By Rosemary A. DiCarlo*
United Nations Security Council sanctions are no longer the “blunt instrument” they once were, having transformed since the 1990s into “a vital tool” that minimizes negative consequences for civilians, and States that are not directly being targeted.
That was the main message the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, conveyed to the Security Council on February 7 during a debate on sanctions, focused on the unintended consequences that stem from them, especially in the humanitarian context.
Following are extensive excerpts from Ms DiCarlo’s remarks at the Security Council Open Debate on General Issues Relating to Sanctions: Preventing their Humanitarian and Unintended Consequence:
Sanctions remain a vital Charter-based tool available to the Council to ensure the maintenance of international peace and security. As stressed when the Council last met to discuss this topic, they are not an end in themselves. To be effective, sanctions should be part of a comprehensive political strategy, working in tandem with political dialogue, mediation, peacekeeping and special political missions.
There are currently 14 Council sanctions regimes. They support conflict resolution in Libya, Mali, South Sudan and Yemen. They aim to deter unconstitutional changes of government in Guinea Bissau.
They curb the illicit exploitation of natural resources that fund the activities of armed groups in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
They constrain the proliferation activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Qaida and their affiliates.
UN sanctions are no longer the blunt instrument they once were. Since the 1990s, they have undergone considerable changes to minimize their possible adverse consequences on civilian populations and third States.
The most applied targeted measures include standardized humanitarian and other exemptions. In the case of arms embargoes, exemptions are routinely granted for the import of non-lethal equipment necessary for humanitarian actors to operate in conflict zones.
In the case of travel bans, exemptions are routinely provided for medical or religious reasons or to participate in peace processes. Exemptions to assets freezes allow payment for food, utilities or medicines.
Moreover, the Security Council has instituted standing humanitarian exemptions in the Somalia and Afghanistan regimes, as well as case-by-case humanitarian exemption systems in the Libya, Yemen and DPRK regimes.
The 1718 Committee, which oversees sanctions on the DPRK, has approved 85 of the one hundred exemption requests received since 2017. The Committee has also granted multiple timeline extensions in recognition of the logistical challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent years, the Council and its sanctions committees have increasingly sought to obtain first‑hand information on possible adverse consequences for civilian populations and third States.
They have done so through regular briefings by OCHA and by the Secretary-General’s Special Representatives for Children and Armed Conflict and for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. Sanctions Committee Chairs also regularly travel to countries under sanctions, and the Committees frequently meet with country as well as neighboring officials.
Sanctions are continually adjusted in response to changes on the ground, with due regard for the impact on civilian populations. In recent years, the Council terminated the Eritrea sanctions and significantly narrowed down the scope of the arms embargo on the Central African Republic.
On the other hand, in response to a new serious threat to peace and security in Somalia, the Council imposed in 2019 a ban on Improvised Explosive Device components.
I should also note that in the last decade, only one Member State has reported facing “special economic problems” arising from Council sanctions.
What sanctions can do
The last decade has also shown that sanctions can do more than limit the influx of arms and ammunition or the financing of armed groups in conflict-based situations.
Almost all the sanctions regimes supporting conflict resolution now include designation, or listing criteria intended to uphold international humanitarian law or international human rights law.
They have served as leverage to bring about positive outcomes for people at risk. For example, the prospect of sanctions has opened the space for child protection actors to negotiate the release of children by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Importantly, more than 50 individuals and entities have been designated, or put on sanctions lists, by the Council or its committees for involvement in conflict-related sexual violence, the use of children in armed conflict, migrant trafficking, attacks on humanitarian workers, and obstruction of delivery of humanitarian assistance, among other international humanitarian law criteria.
They include Sultan Zabin, the director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Sanaa, Yemen, for torture and sexual violence in conflict; and Ahmed Ag Albachar, self-proclaimed “president of the humanitarian commission” of the Kidal region in Mali, for obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The imposition of sanctions solely for such acts is a relatively recent and welcome step. Its use sends an unmistakeable signal about the Council’s commitment to ensure accountability for violations and abuses of international humanitarian or human rights law.
The evolution from comprehensive to targeted sanctions marked a sea change in this area of the Council’s work. But there are still some concerns about unintended consequences or adverse effects of Council sanctions.
De-risking policies and over-compliance are probably two of the most important problems facing humanitarian actors. Financial actors and other service providers may impose additional conditions, increase their costs, or simply refuse to provide the requested goods and services, thereby inhibiting the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The continued difficulty in reviving the banking channel for humanitarian transfers to the DPRK, since its collapse in 2017, is a prime example of such challenges.
These difficulties can be compounded when financial actors and other service providers are obliged to comply with multiple sanctions regimes, as well as counterterrorism and anti-money laundering regulations across the globe.
In trying to abide by a wide range of applicable measures, these actors sometimes adopt an overly broad interpretation of what is required by sanctions regimes, often in contradiction with the interpretation of humanitarian actors.
More can be done to reduce the possible adverse consequences of sanctions.
The humanitarian community, and much of the world, warmly welcomed resolution 2615 (2021), which carves out a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions regime on Afghanistan. Similar standing exemptions in other sanctions regimes could go a long way to respond to the critical needs of civilian populations.
Various Council resolutions make it clear that sanctions are “not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian populations”. Other resolutions require that Member States ensure that their implementation measures comply with their obligations under international law, including humanitarian and human rights laws, as applicable. It is extremely important to recall these provisions at every opportunity.
Member States can further minimize the burden of additional due diligence and reporting requirements on humanitarian actors by keeping their domestic legislation as close as possible to Security Council language.
Additionally, the continued monitoring by sanctions committees of the possible humanitarian impact of sanctions is vital. Their groups of experts may assist by gathering information about the possible unintended impact of sanctions on humanitarian activities, as appropriate.
It is also essential to increase cooperation with humanitarian actors and the private sector. The UN Inter-Agency Working Group established in 2014 has helped promote better understanding and a system-wide approach to sanctions.
My Department, through the Security Council Affairs Division, has launched other initiatives, including training, to build capacities and increase synergies among these key constituencies.
Lastly, allow me to touch briefly on the role of the Ombudsperson. Its establishment in 2009 introduced a more robust due process mechanism available to individuals or entities seeking to be removed from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Da’esh and Al-Qaida sanctions list.
Providing fair and clear procedures to all other designated entities and individuals would render the sanctions tool even more effective.
*Ms DiCarlo is the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.