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Put People’s Rights First in Syria Sanctions

US, UK, EU Should Amend Humanitarian Exemptions to Facilitate Aid

A worker unloads bags and boxes of humanitarian aid from the back of a truck in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria, June 9, 2021. © 2021 Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

(Beirut) – The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union should urgently renew the earthquake-related humanitarian exemptions they introduced to their Syria sanctions’ regimes in February 2023 to more effectively facilitate aid to the Syrian people, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document examining the effects of expansive sanctions on humanitarian operations in Syria, and by connection, their effects on the economic rights of Syrians. The six-month exemptions will expire in August. The sanctioning entities should extend them without limit and align their piecemeal and disparate humanitarian exemptions across sanctions regimes, counterterrorism measures, and export controls.

“Countries imposed these sanctions on the Syrian government because of its unspeakable violence against its own citizens, but they should ensure they do not negatively impact Syrians’ rights, including by impeding critical humanitarian aid,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Urgently extending the humanitarian exemptions introduced after February’s earthquake will go a long way towards ensuring vulnerable people in Syria do not suffer unnecessarily.”

The majority of Syrians rely on aid not only because of the earthquake but because of the country’s deepening economic crisis. Even before the deadly earthquakes, Syrians were facing a severe humanitarian crisis with over 90 percent living below the poverty line. At least 12 million Syrians out of an estimated remaining population of 16 million cannot find or afford enough quality food, and at least 15 million Syrians need humanitarian aid.

While the Syrian government’s discriminatory diversion of humanitarian aid remains the biggest obstacle to equitable delivery of assistance to many parts of Syria, the US, UK, EU, and others have imposed complex and wide-ranging sanctions on the Syrian government, officials, and related entities that are making a difficult situation worse. These sanctions are in response to the rampant war crimes and other serious human rights violations committed by the government since 2011. Hay’et Tahrir al Sham (HTS), an organized armed group with control over a civilian population with severe humanitarian needs in northwest Syria, and other armed groups operating in Syria are also subject to counterterrorism sanctions.

The question-and-answer document explains how, why, and to what extent sanctions can inadvertently harm the rights of the population including by hampering humanitarian operations despite carveouts and exceptions designed to ensure the opposite. The document is based on interviews with aid workers and a comprehensive review of the humanitarian exemptions to sanctions regimes and counterterrorism measures in place. Broad sanctions can negatively affect the rights of the population, including by making it difficult for aid organizations to access essential goods. They can make banks reluctant to transfer money to sanctioned countries or organizations based there, and impose travel restrictions and other bureaucratic hurdles on aid organizations and workers. While counterterrorism measures that apply to Syria differ from sanctions regimes in terms of their objectives and targets, they often impose similar problems for humanitarian operations.

While the US, EU, UK, and others have long included humanitarian carveouts to their sanctions regimes on Syria, they vary from one sanctioning entity to another, are piecemeal in nature and have separate restrictions, limitations, and compliance procedures, making it difficult, time-consuming, and costly for banks, exporters, and humanitarian actors to navigate and ensure compliance.

In the aftermath of the February 6 earthquakes, as UN agencies and aid groups struggled to quickly and effectively scale up their emergency response, the US, EU, and UK issued humanitarian exemptions for six months to facilitate earthquake response despite claims by US and EU officials and sanctions advocates that their sanctions frameworks do not actually hinder humanitarian operations.

While humanitarian workers said that they welcome these exemptions, some said that they are too short to provide incentives for private entities and financial institutions to engage on Syria. Up until February 23, when the EU amended measures to facilitate the speedy delivery of humanitarian aid for six months in response to the earthquake, prior authorization by EU member states was necessary for almost all activities, which would have taken months, they said. Other humanitarian workers said the US and UK exemptions in particular are too narrow as they are specific only to earthquake relief and not the wider humanitarian conditions.

Similar exemptions were not applied to counterterrorism measures, the effects of which are most felt in opposition-held areas of northwest Syria, where HTS maintain control over an area with a large civilian population and massive humanitarian needs.

The deadly February earthquakes caused significant damage and left many people without adequate shelter, food, water, and essential services, including health care and education. According to the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, across northern Syria, over 5,900 people died, more than 11,200 people were injured, 2,260 buildings destroyed, and 97,400 households displaced. It estimated that 8.8 million people in both government-held areas and opposition-held areas are most affected. While the full extent of the humanitarian needs resulting from the earthquake is still being assessed, it is clear that the earthquakes have only added to the significant humanitarian problems facing Syrians, including ongoing conflict, displacement, and economic hardship.

A landmark UN humanitarian exemption, which formally recognizes the unintended adverse impact sanctions and counterterrorism measures can have on humanitarian action, is a move in the right direction but insufficient as long as other sanctioning countries and entities do not similarly adopt such a measure, Human Rights Watch said. At the initiative of Ireland, the Security Council adopted a blanket humanitarian carveout to asset freeze measures imposed by all UN sanctions regimes, including counterterrorism measures, in December 2022. Both measures had the support of the US.

There is growing awareness on the part of UN member countries of the need to ensure that humanitarian fallout from sanctions regimes is mitigated as much as possible. Faced with a humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan, the UN Security Council adopted a humanitarian carveout for the Afghanistan sanctions regime in December 2021.

Sanctioning countries should carry out several key reforms, Human Rights Watch said. Most urgently, states and sanctioning bodies such as the EU should permanently extend recently introduced humanitarian exemptions. They should also agree on broad humanitarian exemptions that are consistent across all sanctions regimes, counterterrorism measures, and export controls.

The exemptions should cover nongovernmental groups as well as UN agencies and international aid organizations, and should not be time-bound or limited to the earthquake response but cover all activities necessary for aid efforts across Syria including to repair or rehabilitate civilian infrastructure damaged in the years preceding the earthquakes. The US, EU, and UK should also clarify to financial institutions and private entities that they will not be penalized for supporting relief and recovery efforts and encourage the private sector to expedite transactions related to humanitarian activities.

“Overly broad sanctions and ineffective humanitarian exemptions only compound the suffering of the Syrian people and deepen the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country,” Coogle said. “The international community needs to prioritize the rights of the Syrian people by taking concrete steps to facilitate critical assistance.” 

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