Interview with Norwegian journalist, published on 29 April 2020 in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen

Q – What is your reaction to the Trump-administrations deliberate ramping up of its maximum pressure campaign in the midst of the pandemic?

AZ  It is nothing less than a crime against humanity with malice aforethought, a form of prohibited “collective punishment”, illegal since the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, a violation of numerous provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (US is a party) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (US is not a party, but many of its provisions are based on general principles of law and customary international law) and of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (192 States parties – only one State has refused to sign it – the U.S.).  The viciousness of the “maximum pressure” campaign makes you think of the Nazi siege of Leningrad 1941-44, which cost nearly a million lives, victims of famine and lack of medicines.  At Nuremberg this crime was prosecuted under Article 6 (c) of the Nuremberg Statute and the Nazis were duly convicted and sentenced.

On 13 February 2020 the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza submitted a legal brief to the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court pursuant to article 14 of the Rome Statute, documenting precisely the impact of the illegal economic war, financial blockade and sanctions on the nutritional and health situation in Venezuela.  On 24 February 2020 Arreaza spoke before the UN Human Rights Council and justified the submission to the ICC partly on the report of Professors Jeffrey Sachs and Marc Weisbrot that determined that in the year 2018 an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans died as a result of the sanctions. Arreaza also made reference to my 2018 report to the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/39/43/Add.1. On 25 February a panel was held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in which a number of Professors of International Law, including myself, explained the international law and human rights law implications of the “maximum pressure” campaign not only against Venezuela, but also against Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria and Iran.  Trumps sanctions policy constitute a total disregard for the most fundamental human rights and display a macabre Machiavellian quality that must be condemned by all civilized nations.  It is nothing less than retrogression to barbarism, a form of State terrorism, a denial of everything that Eleanor Roosevelt stood for, a revolt against international order.   It gives me – and should give every decent human being – moral vertigo.  Bottom line:  sanctions kill.

Q – In what ways are health services specifically hurt by these campaigns?

AZ  As I explained in my 2018 report to the Human Rights Council, the 20-year economic war against Venezuela, the financial blockade and the sanctions are aimed at asphyxiating the Venezuelan economy, artificially creating a scarcity of medicines, medical equipment, replacement parts for scanners and dialysis machines.  Because of fear of draconian US penalties many entrepreneurs have simply abandoned Venezuela to its fate, because a businessman is only interested in making a profit, and when the risk becomes too high, they look for other markets.  Indeed, the Venezuelan market is too risky – as a number of entrepreneurs have already experience.

Numerous Venezuelan non-governmental organizations, including Fundalatin (with consultative status with the United Nations, the oldest Venezuelan human rights ngo, founded twenty years before Chaves’ election in 1998), the Grupo Sures (which represents 50 other Venezuelan ngo’s) and the Red Nacional de Derechos Humanos have documented the negative impacts of US sanctions on the health of Venezuelans.  They have recently issued numerous appeals for help in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. When I was in Venezuela I interviewed members of some 36 ngo’s, including the 3 mentioned above, whose integrity and objectivity are certain.  They have also sent representatives to the 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, where I also had the opportunity of speaking with them.

The 60-year campaign of economic sabotage against Cuba has similarly cost thousands of lives, because of the inability of Cuba to repair medical equipment because replacement parts are subject to the embargo, because of the inability to acquire the most advanced medical equipment and computers.

On 27 occasions the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions condemning the US embargo against Cuba and asking all countries to refrain from imposing unilateral coercive measures and/or surrendering to US pressure.  The UN General Assembly has identified these sanctions as illegal, incompatible with the UN Charter, with general principles of law including freedom of commerce and freedom of navigation.  Every year the General Assembly examines the situation in Cuba, including Cuba’s reports which document precisely how the sanctions have debilitated Cuba’s capacity to sustainably protect the health of all persons under Cuban jurisdiction.  

The Human Rights Council has repeatedly condemned unilateral coercive measures – without focusing on any country in particular.  These resolutions have been totally ignored not only by the United States, but also by Canada, the UK and other European countries.

Q – Is it your impression that the US administration see the civilian suffering caused by economic sanctions as a deliberate goal, or as a form of what in wars are called “collateral damage”?

