Much has been said about the insensitivity of the Trump administration’s approach to tackling the outbreak of COVID-19, but little compares to Trump’s unswerving decision to continue economic sanctions against Iran amidst this global pandemic. The spread of coronavirus has been nothing less than a catastrophe for the people of Iran. As COVID-19 rips through country after country, Iran’s experience has been particularly devastating with more than 182,525 confirmed cases and 8,659 declared deaths (as of 11 June 2020). With no end to this pandemic in sight for the foreseeable future, the Iranian government is facing the unique challenge of providing medical equipment to doctors alongside access to food, basic medical facilities, and isolation centres to patients while, at the same time, trying to uplift the already crippled economy.
It is undisputed that a great deal of the suffering of the Iranian people lies within the responsibility of their own government. Nevertheless, the re-imposition of severe economic sanctions in 2018 by the United States after it unilaterally withdrew its participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e. the nuclear deal), has had devastating impacts on the economy and has severely undermined humanitarian trade with Iran.
The damage done to Iran’s economy by US sanctions left it ill-prepared for the COVID-19 crisis. The gross domestic product of Iran shrank by 9.5 percent, oil exports were down by 80 percent, and inflation is now nearly 40 percent. Now, with the spread of coronavirus in Iran increasing at an unprecedented rate, sanctions are contributing to a shortage of testing kits, medical devices, and hygienic supplies required to prevent further spread.
Impact of ‘Inhuman’ Sanctions on the Right to Health of Iranian Citizens’
While the United States government continues to insist that it has created exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, broad sanctions against Iranian banks, coupled with aggressive rhetoric from US officials and a lack of clarity on how secondary sanctions will be imposed, have drastically constrained Iran’s ability to finance such humanitarian imports. A Human Rights Watch report also states that, in practice, these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk facing the legal and financial risks associated with exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods, such as vital medicines and medical equipment.
The consequence of such sanctions has resulted in impairing the ability of Iranian people to secure their right to health and access to essential medicines. Health is a fundamental human right indispensable for the exercise of other human rights and is recognized under Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In July 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated that the sanctions and banking restrictions will unduly affect food security and the availability and distribution of medicines and pharmaceutical equipment. The continuance of these sanctions has resulted in nothing less than gross violations of the human rights of Iranian citizens.
Extra Territorial Application of the Right to Health
The question of the extra-territorial application of the right to health has always been debatable. The ICESCR does not contain any provision on the jurisdictional or territorial applicability of the treaty. However, CESCR General Comment No. 14 declares that all states must take steps to prevent violations of the right to health (Article 12) in other countries. Thus, under ICESCR the USA has an obligation to ensure that its actions take due account of the right to health of citizens of other countries.
The US is in direct breach of these obligations, as the brunt of the economic sanctions on Iran is being faced directly by Iranian people. Iranian suppliers of equipment like respiratory masks and ventilators are out of stock, and the Iranian government is struggling to import the raw materials that it needs to manufacture antiviral drugs amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. These sanctions, as discussed above, have crippled the economy of Iran and prevented the import of health care equipment required to control this pandemic. This has direct effects on the availability and quality of health care facilities which form an essential element of the right to health, thus resulting in a clear violation of this right.
It is important to note that in the case of Iran v. USA the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has held, in its order on provisional measures, that US Sanctions are detrimental to the humanitarian needs and rights of Iranian citizens, and its exemptions do not help with assurances to the contrary. Instead of adhering to the order, the United States government decided to terminate the 1955 U.S.-Iran Treaty of Amity, which was the basis of the relief granted by the ICJ. This was announced on the same day in which the ICJ passed the order.
The paradoxical stance of the US Administration
The contradictory stance of the US government is further evident as, despite sanctions being exempt on humanitarian goods, the US Treasury Department had previously prosecuted medical companies for selling small amounts of medical supplies to Iran. While Iran’s dire circumstances have prompted calls from around the world for the United States to roll back its deep economic sanctions on the country, the US has instead imposed new sanctions amid the increasing cases of COVID-19 which will further add to Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation.
With hospitals overrun and Iranian doctors struggling to procure necessary equipment, the US must be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. A global pandemic requires a global response, not a piecemeal one based on local politics.
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