Sanctions Miscellany, Or What Would I Do If I Taught at Belarus State University?

Being an Orthodox Christian in Australia means having the benefit of two Easters, the local one and the real one. So, as the time for Easter egg-painting has not yet arrived — not that I have any clue how to do that, to be honest — it is hardly surprising that I spent part of the long weekend revising a sanctions article.

In doing so, I came across two mildly interesting bits of what might be described as sanctions trivia, which is just about as exciting as it sounds (be warned if you decide to read on).

As many will know, Joe Biden signed into law the reauthorisation of the Global Magnitsky Act 2016, which would have otherwise expired in December 2022. What some may not realise is that Congress never adopted Senator Cardin’s Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act, and the rather laconic reauthorisation provision is instead found in the Suspending Normal Trade Relations with Russia and Belarus Act.

The reason this matters is that, as discussed in an earlier post, Senator Cardin’s bill would have extended Global Magnitsky sanctions to family members of primary perpetrators. At the risk of repeating myself, what I find fascinating about this vacillation on the subject of family members is the wholly subterranean nature of any policy debate that might be happening.

After all, someone in Senator Cardin’s office must have thought it a good idea to expand sanctions to family members; someone else then must have either disagreed or, at the very least, not been bothered enough about the issue to include it in the alternative bill; and yet how much public discussion have we heard from US policymakers of this frankly rather important dilemma?

The other minor discovery of the past couple of days has involved getting somewhat up to speed on the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. One need not be a great believer in nominative determinism to suspect that a person whose job title refers to a ‘negative impact’ of ‘unilateral coercive measures’ might have a critical view of sanctions!

Indeed, in the past I had come across headlines based on the Special Rapporteur’s work, such as ‘Unilateral sanctions particularly harmful to women, children, other vulnerable groups‘. My instinctive reaction, not having delved into any of the underlying research, was that the conclusions might well be right, but the real challenge, surely, is addressing that problem in the circumstances when the need for sanctions is overwhelming. North Korea serves as a case in point, as the UN Independent Panel of Experts on North Korea has continuously cautioned of the humanitarian impact of sanctions all the while acknowledging that some form of economic coercion is simply necessary in the circumstances.

It would seem, then, that to be genuinely useful, the Special Rapporteur’s mandate should focus on thinking through that challenge, rather than serving as a letterbox for heavily sanctioned states to send in their complaints to.

Well, you can see where this is going.

The Human Rights Council’s resolution that establishes the Special Rapporteur’s position was sponsored by Iran and makes no secret of where the Council’s sympathies lie, as the Council:

Condemns the continued unilateral application and enforcement by certain powers of such measures as tools of political or economic pressure against any country, particularly against developing countries, with a view to preventing these countries from exercising their right to decide, of their own free will, their own political, economic and social systems[.]

As for the Special Rapporteur herself, the post is currently held by Professor Alena Douhan of Belarus State University. Knowing nothing of Professor Douhan but something of contemporary Belarus, engaging in a sustained critique of her reports would probably miss the point. How many people would do a better job writing on the human rights aspects of sanctions from an office in Minsk? It is compliment enough, perhaps, that her writing reaches nowhere near the screeching craziness of Russian courtier lawyers.

There should be no doubt, though, that her project is neither serious nor worthy of engagement, especially as in the midst of Russia’s war in Ukraine she is soliciting input from civil society organisations to, not to put too fine a point on it, discredit unilateral sanctions regimes. So, I will end this by quoting from the Special Rapporteur’s own account of sanctions-induced human rights emergencies worldwide she has seen fit to address:

On 23 June 2020, the Special Rapporteur sent a joint letter of allegation to the United States of America concerning its efforts to influence the independence of the International Criminal Court. On 26 August 2020, she sent a letter of allegation to the United States regarding the negative impact on human rights of targeted sanctions authorized under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 and subsequent legislation. On 4 September 2020, she sent a letter of allegation to the United States with respect to the negative impact of targeted sanctions on the rights of an Iranian oil-tanker captain. On 21 December 2020, she sent a joint letter of allegation to the United States with respect to human rights violations arising from sanctions authorized under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 and Executive Order 13894. On 29 January 2021, she sent a joint letter to the United States detailing the negative impact on human rights of sanctions imposed as a result of the declaration of what appear to be permanent states of national emergency. On 2 February 2021, the Special Rapporteur sent a joint urgent appeal to the United States regarding the situation of the above-mentioned Iranian oil-tanker captain following an announcement by the Government of the United States of a reward for his capture that further violated his human rights. In conjunction with these letters, the Special Rapporteur issued press releases.

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