Economic Sanctions as Human Rights Violations: International Law and the Right to Life

Economic Sanctions as Human Rights Violations: International Law and the Right to Life


Whilst the last decade has seen an unprecedented rise in wars waged openly by the US and NATO against various countries, governments and regimes, arguably another tool of war has been strengthened, that is equally devastating in its impact.  Economic sanctions are not new, however they have become a ‘peacetime’ weapon which has resulted and may possibly result in hundreds of thousands if not millions of deaths and suffering on a larger scale.

Countries that have suffered or continue to suffer under economic sanctions include or have included Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan.  Sanctions can be unilateral e.g. they are imposed by a state against another state [1] or they can be imposed by an international organization e.g. the United Nations [2] or the European Union [3].

The anomaly that economic sanctions raise is a startling one.  Whilst illegal in war-time, and considered a violation of the Geneva Convention (e.g. the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibit any wartime measure that has the effect of depriving a civilian population of objects indispensable to its survival; Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (on the protection of civilians in wartime), for example, prohibits “collective penalties.” [4]) , in peace-time economic sanctions are perfectly valid, whether they result in huge loss of life e.g. the 670,000 – 880,000 [5] children estimated to have died in Iraq in the 1990s or crippling economic loss as in Cuba, with an estimated $89,000 million loss to the economy since 1960 [6].

The following briefing outlines international definitions of what sanctions are and how they in effect violate international norms of human rights.  It is time that this secret weapon of mass suffering, which targets populations wholesale and causes death and destruction on a vast scale is delegtimised. 

What are economic sanctions?

Economic sanction canbe defined as “coercive economic measures taken against one or more countries to force a change in policies, or at least to demonstrate a country’s opinion about the other’s policies” [7].

Economic sanctions help a state or group of states to further their foreign policy objectives by imposing harsh and punitive measures against an offending state.

What about human rights?

Economic sanctions and human rights are essentially at odds, and it is extremely misguided to believe that sanctions will help improvements in human rights in the targeted countries.

Instead, they are more likely to lead to deterioration in the lived experience of the vast majority of sanctioned peoples.

Economic sanctions run contrary to the spirit of human rights because they explicitly and implicitly expose the ordinary citizen of the sanctioned country to considerable suffering. The scale and gravity of the suffering amounts to collective punishment

Collective punishment is the punishment of a group of people for the actions of one or more other individuals or groups. The punished group may have no connection to or control over the actions of the individuals or groups whose actions have led to them being punished.

Below we list some examples of the use of economic sanctions and their detrimental effect of the sanctioned peoples:


The sanctions against Iraq began August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq‘s invasion of Kuwait and stayed in force until May 2003 (after Saddam Hussein’s being forced from power). The sanctions were imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The Iraqi ministry of trade introduced national food rationing, understanding the scope of these sanctions and what effect they could have upon the food security of the country [8]. Before the sanctions Iraq had been able to maintain living standards comparable to some Western countries, however these standards went into a nosedive after 1990 and Iraq attained the status of a  third world country in a staggeringly short space of time.  Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq had one of the highest per-capita food availability ratings in the region and was able to import large quantities of food [9]. In the “oil-for-food” programme, the UN secretary General argued for a six-monthly ceiling of $2.4 billion to help rebuild Iraq, however after Security Council negotiations the aid was reduced to $930 million over six months [10]. The war with the Kurds in the north devastated the fertile farming lands there, and the constant bombing raids by the US and UK as well as the depleted uranium from Desert Storm hampered farming in the South. Iraq began to starve.

US aircraft alone had dropped 88,000 tons of explosives on Iraq, wiping out 30 percent of Iraq’s electrical generating plants and sewage treatment networks. The sanctions barred replacement material for the water treatment facilities and much of Iraq’s water was now contaminated [11]. Those who could afford bottled water would purchase it and those who couldn’t would often fall ill [12].

Child malnutrition in Iraq had been falling since the sixties; however it began to skyrocket after 1990. Vitamin and mineral deficiency were the most common indicators, but diarrhoea was also documented by observers. A UNICEF report found that the increase in mortality reported in public hospitals for children under five years of age was in excess of 40,000 compared with 1989 [13]. When activist George Cappaccio visited Bagdad in 1997 he discovered that the remission rate for leukaemia and other forms of cancer in the children’s oncology unit of the Saddam Teaching Centre had dropped from 70 percent to 6 and 7 percent since 1990 [14]

The impact of the sanctions upon Iraqi society is slightly less easy to collate. In 1999, at a conference regarding the Sanctions, Oxford researcher Harriet Griffin stated that since 1990, Iraqi asylum applications in Western countries had increased exponentially and that this was diminishing Iraq’s professional base [15]. In the same lecture, Iraqi gender academic and activist Nadje Ali spoke of the impact the sanctions had upon women. Ali contextualizes Iraqi women’s position within society and described how during the 1970’s and 1980’s women were encouraged to work and be educated which was accompanied with a liberal attitude towards marriage patterns and gender status. This was then contrasted with Iraq under sanctions many women who had been forced out of work by the pressures of looking after, educating and cooking for their families under the stringencies and low wages of sanctioned Iraq. According to Dr Al-Ali, Iraqi society has witnessed a stark increase in prostitution, so called ‘honour crimes’, illegal abortions and the abandonment of babies [16].

