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Embargo and blockade during a pandemic : attacks on the integrity of peoples condemned by international law
by Fondation Frantz Fanon
2 April 2020

Embargoes and blockades are today, more than yesterday, characteristic aggressions of states exercising them against the peoples subjected to them. In the circumstances, any reduction of peoples’ capacity to meet their basic needs, by preventing them from maintaining international and commercial relations, in particular in matters of health [1], constitutes an illegitimate and illegal violence, that is therefore punishable under international law. Embargoes, blockades and other unilateral coercive measures, often called economic sanctions, are today acts of war against peoples and must stop. Asking for the lifting of these sanctions and the end of impunity for the states imposing them is not only a moral obligation, but above all a right based on the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. In the context of the current pandemic, maintaining countries, among others, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and territories including Gaza under embargo or economic sanctions [2], a practice revealing a “weakening of international law and institutions”, is a criminal act. This is an act of violence, most of the time from a strong state punishing a weaker state, and hitting the most vulnerable.

It is not a question of justice, but the expression of a balance of power in favor of the dominant state, that violates its international obligation by contradicting international legality because, de facto, the embargo does not comply with neither the Charter nor the missions of the United Nations. Added to this illicit act, at this particular moment, is the coronavirus pandemic the whole world is facing today. Any act of embargo or blockade constitutes today a serious act against the peoples victims of these measures, and against international law. Failure to lift economic coercion in this context is a double crime against humanity, since the embargo violates fundamental rights and violates the right to life, to human dignity; the pandemic only worsens these attacks.

The UN, an institution supposed to work for peace and development, should do everything to obtain the complete lifting of these embargoes so that the principles of the Charter cease to be violated by dominant and hegemonic countries [3]. In this context, the situation in the Gaza Strip is not only unacceptable, but dramatic for its people. Gaza has been under illegal blockade for 13 years, with consequences of exceptional gravity, yet the international community is unable to end this illegal act, which violates the fundamental rights of the Palestinians in Gaza and their inalienable rights. Under which law can it be justified to prevent populations from having access to basic healthcare, if not that of the strongest, in this case that of the Israeli occupier ? By doing so and by letting the occupier act in this way, the international community is letting a crime against humanity be committed, all the more reprehensible and condemnable that it lasts, is widespread and applied systematically. Note that, in the case of states under embargo or of Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip under blockade, and given the internationally illicit act these two acts constitute, are involved obligations, considered « essential » for the « entire international community », among which are the fundamental rights of the human person.

States imposing or letting an embargo or blockade be imposed fail in their obligation to protect fundamental rights. However, in view of the importance of the rights in question, all states, absolutely all states, should affirm that they have a legal interest in ensuring that these rights are protected, the obligations in question being erga omnes obligations .

Indeed, given the context, these serious attacks on the integrity of peoples, by states exercising embargoes, blockades and other unilateral coercive measures are punishable by law, if such actions were to be carried on. It is up to progressive states and social movements around the world, supported by international jurists, to examine all the ways and possibilities of juridical action against aggressor states, but also against accomplice states, in view of their international responsibility, in the commission of such illicit acts.

Mireille Fanon Mendes France, Frantz Fanon Foundation, former expert at the UN ; Adda Bekkouche, Phd international law, former professor, Paris1 University, Panthéon-Sorbonne

Paris, March 30th, 2020

Footnotes :

[1The defense of public health is a stated objective of the Charter of the United Nations (Article 55). All states are required to contribute to this objective (Article 56).

[2Other countries and territories are under retaliation measures that should at least be lightened and in any case reexamined in the light of the principles of the U.N Charter. Here is a list of these countries and territories :

[3It is not a question of condemning, in that instance the UN, but to remind that often, if not all the time, the same states imposing coercive measures at international level are the ones impeding the normal functioning of the UN, in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter. Theses states are the ones responsible of the weakening and delegitimization of international law and of the system of collective security built after the Second World War, which base is precisely the UN Charter.

Fondation Frantz Fanon