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US: Ease Sanctions on Iran in COVID-19 Crisis

Paramedics work in a laboratory that tests samples taken from patients suspected of being infected with the new coronavirus, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran, March, 10, 2020.

© 2020 AP

(Washington DC) – Broad US-imposed economic sanctions are negatively affecting the Iranian government’s ability to adequately respond to the mounting health consequences of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The US should take immediate action to ease US sanctions and expand licensing of sanctions-exempt items to ensure Iran’s access to essential humanitarian resources during the pandemic.

According to official statistics, as of April 3, 2020, 53,183 people in Iran have contracted the virus and 3,294 have died, though the real number is most likely higher. On March 19, the spokesperson for Iran’s Health Ministry tweeted that every hour almost 50 people contract the virus and every 10 minutes one person dies because of COVID-19 across the country. As the burden on the country’s debilitated health care system has dramatically increased, the broad US economic sanctions resulting in severe international banking restrictions have drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines and medical equipment. 

“It’s bad enough that Iranians are saddled with a brutal, self-serving government that refuses to even release wrongfully detained people in crowded prisons despite the risk of coronavirus,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is wrong and callous for the Trump administration to compound Iranians’ misery by depriving them of access to the critical medical resources they urgently need.”

After the Trump administration announced its intention to leave the negotiated nuclear agreement in 2018, Iran’s currency, the rial, depreciated significantly. The restrictions on financing, combined with the sharp depreciation of the rial, have resulted in severely limiting Iranian companies and hospitals from purchasing essential medicines and medical equipment from outside Iran that residents depend upon for critical medical care. Moreover, renewed US sanctions have directly impacted families’ purchasing power, contributing to inflation rates of around 30 percent in the past year.

A doctor with close knowledge of the government’s response to the outbreak told Human Rights Watch that obtaining necessary medical equipment has become more difficult under sanctions: “The reality is that sanctions are exacerbating Iranian government’s crisis of incompetency. To manage a pandemic of this scale, a government needs the trust of people and health professionals as well as essential resources. The government has done a poor job of managing the public trust front, but sanctions have impacted their resources both in terms of available medical equipment for detection and treatment of the virus, as well as in terms of their capacity to support people’s needs during the crisis.”

While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch research in October 2019 found that in practice, these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. On January 30, the US Department of Treasury and the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs announced the transfer of medicine through a newly established humanitarian channel as a “trial run.” The US Treasury had announced the establishment of the channel on October 25 after its designation of Iran’s central bank under its counterterrorism authority on September 20, a move that had seriously threatened the flow of exempted humanitarian trade to Iran.

On March 6, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued guidance that transactions involving Iran’s foreign exchange assets held abroad, when used to buy humanitarian items, would not face US sanctions. However, because waivers are no longer available for purchasing Iranian oil and sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, Iran’s access to currency to purchase needed medical supplies on the international market has become further restricted.

OFAC has issued general licenses that permit the export of “certain food items, medicines, and basic medical supplies to Iran” without requiring further specific authorization. These provisions also authorize financial transactions to support Iranian imports of these categories of goods from the United States or from a third country. General licenses, however, are capped at $500,000.

But the definition of drugs under US export regulations – which includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and medical devices – excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices – including medical supplies, instruments, equipment, equipped ambulances, institutional washing machines for sterilization, and vehicles carrying medical testing equipment. This means that equipment crucial to fighting the virus, including ventilators, CT scanners, decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.

The Washington Post reported that the rate of special licenses OFAC issued for the export of specific medicine and medical devices to Iran has significantly declined under the Trump administration, from more than 50 percent of requests during the first quarter of 2016 to 10 percent during the first quarter of 2019. If more licenses are not granted, or the rules are not changed to include this equipment under the general license, Iranians may not be able to obtain the medical equipment and drugs they need to help combat COVID-19 in a timely manner, Human Rights Watch said.

In a letter dated March 26, 11 US senators called on the Trump administration to release a “clear general license authorizing specific medical goods and equipment to facilitate international relief efforts” and to issue a “90-day waiver of sectoral sanctions that impede a rapid humanitarian response” among other efforts. In a bicameral letter dated March 31, 34 members of Congress called for a substantial suspension of sanctions on Iran in a “humanitarian gesture.”

Relief International, a nongovernmental organization that operates with an OFAC license in Iran, said that international aid – and therefore an adequate response during the first weeks of the crisis – was hampered by a need to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into Iran.

On March 24, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement that for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in living in countries under economic sanctions that are battling against the outbreak of COVID-19, “Sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.”

Iranian authorities should make use of every available resource to respond to the outbreak in a way that respects human rights and minimizes harm to the health and well-being of all those living in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

While sanctions will inevitably diminish the capacity of the affected country to fund or support some of the necessary measures, Iran remains obligated to take steps “to the maximum of its available resources” to “provide the greatest possible protection” of the right to health of individuals within its jurisdiction.

At a time of crisis, this obligation is even more crucial, and the government should use all possible means, both domestic resources and negotiations with other countries to ensure the entire population’s access to the most urgent medical care, Human Rights Watch said. While Iran’s economy remains opaque and non-transparent, economic enterprises known as bonyads, some of which are under the direct supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, control a large amount of financial resources with little oversight.

Human Rights Watch has previously urged the Iranian authorities to facilitate the temporary release of all eligible prisoners and the unconditional release of people detained for peaceful dissent, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Iranian government should also ensure everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living, which, in the context of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, means taking measures to buffer the economic impacts of COVID-19 that affects certain groups, including lower-wage workers, first and hardest. Social distancing, quarantine, and the closure of businesses, all recommended by experts to reduce the chance of transmission, will most likely have enormous economic consequences.

