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UN expert: ‘Outrageous’ Western sanctions are ‘suffocating’ Syria, may be crimes against humanity

The United Nations special rapporteur said “outrageous” Western sanctions on Syria are “suffocating” millions of civilians and “may amount to crimes against humanity.” Proxy war caused the country’s economy to shrink by 90%. Nine in 10 Syrians live in poverty.

Syria war sanctions children rubble UN OCHA
Syrian children walk past ruins on their way home from school (Credit: UNOCHA/Ali Haj Suleiman)

(Se puede leer esta nota en español aquí.)

The United Nations’ top expert on sanctions said the unilateral coercive measures that the United States and Europe have illegally imposed on Syria are “outrageous,” and she warned that they are “suffocating” millions of innocent civilians.

“The whole [Syrian] population stays in life-threatening conditions with severe shortages of drinking water,” electricity, fuel, and food, reported the UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on human rights, Alena Douhan.

She wrote of the “huge negative effect of unilateral sanctions,” which have “a devastating effect on the whole population” and “a devastating effect on nearly all categories of human rights.”

“Maintaining unilateral sanctions amid the current catastrophic and still-deteriorating situation in Syria may amount to crimes against humanity against all Syrian people,” the UN expert said.

Douhan, a widely respected professor of international law, visited Syria for 12 days in October and November in order to investigate the impact of sanctions on the country. On November 10, she published a preliminary report that “calls for lifting of long-lasting unilateral sanctions ‘suffocating’ Syrian people.”

The UN special rapporteur described a medieval-style blockade, in which sanctions have “eroded to the level of total extinction the purchasing power of households, which find themselves in a prolonged state of survival mode.”

“The imposed sanctions have shattered the State’s capability to respond to the needs of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, and 90% of the people now live below the poverty line,” Douhan wrote.

Prices have increased more than 800% since 2019, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, and the sanctions block the import of “food, medicine, spare parts, raw materials, and items necessary for the country’s needs and economic recovery,” she said.

While Western governments claim to have humanitarian exceptions in their sanctions regimes, the UN expert emphasized that “secondary sanctions and over-compliance” by international financial institutions prevent Syria from importing necessary goods, and have even made it very difficult for UN institutions and international humanitarian organizations to operate in the country.

Today, more than half of Syrians are suffering from food insecurity. Moreover, 24% of Syrians are disabled, and 14.6% suffer from diseases.

The sanctions have also prevented the government from rebuilding damaged infrastructure and caused “shortages of electricity and drinking water,” leading to daily energy blackouts, including in hospitals, as well as contaminated water, and even a cholera outbreak.

Because of the occupation of Syria’s oil-rich regions by the US military and its Kurdish proxies, the government’s oil production is at only 10% of its pre-2010 levels, and with Western sanctions making the import of crude nearly impossible, the Syrian people face a chronic shortage of gasoline and fuel.

Douhan called for the unilateral sanctions that the United States and Europe have imposed on Syria to be lifted immediately, stressing that they are illegal under international law.

The UN expert also previously took a trip to Venezuela, and she reported that illegal Western sanctions had similarly devastating effects on the civilian population there, while starving the government of 99% of its revenue.

Most of the sanctions imposed on Syria came after the West launched a proxy war against the country in 2011. But the UN expert noted that Washington has had sanctions on Damascus going back to 2004.

The aggressive US sanctions levelled against Syria and 2011 and 2012 expanded into a de facto blockade in 2019, with the approval of the Caesar Act, which Douhan noted “authorized secondary sanctions against non-U.S. persons anywhere in the world who provide financial, material or technological support to the Syrian Government or engage in transactions with it.”

The European Union, Britain, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia have all imposed similar sanctions, along with the Persian Gulf monarchy-dominated Arab League.

As part of her trip, Douhan met with representatives not only from the Syrian government but also from civil society organizations, health clinics, financial institutions, humanitarian groups, businesses, universities, and religious bodies, as well as with other UN entities operating in the country.

Syria had very healthy growth rates before 2011, but the Western proxy war led the country’s economy to shrink by more than 90%. The UN expert reported:

From 2000 to 2010, Syria’s economic growth averaged more than 5% per year. The subsequent conflict had catastrophic effects on the economy, with significant damage and destruction of its productive capacity, assets and infrastructure, as well as massive displacements and refugee flows. This damage was exacerbated by the imposed comprehensive unilateral sanctions, leading to a protracted slowdown in economic activity with the GDP contracting by more than 90%.

By 2018, the Syrian government and its allies had largely won the military aspect of the war, so the West intensified its economic attacks on the country, pushing it into deep crisis. Douhan wrote:

After 2018, the Syrian economy showed some improvement with positive growth rates and rising macroeconomic indicators, but the intensification of unilateral sanctions and trade restrictions, over-compliance and de-risking by foreign companies and financial institutions, as well as the state’s inability to exploit many of its strategic national assets, natural and other economic resources, have eliminated all remaining avenues for economic recovery.

According to data and reports I received during my visit, the economy is hostage to a protracted economic crisis with growing inflation and frequent devaluations of the national currency, all of which have eroded to the level of total extinction the purchasing power of households, which find themselves in a prolonged state of survival mode.

She continued:

The imposed sanctions have shattered the State’s capability to respond to the needs of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, and 90% of the people now live below the poverty line.

