by Kathie Malley-Morrison
The Charter of the United Nations (UN), established in San Francisco in 1945, begins with noble goals, including saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proclaimed in Paris in 1945, noted that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” and affirmed that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The specific rights to which all human beings are entitled include, among many others: “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services….” as expressed in Article 25 of the UDHR.
Tragically, also embedded in the UN Charter are provisions that sabotage those fundamental human rights, resulting in the deaths of literally millions of innocent people who have been denied, directly or indirectly, access to food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services. Specifically, Article 41 of Chapter VII states that “The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures.” Such measures, known euphemistically as sanctions, “may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations, means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) — notably the victorious powers of World War II (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) — played a dominant role in developing the UN Charter. In doing so, they deliberately promulgated mechanisms like sanctions, as well as veto power in the UNSC, which enable any one of these countries to prevent the adoption of any “substantive” draft Council resolution that does not suit their interests. Sanctions allow the UNSC to maintain and expand a world order ensuring their continued dominance through non-military means, thus minimizing injuries and deaths to their own citizens and averting domestic public outcry.
Since the founding of the UN, the Security Council has exercised its power to sanction countries, groups, individuals, and movements judged as noncompliant with its agenda — often in the poorest countries in the world and former colonies of the ruling powers. Since 1966, the Security Council has imposed sanctions on 30 regimes, including the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq, Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Lebanon, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Iran, Libya, Yemen, Al-Qaida, and the Taliban.
In addition to promoting and participating in those UN sanctions, the U.S. government has imposed its own additional “sanctions” to circumvent Russia’s veto power and other systems of checks and balances in the UN. Illegal under international law, these unsanctioned acts of mass deprivation have been imposed on Afghanistan, Balkan countries, Belarus, Burma, Hong Kong, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, as well as two former WWII allies and permanent members of the Security Council: China and Russia.
Effects of Sanctions
Both the UN and illegal US sanctions have had disastrous effects on millions of people in former colonies of the Council powers, effects that violate both the UN charter and the UDHR. Research in 69 countries showed that sanctions lowered infant weight and increased the likelihood of death before age three. In 2021, because of UN official sanctions and US unauthorized sanctions, one million children in Afghanistan were on the brink of starvation. In Iran, US sanctions, particularly as increased by President Trump, and sustained by President Biden, have led directly or indirectly to the deaths of countless Iranians. In Cuba, Oxfam recently noted that “[it] has witnessed how the US embargo limits Cubans’ capacity to recover from [health-related] setbacks and curtails access to needed inputs, medicines, technologies, and materials to rebuild”.
Many Americans argue that Russia deserves to be sanctioned because of its invasion of Ukraine. While MAPA stands firmly opposed to Russia’s violation of sovereignty in Ukraine, it is undeniable that sanctions on Russia “have constrained the supply of energy, sending prices skyward and limiting economic growth, especially in countries heavily dependent on imports,” and contribute to a “perfect storm” of economic and humanitarian crises facing some of the world’s poorest countries.”
The Case against Sanctions
There is considerable evidence that sanctions, whether legal or illegal under international law, fail to achieve their stated objectives and can be said to constitute a humanitarian disaster. You can read more about these consensuses at the links below:
What the General Assembly has tried to do
Concerns regarding the humanitarian and health impacts of the US blockades on Cuba among members of the UN General Assembly have led to annual appeals for repeal of the sanctions. In 2021, 189 members of the Assembly voted for the 29th time that the United States should lift its embargo because of its “adverse effects…on the Cuban people.” Only two countries — the United States and Israel — voted against that resolution, with three countries abstaining — Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil. In May, 2022, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba a “genocidal policy.”
What you can do
Given the truth about UN sanctions and what the US calls “sanctions,” despite their not being approved by the UNSC — that they are killing innocent people, largely in the poorest, worst treated nations of the world — a question remains: what can you do about it? One answer, well within your reach, is to join Mass Peace Action and/or Code Pink. You can also sign on to petitions demanding an end to sanctions. Here are some links you can use:
If you are not already a member of Massachusetts Peace Action, you can sign up for membership (see link above) and join our campaigns for peace, disarmament, and the promotion of universal human rights.
Kathie Malley-Morrison, a Professor Emerita from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Boston University, is head of the Public Engagement and Movement Building team and an engaged volunteer at MAPA.