Should sanctions be eased during the pandemic? – this is a title of an article prepared by the European Parliament Research Service. Authors of the publication explain why the EU keeps sanctions in Russia, Belarus, Libya, North Korea, and other countries despite calls to lift restrictive measures during the coronavirus crisis. Among other issues, the researchers point out that EU and US sanctions “can hardly be blamed” for the virus spread and that Russia does not spend enough on its medical sector even though it has resources. There are some extracts from this briefing:

“Especially since the suffering caused by the international trade embargo against Iraq in the 1990s, the European Union has sought to design its sanctions for maximum effect at the least possible humanitarian cost. Usually, it does this by targeting restrictions at key individuals or organisations, and in some cases sectors, rather than a country’s economy as a whole.”

“Many of the countries which are least prepared to handle Covid-19 are also subject to international sanctions. To ensure that sanctions do not further aggravate the humanitarian situation, in March 2020 United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres called on G20 leaders to waive restrictions on food and medicines. Echoing his call, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet pointed to Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe as particularly vulnerable countries. For its part, Russia, which is targeted by EU and US sanctions, tabled a resolution on global cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus at the UN General Assembly, urging member states to ‘abandon … unilateral sanctions adopted in circumvention of the UN Security Council’. The text was backed by several sanctions-hit countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, but was not adopted.”

The article mentions that Russia has the following sanctions from the EU and the USA: visa bans, asset freezes, an arms embargo, restrictions on Russian oil, financial and defence sectors. These sanctions were adopted in 2014 following Russian aggression against Ukraine.

“In the 1990s, it was claimed that international sanctions killed thousands of Iraqi children by depriving them of food and medicines. Since then, avoiding such humanitarian costs has become a basic principle of sanctions adopted by the EU, and – to a large extent – by the US and the UN. Broad economic restrictions are therefore the exception rather than the rule; one such exception is North Korea, where the threat of nuclear weapons justifies severe measures. By contrast, in most of the 30 or so countries under EU sanctions, restrictions target only a few key organisations and individuals responsible for human rights abuses; these include members of current and former governments, rebel fighters, and security forces. The latter are also targeted through bans on sales of weapons and equipment used for repressive purposes. Where economic restrictions are applied, they tend to be narrow in scope, and concern only a few strategic sectors (as in Russia).”

“In Russia, although the EU and US sanctions undoubtedly have an economic impact, they can hardly be blamed for the rapid spread of the virus. The country does not spend nearly enough on healthcare, but not because it lacks resources: as of March 2020, Russia had over US$560 billion in international reserves, and it has even exported medical equipment for fighting the pandemic to other countries, including the US.”

“The EU response In April 2020, the European External Action Service (EEAS) confirmed that the EU had no plans to lift sanctions against Russia, as they did not prevent it from fighting the virus. The EU has not said that it will lift any of its restrictions against other countries either; however, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP) Josep Borrell has emphasised the importance for the EU of ensuring that sanctions ‘do not obstruct the global fight against Covid-19’, and has called on other jurisdictions such as the US to do likewise.”

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