UN Human Rights Expert Urges US to Lift Sanctions That 'May Exacerbate the Already Dire Humanitarian Situation in Syria'

A study published last year by Amnesty International found that the U.S.-led bombing campaign on Raqqa, Syria in 2017 killed an estimated 1,600 innocent civilians while leveling the city. (Photo: Amnesty International)

UN Human Rights Expert Urges US to Lift Sanctions That 'May Exacerbate the Already Dire Humanitarian Situation in Syria'

After nearly a decade of war, the special rapporteur noted, Syrians are living with "extensively damaged houses, medical units, schools, and other facilities."

A United Nations human rights expert on Tuesday called for the removal of unilateral U.S. sanctions targeting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, warning that despite claims by the Trump administration and congressional leaders that the measures aren't intended to harm the people of war-torn Syria, they may do just that.

"The sanctions violate the human rights of the Syrian people, whose country has been destroyed by almost 10 years of ongoing conflict," said Alena Douhan, U.N. special rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. "The conflict and violence have already had a dire impact on the ability of the Syrian people to realize their fundamental rights, having extensively damaged houses, medical units, schools, and other facilities."

Douhan's statement follows a new round of sanctions that the outgoing U.S. administration announced last week--just over a year after President Donald Trump signed into law annual defense spending legislation that included the bipartisan Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named for a Syrian defector who smuggled out of his country tens of thousands of photos revealing torture by the Assad government.

When the law took effect in June 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "The Treasury Department and State Department are releasing 39 designations under the Caesar Act and Executive Order 13894 as the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people."

Last week, while announcing the latest sanctions, the secretary acknowledged the recent one-year anniversary of the president signing the Caesar Act and said that "the United States will also continue to pressure the Assad regime and its enablers to prevent them from amassing the resources to perpetuate their atrocities."

Douhan, meanwhile, expressed alarm about the potential consequences of wide-ranging U.S. sanctions--which could target any foreigner helping the Assad government, even with rebuilding infrastructure--especially given the country's ongoing forcible displacement crisis (pdf) and bread lines "so long that children have to skip school to wait in them," which is "perhaps the most visible and painful manifestation of Syria's economic meltdown," as the Washington Postreported Saturday.

In a Sunday tweet noting the bread crisis, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink, condemned U.S. sanctions on Syria as "collective punishment."

Douhan said Tuesday that "I am concerned that sanctions imposed under the Caesar Act may exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria, especially in the course of [the] Covid-19 pandemic, and put the Syrian people at even greater risk of human rights violations."

"When it announced the first sanctions under the Caesar Act in June 2020, the United States said it did not intend for them to harm the Syrian population," she continued. "Yet enforcement of the act may worsen the existing humanitarian crisis, depriving the Syrian people of the chance to rebuild their basic infrastructure."

Concerns remain about the Assad government's rebuilding efforts. As Human Rights Watch's World Report 2020--which detailed human rights violations by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, non-state armed groups, Turkey and Turkish-backed forces, and U.S.-backed forces and the U.S.-led coalition--explained:

The Syrian government enforced a legal and policy framework that enables it to co-opt millions of dollars of international funding earmarked for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The government restricted humanitarian organizations' access to communities that needed or allegedly received aid, selectively approved aid projects to punish civilians in anti-government held areas, and required that humanitarian groups partner with security-vetted local actors. Based on past incidents, there is a continuing risk that aid be siphoned through the abusive state apparatus to punish civilian populations it perceived as opponents and reward those it perceived as loyal.

Rather than focusing on the various abuses by all parties involved in the Syrian civil war that followed the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Douhan emphasized the extensive humanitarian need across the nation--where millions still depend on international assistance--and that the Caesar Act raises concerns under international law.

"What particularly alarms me is the way the Caesar Act runs roughshod over human rights, including the Syrian people's rights to housing, health, and an adequate standard of living and development," she said. "The U.S. government must not put obstacles in the way of rebuilding of hospitals because lack of medical care threatens the entire population's very right to life."

"Impeding access to supplies needed to repair infrastructure damaged by the conflict," Douhan said, "will have a negative impact on human rights of the Syrian people and may preserve the trauma of the decade-long conflict."

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