COVID-19 Pandemic and Egregious Condition of Syria: An Overview of Human Right Deprivations due to Sanctions

[By Divyanshi Shrivastava. The author is a student at Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur.]


Syria, a war-torn country has witnessed little to no improvement in its debilitating conditions. The unstable economic policies and brutal political repressions have made problems worse. The threat to human rights in the country is as diabolical as before. There are various sanctions imposed on Syria, making the lives of civilians worse than ever. These sanctions have been imposed with a view to deprive the Syrian regime of resources and pressurize the regime to allow for a democratic transition. For instance, sanctions have been imposed by the United States of America (“USA”) in the country, that prohibit new investments, exportation or sale of services. The European Union (“EU”), since 2011, has been imposing a range of financial, trade and transport sanctions in the region.

The COVID 19 pandemic has turned the entire world upside down; even the most developed countries are facing huge risks due to strict countrywide lockdowns and devastating effects on their health infrastructure.

Amidst this global pandemic, people in Syria have been deprived of their rights more than ever before, because the sanctions imposed by various countries have become more coercive. For instance, the USA has incorporated the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act under which sanctions will be imposed on any foreign person providing goods, services, technology or information to Syria. These extraterritorial sanctions can have an egregious impact on the human rights of civilians.

The prolonged conflict in Syria has also led to the destruction of its health infrastructure. The health sector in Syria has been direly affected by sanctions as there has been a detrimental effect on market supply of medicines and other medical equipment due to export restrictions.

Further, the recent global COVID-19 crisis has plummeted Syria into a worse situation as it is too critical to keep borders and internal crossing points open for shipment of humanitarian workers like doctors, and medicines.

However, efforts by the World Health Organization (“WHO”) have proven to be a ray of hope, as WHO has updated its operational planning guidelines to help countries with fragile healthcare systems balance essential health services and mitigate the risk of COVID-19. It is also constantly working with the Syrian Health Ministry for Syria’s preparedness for COVID-19, providing health equipment, installing thermo-graphic scanners at public places like airports, and training health care workers, to combat COVID-19.

There is an urgent need for support from other states, as their sanction programs have created blockades on the flow of crucial humanitarian supplies, especially medicine and medical devices, which are essential during a health emergency. The COVID-19 economic downturn has profoundly hit Syrian refugees into an even more desperate situation. With a majority of refugees in the region already living below the poverty line, the COVID-19 restrictions make their position more perturbing.

The conundrum of Human Rights and Sanctions

The right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights. Therefore, it creates an obligation on every State to cooperate and refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the same. For instance, one State should refrain from denying access to health-care services to other States and enter into successive deliberations through the United Nations General Assembly (“UNGA”) to urge member States to condemn unilateral coercive measures which violate human rights of civilians during a pandemic.

However, the coercive measures in Syria by various countries are not in accordance with the international law regime and are impeding the full realization of the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various International Human Right Instruments which includes right to health. These sanctions are devoid of human rights impact assessment and compensatory mechanisms for the affected population. For instance, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of the USA imposed during the pandemic does not redress the Syrian population and continues to operate regardless of the ongoing pandemic. The objective of sanctions is re-enforcement of human rights, but their egregious impact is further causing threat to humanity by preventing proper health facilities during a global health emergency.

Right to Health: A Responsibility incumbent upon Nations

As per Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”), States and international organizations also carry responsibilities to realize the right to health in developing nations, which has been realized by the World Health Assembly and United Nations. The World Health Assembly resolution on Universal Health Coverage focuses on the core obligations of States and expression of health equity. Further, UN through its global health and Foreign Policy Resolution 2012, endorses the obligation of rehabilitative health services to poor and vulnerable States. Sanctions imposed during a public health pandemic are gruesome and an attempt at human rights violations. Rather than coercion, improved collaboration is an apt humanitarian approach for combating international health emergencies. Collaborations by countries are the need of the hour to prevent hand to mouth situations in the conflict-hit region. Although the relaxation of sanctions would violate various foreign policies, import of medical equipment would definitely curb the egregious human rights violations on the civilians.