According to UNICEF 500,000 children died due to the effects of sanctions and war, according to a survey in the British Medical Association the child death toll was over this amount [17]. The number of children who died fluctuates according to methodology, but there is a general consensus amongst humanitarian workers that the sanctions were tantamount to infanticide. When presented with this information, then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright stated, “We think the price is worth it”. The UN sanctions package that her government designed and aggressively applied amounted to collective punishment, and this was a fact she was not even ashamed of, despite it being illegal under the Geneva Convention. According to article 22, “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed” [18]. Sanctions effectively equal collective punishment; Saddam Hussein’s regime was meant to be being punished for the invasion of Kuwait, however children who were not even born in 1990 were dying due to the dictator’s transgressions.


The USA imposed their sanction, unilaterally, against Cuba in the 1960s. The sanctions have been met with widespread condemnation by the international community. The UN has repeatedly passed resolutions condemning the sanctions, in 2012 a vote re-iterating its disapproval was passed 188-3, with Israel and Palau supporting the USA [19].

One of the main areas affected in recent times has been the health service. Since 1990 the USA has imposed greater restrictions, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, one of Cuba’s main financial supporters, the strain on the health system has become greater.

In a 1997 report the America Association for World Health (AAWH) stated that despite the Cuban government investing heavily in their health care system the “U.S. embargo of food and the de facto embargo on medical supplies has wreaked havoc with the island’s model primary health care system.” [20]

The AAWH report, based on a fact finding mission to Cuba, identified that the embargo contributed particularly to malnutrition affecting particularly women and children, poor water quality and lack of access to medicines and medical supplies. [21]The AAWH report also found that doctors in Cuba have access to less than 50% of the drugs on the world market, and that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993. The report stated, “… it is our expert medical opinion that the US embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering-and even deaths-in Cuba.” [22]

UNICEF reported that Cuba was unable to import nutritional products intended for children and for consumption at schools, hospitals and day care centres. This had a detrimental effect on the health and nutritional status of the population and is believed to be a contributing factor in the high prevalence of iron deficiency anaemia which in 2007 affected 37.5 per cent of children under three years old. [23]

Amnesty International reported in 2011 that, “treatments for children and young people with bone cancer… [and] antiretroviral drugs used to treat children with HIV/AIDS” were not readily available with the sanctions in place because “they were commercialized under US patents.” [24]

Shortages in drugs resulted in a 48% increase in mortality from tuberculosis and a 77% increase in mortality from pneumonia and influenza. [25]

Illegal in Wartime – Legal during Peacetime

All states and international bodies are bound by human rights laws and humanitarian laws. Economic sanctions imposed during wartimes will infringe the following humanitarian laws:

  • The prohibition on starvation of the civilian population . 
  • Civilians may not be deprived of access to supplies indispensable to their survival; starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited. So it is illegal to impose:
  1. a blockade,
  2. siege or
  3. regime of economic sanctions
  4. with the purpose of causing starvation among the civilian population. [26]
  • The right to humanitarian assistance  

Civilians have a right to receive humanitarian assistance and States must, subject to certain conditions, allow the passage of relief goods:

  1. States must allow the free passage of:

– medical and hospital consignments and objects necessary for religious worship intended only for the civilian population ; and

– essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under 15, expectant mothers and maternity cases. [27]

  1. The rule in paragraph (i) above has been extended by Additional Protocol I of 1977, which provides that humanitarian and impartial relief actions shall be undertaken, subject to the agreement of the parties concerned, if the civilian population is not adequately provided with clothing, bedding, means of shelter, other supplies necessary to their survival and objects necessary for religious worship [28]. The parties to the conflict and all States shall allow and facilitate passage of these relief consignments, equipment and personnel [29]. The parties to the conflict shall protect relief consignments and facilitate their rapid distribution. [30]

Relief supplies in naval blockades  

The same principles apply to naval blockades, that is:

(i) States must allow the free passage of essential foodstuffs for children, expectant mothers and maternity cases and of medical goods and objects necessary for religious worship for the civilian population generally. [31]

(ii) Humanitarian and impartial relief actions shall be undertaken, subject to the agreement of the parties concerned. [32]

These obligations are stated more forcefully in the San Remo Manual, which provides that the blockading power must allow transit of relief shipments through the blockade.

Relief supplies for occupied territories  

In occupied territories, in addition to its duty of ensuring that the civilian population receives food and medical supplies [33] the Occupying Power is under an obligation to accept and facilitate relief operations on behalf of the said population if the whole or part of the population is inadequately supplied [34]. Moreover, all State Parties “shall permit the free passage of these consignments and shall guarantee their protection” [35]. This means that relief consignments for the population of an occupied territory must be allowed to pass through the blockade, and this obligation is further accompanied by an obligation to guarantee their protection. Thus all States concerned must respect the consignments and protect them when they are exposed to danger through military operations.