The people at most risk are those who are already marginalized in society such as Afghan migrants and refugees, and people with disabilities, as well as low-wage workers in low-income households. The Iranian government should create programs so that such workers affected by COVID-19 do not suffer further loss of income that might deter them from self-isolating to contain the spread of the virus. Without assistance, these workers may face intense economic hardship, risking eviction. The government should take measures at a minimum to ensure that everyone continues to have access to, and can afford, adequate housing, food and water, and other elements of an adequate standard of living.

Under international law, a country or coalition of states enforcing economic sanctions should consider the impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially regarding their access to goods essential to life, including medicines and food.

“The US government should ensure that financial sanctions imposed on Iran are clearly and publicly interpreted to permit the shipment of anything the Iranian people need to protect themselves from the coronavirus,” Roth said.


Cambodia: Prisons Potential COVID-19 Epicenters

Members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party are brought in a police vehicle to the appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 10, 2018.

© 2018 Samrang Pring/Reuters

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should take urgent measures to reduce the risk that the country’s severely overcrowded prisons will suffer COVID-19 outbreaks, Human Rights Watch said today.

Reducing overcrowding in prisons is important to prevent outbreaks, which would have serious health consequences for prisoners, prison staff, and the broader public. Cambodian authorities should immediately release people who should not be in custody, including pretrial detainees held for minor offenses, and political prisoners. The authorities should consider alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, and women who are pregnant or incarcerated with small children.

“Cambodia’s seriously overcrowded prisons are COVID-19 disaster zones waiting to happen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia should speedily release prisoners at greater risk if infected, as well as those detained for minor offenses, and take urgent steps to ensure prisoners get adequate medical care.”

As of January 2020, 18 of Cambodia’s 28 civilian prisons held 23,748 detainees, including 1,614 women, 43 of them pregnant. The prisons also held 103 children incarcerated with their mothers, and 542 other children. Out of 8,855 convicted prisoners, 619 were women, 4 were girls, and 156 were boys.

In response to fears of COVID-19 in the country’s correctional facilities, Cambodia’s General Department of Prisons announced a temporary suspension of visiting rights on March 25. The only exception is for visitors who obtain medical certificates and undergo temperature checks upon entering prison facilities. The department instructed prison chiefs to quarantine all new detainees for 14 days in “spare rooms” before allowing them to come into contact with other inmates, but failed to provide any details about these procedures and arrangements.

Cambodia’s prisons and detention centers are all well beyond maximum capacity. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) noted there was a “220 percent rise in the number of pregnant women and young children in prison between January 2017 and August 2018.” Human rights defenders have said that as many as 30 prisoners are held in highly unhygienic conditions in small cells.

Those incarcerated have limited access to water, soap, and hand sanitizer, and are in extremely close contact with other prisoners. Independent prison monitors have repeatedly pointed out the harsh conditions for pregnant women and women with children, who face “severe overcrowding, inadequate food and access to health care, scarce contact with their families, and limited time and space for children to play.”

To reduce the risk of transmission in prisons, the government should routinely monitor all patients for symptoms, immediately test those who become ill, isolate those who test positive, and quarantine prisoners who were in close contact with those found to have COVID-19. International guidance provides that prisoners should also be able to maintain a distance of six feet from all other prisoners, including in housing and at meals, and guards should be routinely screened to ensure that they are not sick.

Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2 (CC2), the only prison in Cambodia reserved solely for women and children, has an official capacity of 350 inmates. In January, CC2 held 1,850 prisoners. The death in late January of a 5-month-old baby who had fallen gravely sick while imprisoned with her mother at CC2 highlights the urgent need to find alternatives to detention for mothers with children.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and Cambodian human rights groups have repeatedly urged the authorities to use pretrial detention only as a “last resort,” respecting the presumption of innocence.

Human Rights Watch reiterates its call to release all political prisoners, including human rights defenders, members or supporters of the political opposition, and citizens who peacefully exercised their right to free expression.

On March 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a guide, “Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention,” which states, “Enhanced consideration should be given to resorting to non-custodial measures at all stages of the administration of criminal justice, including at the pre-trial, trial and sentencing as well as post-sentencing stages. Priority should be given to alleged offenders and prisoners with low-risk profiles and caring responsibilities, with preference given to pregnant women and women with dependent children.”

The guidance says that for prisoners who are not being released, there is an “increased need for emotional and psychological support, for transparent awareness-raising and information-sharing on the disease, and for assurances that continued contact with family and relatives will be upheld.” Furthermore, WHO stresses that “Adequate measures should be in place to protect persons in isolation from any form of ill treatment and to facilitate human contact as appropriate and possible in the given circumstances.”

The Human Rights Watch report on the human rights dimensions of the COVID-19 response analyzed government obligations and the human rights concerns posed by the outbreak. Governments should reduce their prison populations through early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified.

Prisoners at high risk of serious effects from the virus, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for release, taking into consideration whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, including access to adequate treatment, and such factors as the gravity of the crime and time served. Prison authorities should publicly disclose their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps they will take to contain the infection and protect prisoners, staff, and visitors.

“The Cambodian government needs to immediately reduce the prison population while undertaking rigorous testing inside prisons to isolate those who are sick,” Robertson said. “Foreign donors should urge the Cambodian government to abide by international guidance and human rights standards, which would be in the best interest not only of prisoners and prison staff, but also the Cambodian people.”