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Making Sanctions Smarter: Safeguarding Humanitarian Action

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Executive Summary

In recent decades, sanctions have increasingly been used as a foreign policy tool. The UN Security Council has imposed fourteen sanctions regimes alongside those imposed autonomously by the EU, the US, and other countries. Despite efforts to institute more targeted sanctions regimes, these regimes continue to impede or prevent the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection.

There are four case studies that are particularly useful for exploring the impact of these sanctions regimes: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In each of these countries, humanitarian actors have struggled with the impact of UN sanctions, as well as of sanctions imposed by the US and the EU.

These cases reveal seven ways sanctions regimes can impact humanitarian action:

• Listing of humanitarian organizations: The most direct and immediate risk is the possibility that a humanitarian organization or one of its staff members is put on a sanctions list, though this has not happened yet.

• Exemption procedures: Applying for exemptions requires a significant investment of time and resources and can create challenges for the principled delivery of aid. In the DPRK and Syria in particular, exemption procedures for UN, US, and EU sanctions are onerous and not widely understood. The UN Somalia sanctions regime is the only one with an exception rather than an exemption—a provision that is helpful, albeit limited, in its scope and not systematically implemented by member states.

• De-risking: In seeking to mitigate their risk, banks and other private sector actors sometimes restrict or refuse to provide services to humanitarian organizations. In the DPRK, for example, there is no banking channel for humanitarian actors, and humanitarian actors in Syria also face difficulties in accessing financial services.

• Restrictions on importing goods: Restrictions on dual-use items, in particular, can delay or block imports of humanitarian goods. This is a problem in the DPRK and Syria, where suppliers, shippers, and authorities in transit countries are taking a risk-averse approach.

• Restrictive clauses in donor agreements: Such clauses can increase costs, limit flexibility, and challenge the impartiality of humanitarian operations. Due to concerns over sanctions and terrorism, donors are particularly risk-averse in Syria and Afghanistan, imposing restrictions that create difficulties for humanitarian actors.

• Fines and prosecution: Humanitarian actors risk being fined or prosecuted for violating sanctions, though this has not been a prevalent problem so far.

• Chilling effect: The above challenges often lead humanitarian actors to err on the side of caution, self-regulating beyond what is legally or contractually required. In Afghanistan and Somalia, for example, humanitarian organizations have avoided working in the large swathes of the country outside of government control in part due to their fear of violating sanctions.

While there are no straightforward solutions to these problems, stakeholders could consider a number of ways forward:

• Including language that safeguards humanitarian activities in sanctions regimes: This would help ensure that these regimes are implemented in a way that aligns with their intended purposes and, where applicable, with international humanitarian law.

• Raising awareness and promoting multistakeholder dialogue: More understanding is needed of what sanctions regimes are and how they affect the humanitarian sector.

• Conducting better, more systematic monitoring of and reporting on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian activities: Information on this impact is important to understand, track, and appropriately respond to these challenges.

• Developing more and improved guidance on the scope of sanctions regimes: Better guidance would help ensure humanitarian actors, donors, and the private sector do not interpret sanctions regimes to be broader or more restrictive than they actually are.

• Improving risk management and risk sharing:
Humanitarian actors should not be left to shoulder all the risk that stems from operating in contexts in which sanctions regimes apply