Given the foregoing and the demonstrable impact of peacetime economic sanctions, we argue that:

Economic sanction imposed during peacetime may infringe following human rights:

  • the right to life [36],
  • health [37],
  • an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, housing and medical care [38],
  • and freedom from hunger [39]

There is a positive duty on all states to take these rights into consideration when developing a sanctions regime and should not create sanctions regimes which would deprive people of these rights.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states:

“1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed : (a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources ; (b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food- exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.”

The right to food and the right to be free from hunger impose an obligation on States to supply essential foodstuffs to those in need. This also means that it is prohibited to deliberately act in a way which actively deprives individuals of food and causes hunger and/or starvation.


The IHRC feels that the prohibition to starve civilians, through the use of sanctions, during an armed conflict should also be prohibited in time of peace.

Furthermore, the Genocide Convention [40] protects what could be described as a “collective right to life” and would prohibit deliberate starvation of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group if committed with intent to destroy the group, as it would then be subsumed into the definition of genocide [41] . The prohibition of genocide applies in time of peace and in time of war. [42]

It makes no sense that something illegal during war is not only legal but a preferred tool to pursue aggressive foreign policy agendas in peace-time.  It is time that international organizations addressed this issue

[1] See for example the US legislation: Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and the Helms-Burton Act which target foreign  companies doing business in in Iran and Libya in the former and Cuba in the latter.

[2] See, for example, UN sanctions against North Korea.

[3] See for example EU sanctions against Burma, suspended in April 2013.

[4] See’Sanctions’ by Tom Gjelten

[5] Analysis: Do economic sanctions work? by Jonathan Marcus

[6] The Economic Sanctions Against Cuba: the Failure of a Cruel and Irrational Policy

[7] Barry E. Carter, International Economic Sanctions: Improving the Haphazard US Legal Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 4.

[8] Dr Pellet, P, L., “Sanctions, Food, Nutrition and Health in Iraq” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”, pg. 151

[9] Ibid, pg. 155

[10] Graham-Brown, S., “Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq” pg. 75

[11] Capaccio, G., “Sanctions: Killing a Country and a People” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”,  pg. 140

[12] Kelly, K., “Raising voices: The Children of Iraq, 1990 – 1999” in in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”, pg.  118

[13] UNICEF, Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Iraq (Bhagdad: Unicef, 1997), pg. 42

[14] Capaccio, G., “Sanctions: Killing a Country and a People” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”,  pg. 142

[15] Griffin, H., Society and Culture: The Iraqi Exodus, (Proceedings of the Conference hosted by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq 13–14 November 1999, Cambridge- ), pg. 66

[16] Al-Ali, N., “Sanctions and Women in Iraq” , (Proceedings of the Conference hosted by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq 13–14 November 1999, Cambridge-

[17] Fawzi Smith, M., Zaidi S., “Sanctions against Iraq” (The Lancet, Volume 347, Issue 8995, 20 January 1996), pg. 198-200.

[18] Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Article 33 (

[20] American Association for World Health, Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact of the U.S. Embargo on  the Health and Nutrition in Cuba, March 1997

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

[24] Amnesty International, “Annual Report 2011: Cuba”

[25] Garfield R, Santana S.The impact of the economic crisis and the US embargo on health in Cuba. American Journal Public Health1997;87:15-20

[26] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), of 8 June 1977, Articles 54, 69 and 70

[27] Fourth Convention, Article 23

[28] Protocol I, Article 70.1.

[29] Protocol I, Article 70.2

[30] Protocol I, Article 70.4

[31] Fourth Convention, Article 23.

[32] Protocol I, Article 70

[33] Fourth Convention, Article 55. Protocol I, Article 69.1 : “In addition to the duties specified in Article 55 of the Fourth Convention concerning food and medical supplies, the Occupying Power shall, to the fullest extent of the means available to it and without any adverse distinction, also ensure the provision of clothing, bedding, means of shelter, other supplies essential to the survival of the civilian population of the occupied territory and objects necessary for religious worship”

[34] Fourth Convention, Article 59. The equivalent protection for relief actions conducted to occupied territories for the additional goods specified in Article 69.1 of Protocol I appears in Article 70.2, which provides that the parties to the conflict and each State party to Protocol I “shall allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments, equipment and personnel”.

[35] Fourth Convention, Article 59.3.

[36] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 10 Decembe r 1948, Article 25 ; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 16 December 1966, Article 6.1 ; Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, Article 6.1.

[37] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 16 December 1966, Article 12.

[38] UDHR ; Article 3 ; ICESCR, Article 11.1 ; Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 27.1.

[39] ICESCR, Article 11.2.

[40] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948 (Genocide Convention).

[41] Genocide Convention, Article 3(c).

[42] 38. Genocide Convention, Article I.

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