On May 6th, President Trump vetoed the Iran War Powers resolution, a bipartisan attempt that would have required him to seek congressional authorization before using military force against Iran. The next day, despite bipartisan support for the resolution, the Senate fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Trump’s veto. Thus, a conventional war on Iran remains a frightening possibility. Yet to Iranians, current US sanctions are a form of war that have come with a significant human cost.
Enacted long before the coronavirus pandemic, US economic sanctions were already crippling foreign economies from Venezuela to Iran. Now, however, the devastating impact of these unilateral sanctions regimes is even more apparent: ordinary Venezuelans and Iranians are unable to receive medical treatment for both coronavirus and non-coronavirus-related conditions.
These sanctions are part of a longstanding bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
In a 1996 segment on 60 Minutes, host Lesley Stahl asked then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We have heard that half a million children have died [from sanctions on Iraq]. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright responded, “We think the price is worth it.” That’s right, the most prominent U.S. diplomat at the time, serving in a Democratic administration, defended the policy even on the premise that it killed more children than the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima did.
To Albright and much of the US political establishment, sanctions have long been considered a preferable, less destructive alternative to conventional warfare. Yet this is far from the truth; as Stahl noted, sanctions can indeed be as devastating as conventional or even nuclear war.
Today, several decades later, the US government has yet to acknowledge the grave humanitarian impact its sanctions have on other countries. In the midst of a global pandemic, international cooperation and diplomacy are more important than ever. Yet the US is using the pandemic to ratchet up its unilateral sanctions regimes imposed on countries from Venezuela to Iran. Make no mistake: these sanctions are in direct violation of international law. Therefore, it’s essential that the US lift them immediately and begin to embrace multilateralism. Respect for international law saves lives and strengthens diplomacy.
The Declaration on the Principles of International Law, adopted by the 25th UN General Assembly in 1970, states that it is “the duty of States to refrain in their international relations from military, political, economic or any other form of coercion aimed against the political independence or territorial integrity of any State.” This is precisely what sanctions on Venezuela and Iran seek to do: force sovereign states to bend to the will of the US.
Although the U.S. often claims that its sanctions regimes are imposed to target governments and not civilians, in reality, they are a means of collective punishment of entire populations; Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (to which the US is a signatory) explicitly prohibits collective punishment. In 1997, the United Nations Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights concluded that sanctions “affect the innocent population, especially the most vulnerable, aggravate imbalances in income distribution, and generate illegal and unethical business practices.”
Sure enough, it’s the most vulnerable communities in Venezuela and Iran that are being hurt most by sanctions.
Last year, a study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that U.S. sanctions, which dramatically reduced Venezuela’s ability to import, were responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans from 2017 to 2019. The same study estimated that 300,000 Venezuelans were at risk of dying because of lack of access to medicine due to the sanctions. These sanctions disproportionately exacerbate the crisis for Venezuela’s most vulnerable: “children and adolescents…; people who are in poverty or extreme poverty; pregnant and nursing women; older persons; indigenous people; people in need of protection; women and adolescent girls at risk; people with disabilities; and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex.”
After unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the Trump administration announced new, devastating sanctions that intensified tensions between the US and Iran. Trump has called the sanctions imposed on Iran the “toughest ever”; as is the case in Venezuela, they have dramatically impacted Iran’s ability to import medical supplies.
A 2019 piece in Foreign Policy noted that the “chemotherapy drugs such as asparaginase, the leukemia treatment mercaptopurine, and even the basic painkiller paracetamol had run out of stock [in Iran], threatening the treatment of thousands of children.” Due to the sanctions, ordinary Iranians were unable to access medical treatment before the pandemic. Now, the crisis has only made it more difficult to receive life saving medical care: for example, In late March, sanctions blocked a delivery of masks shipped to Iran from the UK.
We know that sanctions are not the “humanitarian” policy that many believe them to be when they can kill through deprivation the way bombs and missiles kill through explosive force. If a deadly pandemic doesn’t shift the conversation on US sanctions, it’s difficult to imagine what will. It’s time for Americans to speak out to demand that our government abide by international law. And it’s imperative that the U.S. government lift its sanctions on Venezuela and Iran to demonstrate to the world that it is committed to multilateral cooperation over unilateral bullying.
Ryan Wentz (any pronouns) is a Los Angeles-based field organizer for Beyond the Bomb, a grassroots organization committed to preventing nuclear war. Ryan has experience in the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements, and has in the past worked at the American Friends Service Committee and CODEPINK.