As per LSE reports, there are 111 public hospitals in Syria, 58 of which are fully functional, 27 are partially operational, and 26 are destroyed. Hence, the existing health infrastructure is handicapped to handle the pandemic. However, the lifting or easing of sanctions will help revive the medical sector. This collaboration should not cost much when basic human rights like the right to health etc. are at stake, which ought to be jus cogens obligation of a state.

Right to Health: A Peremptory Norm

Right to health qualifies as human right and hence a peremptory international law norm which States cannot violate by imposing sanctions on essential medical supplies, imports etc. Right to health also forms part of the right to life which is a developed international law in treaties, customs and also core elements in the rule of jus cogens. The right to health has been given adherence of jus cogens, which means it is an international obligation that States cannot neglect, as these norms/obligations provide a foundation to the structure of international law, by the virtue of various international jurisprudence like CESCR General Comment No. 14, International Law Commission at its fifty-third session, in 2001 (A/56/10), Declaration of Alma-Ata etc.; international consensus has been developed on right to health as jus cogens norm under which states cannot deviate from their responsibilities. These instruments have categorically obligated the states to realise the right to health as a pivotal international obligation.

Similarly, international sanctions are political and economic decisions which comprise the diplomatic efforts countries make to protect international law and defend against threats to international peace and security. However, the grassroots-level fallout of such sanctions is suffering for the civilians and large-scale violation of their human rights.

The International Court of Justice (“ICJ”), in the Islamic Republic of Iran v. the United States of America, ascertained prima facie jurisdiction and ruled that US Sanctions on Iran exposed danger to health and life of civilians, as these restrictions also hindered fulfilment of humanitarian needs such as food, medicines, medical treatment, medical equipments, thus causing a serious detrimental impact on lives of civilians on territory of Iran. This ICJ intervention is an epitome of determination, as the human rights of civilians were heard and recognized. Their humanitarian needs and denial of basic medical rights due to lethal sanctions were criticized and it was brought to light how stringent sanctions can be diabolical to innocent civilians.

Similarly, the coercive sanctions in Syria today cause large scale collateral damage to civilians, who are neither a part of the conflict nor violence, ultimately depriving civilians of their right to health.

Towards Solutions

As per, International Health Regulations, a binding legal framework, member countries have obligations during global health emergencies, including full respect to human rights and support to member states. However, Syrian citizens are being denied health services due to these barbaric sanctions. We need to foster global health during pandemic, which at present is definitely lacking.

General Comment 14, the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health defines a set of legal state obligations to ‘respect, protect and fulfill’ human rights, and also describes potential violations of states in relation to a right to health. However, WHO’s constant requests for removal of sanctions and support for health system resilience have not been heard, making it difficult for health infrastructure to manage the pandemic. This indicates that these obligations and duties have not been effective in strengthening global health as we still need to strive for equity in health. Hence, WHO also needs to review its binding regulations to ensure effective compliance, especially during international health emergencies like COVID-19.

There is also a need for financial aid and essential services by international organizations and developed countries in refugee camps during lockdowns which can resiliently reach remote areas. The inspiration lies in ardent efforts of UN Women’s innovative blockchain system which has proven to be helpful in aiding refugees. The organization by its resilient system provides relief information, essential services and psychosocial support to refugees in remote areas despite several restrictions.

UN should also remove restrictions on the supply of medical necessaries and personnel needed for preventing COVID-19. The UNSC should also consider re-authorizing medical assistance and allowing passage of respirators, testing kits and disinfectants in Syria under its 2014 Resolution.

The UN Charter upholds but unless we shun barbaric behavior through the medium of sanctions, we are mocking the objective. This calls for the international community to re-assess the viability of the UN Charter in current times. The International Court of Justice, which is the custodian of international rights, is devoid of any compulsory jurisdiction even during emergencies and human right violations which has rendered Syrians helpless. The extreme conditions of Syria have sounded an alarm for the International Community to consider the viability of norms of harmony, peace and cooperation, which are proudly preached in our International Instruments.

In such a situation, it becomes essential to consider the ramifications from the perspective of international law. The international community must ponder upon the unilateral, extraterritorial sanctions that have an egregious impact on human rights of the civilian population and existing international legal framework.