AZ The cynicism of the Trump administration is breathtaking.  What is particularly galling is that the US claims that the sanctions are “targeted” and that they do not affect the population. This is demonstrably untrue, but it is part of the Trump administration’s policy to make it appear like it cares about the fate of the Venezuelan people – or for that matter of the Cuban, Nicaraguan, Syrian or Iranian people.  The term “collateral damage” is not mentioned because the announced aim of US policy is “noble” — to bring democracy and human rights to these countries. This is, of course, Orwellian newspeak, as personalities like Professor Noam Chomsky, Prof. Dan Kovalik (University of Pittsburgh Law School), Professor Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University, New York), Professor Miguel Tinker Salas (Pomona College, California) and many others have clearly shown.  But the mainstream press continues to carry the White House propaganda, and many actually believe it. 

Trump’s goal – as was the goal of George W. Bush and Barak Obama – is to topple any government that does not go along with the geopolitical and geoeconomic interests of Washington.  John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence have made it abundantly clear that what they want is “regime change” in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria and Iran — which, as they themselves have admitted, will be good for U.S. business.

– Having studied this topic for a long time, is there anything new you have learned from observing how the coronavirus have affected sanctions-hit countries like Iran and Venezuela?

Any reasonable observer expect a significant increase in deaths directly related to the deliberate weakening of the health infrastructures of the targeted countries.

Reports recently issued by Fundalatin and the Grupo Sures concretize the impact of the sanctions on Venezuela’s capacity to defend itself against coronavirus.  There are studies being conducted with regard to many other countries under sanctions, including Iran, but it is not possible to give exact figures.  Back in the 1990’s UNICEF carried out studies on the impact of sanctions on Iraq and concluded that by 1995 approximately half a million children had perished in Iraq as a result of the sanctions.  I believe it should be a priority for UNICEF and WHO to make estimates on the deaths directly resulting from sanctions and to formulate projections about the impact of sanctions on the ability of these countries to combat coronavirus.

Q – How has your personal experience been of trying to bring focus on this topic, and do you think the pandemic might bring about any change in the way these sanctions are perceived?

AZ  “Calamitas virtutis occasio” (Seneca) – a calamity is an opportunity to demonstrate courage.  I do hope that the Covid-19 pandemic will make many persons come out of their “comfort zone” and question the wisdom of their leaders.  Why did the United States spend 40% of the discretionary budget on the military (see my 2014 report to the Human Rights Council) instead of devoting a greater proportion to improving health infrastructures, conducting research and development in the field of prevention of pandemics, development of vaccines, production and modernization of medical equipment.  Why did US governments defund health programmes, close hospitals, privatize the health sector?  It is obvious that if the key interest is short-term profit, hospitals, clinics, schools, that do not deliver will be closed – to the detriment of society.

In the United States we (I am a double-national – United States and Swiss) have a culture of “individualism” and the American Dream means essentially becoming rich fast.  Thus, the rule is “calamitas pecuniae occasio” – a calamity is an occasion to make a buck.  Surely you have read about individuals who attempted to corner the market on necessities such as masks and disinfectant gels.  It is shocking, unethical, even criminal, but many in the United States feel that it is “normal” to act this way.

What we need is to develop a sense of responsibility for others – a sense of community in which we take an interest in the welfare of our neighbours.

My colleague Virginia Dandan, the UN Special Rapporteur on International Solidarity published a report 2017 to the UN Human Rights Council which contained in an Annex a Draft Declaration on the Right to International Solidarity.  Alas, to this day this excellent Declaration has not yet been adopted by the General Assembly.

Also my 14 reports to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly have had limited impact.  As I said to the Council in 2017 – we United Nations Special Rapporteurs are but “an assembly of Cassandras”, because we identify the problems, formulate concrete, implementable, pragmatic recommendations – and nobody listens.  There is no follow-up.

My President Mr. Trump claims he wants “to make America great again”.  I say in order to make America great again, all he has to do is to revive the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, to rediscover the good-Neighbour policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to follow the human rights commitment of President Jimmy Carter and endorse the work of the Carter Center.

Categories Human Rights, International law, InterviewTags , , , ,

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