On Dec. 20, 2022, the United States Treasury Department issued a package of new general licenses, or humanitarian carve outs, for all U.S. sanctions regimes. These exemptions are designed to ensure that life-saving aid can be delivered on time, wherever it is needed in the world—even in countries on which the U.S. has imposed sanctions.
This significant, positive change to U.S. sanctions policy comes on the heels of the United Nations Security Council’s passage of a resolution to establish similar protections for administering humanitarian aid under UN sanctions regimes.
Bureaucratic Hurdles were Preventing the Flow of Aid, New Exemptions Offer Relief
For years, humanitarian aid groups, advocacy organizations, members of Congress, and the United States Treasury Department have pointed to the need for greater flexibility to allow critical aid to reach the people who need it. They called for a change in the case-by-case process for issuing these humanitarian carve outs.
These exemptions are designed to ensure that life-saving aid can be delivered on time, wherever it is needed in the world—even in countries on which the U.S. has imposed sanctions.
Under the old system, aid organizations had to navigate a confusing and lengthy process to gain an exemption justifying their presence and actions in heavily sanctioned countries. Some aid groups, especially smaller organizations, were not able to obtain exemptions at all, due to hefty legal fees or complex bureaucratic processes. This prevented the delivery of life-saving aid.
Banks and other financial institutions have frequently refused to work with humanitarian aid groups, even if they secured a humanitarian carve out, for fear of violating U.S. sanctions regimes and suffering the resulting criminal liability.
This “over-compliance” harms the most marginalized and vulnerable communities across the globe. In one instance, a Swedish company pulled its life-saving treatment for a rare genetic disorder from Iranian shelves fearing U.S. sanctions enforcement after the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed broad-based economic sanctions on Iran.
Further, although the stated purpose of these sanctions regimes is often to curb human rights abuses by punishing a government or incentivizing a behavior change, their crippling effect on civilians’ livelihoods can compound human rights violations. Idriss Jazairy, the former UN special rapporteur on the effect of sanctions on human rights, said that broad-based economic sanctions can amount to collective punishment and economic warfare, violating the fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
The new general licenses will help prevent over-compliance by clarifying permitted activities, thereby decreasing fear around operating in countries heavily sanctioned by the United States, like Iran and Syria. Other UN member states should follow the United States’ lead and implement changes to sanctions policy that align with UNSC Resolution 2664.
An Important Step, More is Needed
Congress and the administration must do more to end the suffering caused by broad-based economic sanctions around the world. This need was repeatedly underscored by the difficulty of providing disaster relief to Syria in the aftermath of the recent deadly earthquakes in the region.
Congress and the administration must do more to end the suffering caused by broad-based economic sanctions around the world.
Corrections to implementation can only do so much to address this problem. Sanctions themselves, as a tool of economic warfare, punish ordinary people for the decisions of their leaders. Congress should initiate a request to the Government Accountability Office to assess the global impact of broad-based economic sanctions regimes as a critical and immediate next step. Lawmakers must also hold additional hearings on the harmful impacts of sanctions and work to lift sanctions around the world, including in Syria, where immediate relief is needed.
As long as the U.S. government relies on broad-based economic sanctions regimes, it will perpetuate a collective punishment structure that is demonstrably deadly. Changes to this system will save lives, but ultimately, the goal should be the elimination of broad-based economic sanctions regimes that are killing civilians and hurting diplomacy.