Since 2019, prices increased more than 800%, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost due to destruction of industries, loss of the external trade and also to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The crisis is exacerbated by the country’s financial isolation, with the sanctions’ designation of the Central Bank and all public financial institutions, thus completely blocking transactions for imports and exports, including of food, medicine, spare parts, raw materials, and items necessary for the country’s needs and economic recovery, and restraining foreign currency inflows.

The UN special rapporteur went on:

Unilateral sanctions have also prevented the Government from having resources to maintain and improve key infrastructure and for rebuilding and developing projects vital to the population’s needs, especially in remote and rural areas.

Almost all interlocutors highlighted shortages of electricity and drinking water due to the destruction of plants and distribution infrastructure and also due to the unavailability of diesel fuel and gas needed for thermic power plants and water pumps.

Power outages are frequent, including in Damascus. Some Governorates distribute electricity for only 2–4 hours daily, while the Government tries to supply hospitals with 10–11 hours daily. The impact of unilateral sanctions prevents the procurement of spare parts for power plants and distribution networks, with foreign companies reluctant to engage with Syrian entities and international payments impossible to make.

Syria’s water system has likewise been devastated by Western sanctions, Douhan reported:

Similar challenges occur with the distribution of water for drinking and irrigation, which has seriously declined due to the number of damaged facilities, the direct effects of unilateral sanctions and the development of hydroelectric projects in neighbouring Turkey that restrict the water flow of the Euphrates River to Syrian agricultural lands.

Sanctions-induced trade restrictions and foreign businesses’ over-compliance prevent the procurement of equipment and spare parts needed to repair, maintain and develop water supply networks, sometimes resulting in contaminated water; this led to a recent cholera outbreak with more than 20,000 suspected cases.

Drinking water reaches many households during only 1 or 2 hours every few days as per capita drinking water supplies have plunged. Currently only 20% of Syria’s agricultural land can be irrigated. I was also informed

The US military occupation of Syria’s oil fields, along with Western sanctions, has caused chronic shortages of fuel in the country, the Un expert said:

Syria’s crude oil and oil derivatives production is less than 10% of pre-2010 levels, with the main oil fields located outside Government-controlled areas. As oil products are under sanctions, Syria cannot import them, resulting in shortages for heating, transport and industry.

Western sanctions have also devastated Syria’s public transportation sector, because the government is unable to import parts needed to maintain and repair its vehicles.

Even if Damascus were not blocked from importing technology, it would be unable to pay for it because the Syrian central bank’s foreign exchange reserves were frozen – and thus effectively stolen – by Western governments.

The Western sanctions have also devastated Syria’s health sector. Douhan wrote:

I also received accounts showing how unilateral sanctions impact the capabilities of Syria’s healthcare system. Although the Government prioritises electricity supplies for hospitals and health centers, they still receive insufficient power and the rest is provided by diesel stations and generators. Disruptions are frequent, impacting medical operations and the functioning of medical equipment, with serious consequences for patients.

In some cases, the irregularity of electric power has led to overloads with destructive effects on sensitive and expensive medical equipment, for which spare parts cannot be procured due to trade and financial restrictions, as well as the reported reluctance of European and US companies to deliver them.

With 14.6% of the Syrian population suffering from chronic and rare diseases, and estimated 24% being disabled, I note with concern the challenges and obstacles in the procurement and delivery of life-saving medicines, such as for cancer treatment, kidney dialysis, multiple sclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, as well as anaesthetics, diagnosis for all types of cancer and others, due to the withdrawal from Syria of foreign pharmaceutical producers and the inability to import raw materials and laboratory reagents for local pharmaceutical production due to companies’ over-compliance and/or banks’ de-risking policies.

Although medicines and medical devices are technically not subject to sanctions, the vagueness and complexity of the licensing processes, the persistent fear among producers and suppliers, the restrictions in the processing of payments, and the obstacles to shipping these goods have made them inaccessible to the Syrian public.

Western sanctions have also seriously damaged Syria’s education system. An estimated 22% of children are not in school.

Due to the fuel shortage caused by sanctions, just 4% to 7% of Syrian schools have electricity and heating in winter, and less than 40% have water.

Douhan concluded:

Primary unilateral sanctions, secondary sanctions, threats of sanctions, de-risking policies and over-compliance with sanctions have been exacerbating Syria’s humanitarian crisis, which is already affected by 12 years of conflict and terrorist activity, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19, a growing economic crisis in the region, and millions of IDPs and refugees.

The UN special rapporteur added:

They [unilateral sanctions] have a devastating effect on nearly all categories of human rights including economic, social and cultural rights, the rights to health, to food, to adequate housing, to an adequate standard of living, to clean water and sanitation, to a favorable environment, to access the Internet and to life.

The whole population stays in life-threatening conditions with severe shortages of drinking water, water for irrigation, sewage facilities, electricity, fuel for cooking, heating, transportation and agriculture, food (including baby formula), health facilities, medical equipment and medicine, work and education facilities, making the country extremely vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Douhan is due to file the final version of her report with the UN Human Rights Council in September 2023.



  1. julianmacfarlane

    2022-11-12 at 19:21

    I write regularly on the Ukraine proxy war.
    As in this article:

    John Boyd wrote all wars have three components a.) military b.) psychological c.) moral. To that must be added: economic, which is really an aspect of “military”. Where a.) degrades c.) you lose.

  2. Mark A Oglesby

    2022-11-20 at 08:53

    Is it not time for this cancer, the United States” to be CUT out of this world? I should think so!

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