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Iranians shop at a drugstore at the Nikan hospital in Tehran on September 11, 2018. © 2018 Reuters/Brian Snyder

(Beirut) – The completion of the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement to process financial transactions for lifesaving medicine to reach Iran is a step in the right direction, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrangement can mitigate the harm United States sanctions pose to Iranians’ right to health.  

On January 30, 2020, the US Department of Treasury and the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs announced that they had completed an initial payment for the shipment of medical treatments for “cancer and [organ] transplant patients” valued at approximately 2.3 million euros (US$2.5 million) as a “trial run.” The US Treasury had announced the establishment of a humanitarian channel on October 25 after its designation of Iran’s central bank under its counterterrorism authority on September 20, a move that had seriously threatened the flow of exempted humanitarian trade to Iran.

“Processing a transaction that will allow lifesaving drugs to reach people in Iran is an encouraging sign that the US government recognizes that its broad sanctions have a negative impact on Iranians’ health,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This ‘trial’ transaction shouldn’t obscure the need for a comprehensive system to monitor the negative impact of US sanctions on human rights, and to take steps for a remedy.”

On October 29, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting how broad restrictions on financial transactions coupled with aggressive rhetoric from US officials has drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment. The US government had built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime. But Human Rights Watch found that these exemptions have not offset US and European companies’ and banks’ strong reluctance to risk sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing the exempted humanitarian goods. 

Human Rights Watch has continued to document cases of companies refusing to sell medication to Iran, as well as nongovernmental and humanitarian operations facing obstacles in transferring funds related to their work on Iran.

Countries enforcing economic sanctions should consider the impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially for essential goods, including medicines and food. Open-ended and comprehensive sanctions such as those that the Trump administration has imposed on Iran have interfered with Iranians’ human rights and their ability to meet their basic needs. Human Rights Watch opposes sanctions that have a disproportionately negative impact on human rights or create unnecessary suffering, in particular for vulnerable populations.

The US Departments of State and Treasury should ensure a transparent channel of communications for nongovernmental organizations, aid groups, and others that carry out activities to support the rights of Iranian people, Human Rights Watch said.

“The US congress should continue to demand an accounting from the administration about the impact of its policy on Iranians’ right to health.” Page said.

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