There was a sigh of relief for people who are concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic when President Biden took office in January. After a year of COVID denial, Biden promised to “follow the science” and put more effort into containing the virus than the Trump administration did. But 10 months later, a new report by the Department of the Treasury makes it clear that “following the science” only applies when it protects the profits of the wealthy class.
On January 21, President Biden issued a National Security Memorandum that, in a section titled, “COVID-19 Sanctions Relief,” ordered various departments to “review existing United States and multilateral financial and economic sanctions to evaluate whether they are unduly hindering responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide recommendations to the President.” This section suggested an interest by the administration in reversing the “maximum pressure” economic warfare campaign waged by President Trump.
Sanctions are restrictions on trade, finance and travel that are technically supposed to be used to punish certain actors — governments, corporations or individuals — only when they are convicted by a body, usually the United Nations, of committing a crime. But over the past few decades, the United States has increasingly issued its own so-called sanctions outside of any legal process as a tool to punish or retaliate against almost 40 countries representing a third of the global population.
While the United States calls these ad hoc actions “sanctions,” they are more accurately described as unilateral coercive measures — state actions that violate human rights and multiple international laws. These unilateral coercive measures create an economic blockade that prevents targeted countries from, for example, having access to their assets that are abroad, conducting financial transactions or transporting goods.
Economic blockades prevent countries from purchasing basic necessities such as food, medicines and equipment, creating scarcity and driving up prices. This leads to preventable suffering and deaths that are less visible than when bombs are dropped but are just as deadly. For example, the Center for Economic Policy and Research found that these U.S. “sanctions” contributed to the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans between 2017 and 2018. Unilateral coercive measures have more recently prevented Venezuela from paying for cancer treatment for patients who were sent abroad to receive specialized care, leaving hundreds of patients stranded.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States’ unilateral coercive measures have blocked the purchase of medical equipment such as ventilators, medications and even vaccinations through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program designed to make vaccines more available globally. This is why the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres wrote to the leaders of G-20 countries in March 2020, stating, “I am encouraging the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support. This is the time for solidarity not exclusion.”
As nations around the world responded to the COVID-19 crisis by sharing medical supplies and personnel to combat the pandemic, the Trump administration issued more unilateral coercive measures. This forced impacted countries to find ways around the economic blockade. Some countries bypassed U.S.-dominated financial institutions by trading in currencies other than the dollar or using alternative platforms. Some — such as Mexico, which used its navy to deliver medical supplies and other necessities to Cuba — have openly defied the U.S. blockade.
Additionally, nations are joining together to call upon the United Nations to live up to its own charter, which prohibits unilateral coercive measures. In July, 18 countries launched the “Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations.” Their initial declaration calls out the United States using diplomatic language, stating: “We also underscore the need to avoid selective approaches and call for the full compliance with and strict adherence to both the letter and spirit of the tenets contained in the Charter of the United Nations, which are at the core of multilateralism and serve as the basis for modern day international law.”
This growing resistance to the United States’ illegal unilateral coercive measures has alarmed the U.S.’s foreign policy establishment and corporate elites. A primary purpose of sanctions is to weaken governments that dare to stand up to domination by the United States by causing hardship and civil unrest, making it easier to overthrow their leadership. Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted this unspoken tactic when he said, “We will coup whoever we want,” following the U.S.-backed coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia, a country with vast stores of lithium needed for electric car batteries — an essential resource for the largest electric car company.
The Trump and Biden administrations have gone so far as to kidnap, imprison and torture a Venezuelan diplomat, Alex Saab, who was trying to negotiate the purchase of food and medications from Iran in June 2020. Saab was held illegally in Cabo Verde as the United States tried to get permission to extradite him on the basis of unfounded charges of “money laundering.” When that failed, the U.S. used extraordinary rendition on October 16 to bring him to Miami where he is currently in detention. The U.S. is trying to make an example of Saab to deter others from doing the same.
The first report in response to President Biden’s order in the National Security Memorandum to review sanctions makes this fear of defiance abundantly clear. The Treasury 2021 Sanctions Review, released on October 18, states concern over “new challenges” such as alternative payment systems that skirt the U.S. dollar and recommends greater investment in personnel and technology to overcome these threats and “protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system.” There is no mention of COVID-19 anywhere in this report.
The report also recommends encouraging U.S. allies to support the U.S.’s economic warfare to give it greater legitimacy by, in part, “advocating for UN sanctions when possible.” The United States has a history of pressuring nations to impose sanctions on its targeted countries through the United Nations, which is a legal avenue as opposed to the U.S.’s illegal unilaterally imposed measures. And it recommends more effort to “enhance its public messaging and engagement” to effectively build public support for unilateral coercive measures.
It appears that is more important to the United States government to spend money on protecting the interests and profits of its transnational corporations than it is to roll back the economic blockades to protect public health. So far, the Biden administration has only removed a few of the hundreds of new unilateral coercive measures imposed by President Trump.
Anticipating that the Biden administration would not prioritize health in its reviews of sanctions, the U.S.-based Sanctions Kill coalition, of which I am a member, released its own report, “The Impact and Consequences of US Sanctions,” in September. This report documented clear examples of how the U.S.’s unilateral coercive measures impair the ability of nations to respond adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Iran has been unable to purchase necessary medications and other supplies resulting in preventable deaths from COVID-19. Cuba developed its own vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19 but has been unable to purchase enough syringes to vaccinate its population because of the economic blockade.
The report cites an October 2020 statement from United Nations Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan, which sums up the overall impacts well: “Targeted countries face shortages of medications and medical equipment, including oxygen supplies and ventilators, protective kits, spare parts, software, fuel, electricity, drinking water and water for sanitation, cannot use foreign assets for humanitarian imports, their citizens and medical personnel cannot get access to information about COVID-19, telemedicine or use communication and educational platforms. In the long-term perspective unilateral sanctions hinder targeted countries’ ability to respond to COVID-19, to implement national response plans; result in breaches of existing regional and bilateral cooperation/integration mechanisms; make populations dependant [sic] on humanitarian aid and prevent the economic recovery of the targeted countries through the development and maintenance of necessary infrastructure.”
As UN Secretary General Guterres stated, the world needs cooperation to end the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as the virus is able to proliferate anywhere in the world, it puts everyone at risk. New variants have already arisen that are more infectious and more lethal. If the pandemic continues, newer variants could develop that resist protection by the current vaccines. This could put us back to square one.
The United States’ unilateral coercive measures are unquestionably hindering the ability of nations to respond to the pandemic, but this isn’t the only harm they are causing. In addition to suffering and deaths in countries targeted by the U.S., the unilateral coercive measures are driving isolation of the United States from the global economy as countries shun the U.S. dollar. They prevent U.S. industries from trading with targeted countries and fuel animosity towards the U.S. They also put the United States at risk of criminal and civil prosecution that could result in orders to pay substantial reparations to the victims of this policy.
Instead of doubling down on its “sanctions,” the United States must cease this deadly and illegal economic war on the world. Global resistance to sanctions is growing and as the multipolar world arises, the United States could find itself isolated and prosecuted for its actions. For the well-being of the world, people in the United States have a responsibility to stop this escalation and demand an end to sanctions.
The Sanctions Kill coalition has a sample presentation that anyone can download and share with their local organization or community group to better understand what sanctions are and the harm they cause. The coalition is urging people to send the new report to their members of Congress and call on them to stop the United States’ illegal coercive measures. And, the Alliance for Global Justice has organized a campaign to raise awareness about the kidnapping of Alex Saab and put pressure on the Biden administration to free him. The executive office has the power to end the deadly “sanctions” now.