopted on 21 March 2019.

[6] Joint Statement, “US must lift its Cuba embargo to save lives amid COVID-19 crisis, say UN experts”, 30 April 2020, signed by Ms. Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Mr.  Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, Mr. Obiora Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

[7] Statement, “UN expert urges governments to save lives by lifting all economic sanctions amid COVID-19 pandemic”, 3 of April 2020.

[8] See the interview with Mr Alfred de Zayas, published in Horizons et débats, No. 7, 14 April 2020.

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