Economic sanctions have been imposed on states – including Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba – by the US, EU, and UK for years. As the devastation of COVID-19 escalates, the morality of sustaining an economic sanctions regime is being challenged. The UK should embrace calls from the UN, lift economic sanctions indefinitely, and exert pressure on the US to follow suit (whilst holding the Trump administration to account for racial state-sanctioned violence).
For the first time in decades, every state faces the same monumental challenge: COVID-19. Globally, healthcare systems are being strained beyond capacity, as livelihoods are jeopardised. However, some states are uniquely penalised by economic sanctions in addition to the harrowing challenges to organisation and healthcare provision brought on by the pandemic.
The imposition of economic sanctions – the suspension of trade and financial relations – is often justified on grounds of democracy or human rights promotion and framed as a peaceful alternative to combat. In practice, economic sanctions often become a tool used by powerful states to coerce those viewed as a threat to their interests. The disastrous financial effects they inflict are often destabilising. Even under non-pandemic conditions, their use is highly contested and widely argued to be a far greater punishment to the citizens of a nation than their leaders. In Iran, economic sanctions have triggered a deep recession since reinstatement in 2018. Economically vulnerable Iranians are worst affected by these measures, yet they are entirely blameless.
The US has historically deployed an extensive sanctions regime, increasing in scope under the Trump administration. Many sanctions targets are arguably penalised for their ideological stance, with socialist Venezuela and Cuba a high priority. Such political motivations were recently evidenced by Trump’s attempts to barter a power-sharing agreement in Venezuela, in which economic sanctions would be lifted on the condition President Maduro step down. Shortly after this offer was refused, the US government sent warships to the Caribbean and indicted members of Venezuela’s government on charges of “narco-terrorism”. As well as being a highly disputed claim, it does not make sense for the US to target drug trafficking-crackdown efforts on Venezuela; there are more influenceable transit states (such as Colombia), with greater evidence of drug trafficking, to focus on. US government data even demonstrates that cocaine flows through Venezuela – beyond the control of government officials – have declined since 2017. In the context of a pandemic and recent denial of a critical IMF loan to Venezuela, economic sanctions and unwarranted geopolitical escalation are disastrous.
Despite a tumultuous political situation in Venezuela since April 2019, and widespread reports of human rights abuses, the actions of the US have exacerbated conflict and inflicted further economic suffering on citizens. The motivations for US economic sanctions remain highly politicised, often representing a broader attempt to interfere in matters of national sovereignty. There is no place for this amidst a global pandemic. Economic sanctions cost lives. Access to critical medical equipment becomes exponentially harder when states, companies, and financial institutions refuse to engage.
The pushback against the economic sanctions regime has risen in response to the pandemic. The UN has called on states to lift sanctions, and public petitions for the removal of sanctions on Iran and Cuba have received widespread support. The UK’s ‘special relationship’ and the recent upswing in diplomatic closeness with the US could prove pivotal in this sanctions debate. Thus far, the UK has taken steps to put pressure on the US to ease sanctions against Iran due to the pandemic, and a recent call from over 50 MPs to intervene against the US blockade of Cuba is promising.
Whilst putting pressure on the US to ease its economic sanctions against other states, the UK and EU governments should reassess their free arms trade relationship with the Trump administration. Recent Black Lives Matter protests against institutional racism and police brutality commencing in the US additionally impose foreign policy obligations on the UK government to instigate a police arms embargo. A call to end the export of policing equipment like rubber bullets and tear gas – currently utilised for internal repression – has been signed by 166 MPs across parties, and Scottish Parliament just passed a ban.
The UK sanctions regime needs to evolve; while economic sanctions cannot be condoned against states struggling under COVID-19, the free trade of rubber bullets and tear gas fuelling Trump’s oppressive response to protestors is equally unjustifiable. Failing to take these actions will result in inhumane and preventable loss of life for which the UK will be responsible. If international solidarity can be salvaged, and exclusionary economic sanctions lifted, perhaps dialogue with Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba could be resuscitated. Britain’s sanctions regime shouldn’t economically strangle citizens of recipient states, and neither should it allow citizens of its allies to become the targets of racialised state violence.
Holly Harwood is Agora’s Head of Outreach.