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Civilians caught in sanctions crossfire need Geneva Convention protection, says UN expert

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Sanctions that extend beyond national borders, and which seek to block a country’s trade altogether, amount to economic warfare against civilians, an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council says.

"These civilians deserve the same protections provided by the Geneva Conventions to people in war," said Idriss Jazairy, the Special Rapporteur on the effect of sanctions on human rights.

"There is a need for differences between States to be resolved through peaceful means as advocated by the UN Charter, while avoiding exposing innocent civilians to collective punishment. Causing hunger and disease through economic instruments should not be accepted in the 21st century."

Referring to Iran, Jazairy said while US sanctions included humanitarian exemptions, there were reports that aid is on hold as banks, insurance and logistics companies await clarification.  It has even been said that the source country of sanctions will block the SWIFT technical mechanism of international interbank financial transfer which may make such exemptions inoperative.

"There can be no justification for not including blanket protections for the importation of food, medicine, and other necessities of life without first requiring lengthy and complex approval processes," the expert said. The International Court of Justice had recently made two preliminary rulings that reiterate the obligation of States to ensure effective humanitarian exemptions while sanctions are in force. 

"I am deeply concerned that it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of these actions," Jazairy said, adding that the rial currency had lost more than 70 percent of its value in the past year, and food prices had risen by half. "More people are losing their jobs as the economy suffers," he said.

"While the right of States to disagree with each other should be respected, harming the human rights of ordinary civilians should not be resorted to as a means of political pressure on a targeted Government," he said.  "This is illegal under international human rights law."

When an economic blockade is imposed, adequate food, medicines, public health and other humanitarian needs must be ensured, he said. "The Fourth Geneva Convention provides such protections during times of war," Jazairy said. "Under economic sanctions, people also die but from lack of food and medicine, rather than from explosive devices. This form of warfare that relies on starvation and disease deserves the same concern from the international community as any other conflict."

States should adopt a declaration which ends such practices, and protects civilians during economic blockades.

"I am ready to serve as facilitator to assist  the United States and Iran in finding concrete ways to ensure that urgently needed humanitarian exemptions whose observance is unchallenged by the source country, are made effective and workable," Jazairy said. 

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