The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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Sanctions Committees

The UN Security Council establishes Sanctions Committees to monitor the implementation and effects of embargoes or sanctions it has decided to impose against States for various reasons. Embargoes can be imposed against certain items only, such as weapons, or they can be “total,” blocking all forms of economic trade.

Even in the case of a “total embargo,” humanitarian supplies, foreseen by humanitarian law to benefit populations in danger, can never be blocked from reaching their destination.

Sanctions Committees decide whether a product can be exempt from the embargo, taking into consideration the commercial or humanitarian nature of the transaction or of the goods in question*.*

EmbargoSanctions (diplomatic, economic, or military)

Role and Structure

Sanctions Committees examine requests for exemption and authorize imports of relief supplies of a humanitarian nature on a case-by-case basis. Such requests can only be made by States and intergovernmental humanitarian organizations (e.g., UN agencies and the ICRC).

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have to liaise with the government of the State in which their headquarters is located. In practice, this means that NGOs must direct their request to the appropriate Ministry, which then passes it to the State’s ambassador to the UN, who finally submits the request to the relevant Committee.

Each Sanctions Committee is generally referred to by the number of the UN Security Council resolution that imposed the embargo.

Committees are usually created by the resolution that initially imposed the sanctions; however, in some instances Committees have been set up afterward. They are created according to Article 28 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council. As of June 2015, ten Sanctions Committees existed for the following countries: South Sudan (since 2015), Yemen (since 2014), Central African Republic (since 2013), Guinea-Bissau (since 2012), Libya (since 2011), Sudan (since 2005), Côte d’Ivoire (since 2004), Liberia (since 2003), Democratic Republic of Congo (since 2003), and Somalia and Eritrea (since 1992). In addition, two Sanctions Committees were established in 1999 (1267) and 2001 (1373) to supervise sanctions imposed against individuals and entities linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban and those supporting terrorism.

Sanctions Committees have existed for the following countries: Sierra Leone (1997–2010), Rwanda (1994–2008), Liberia (1995–2001 and 2001–2003), Eritrea and Ethiopia (2000–2001), Angola (1993–2002), Haiti (1993–1994), Former Yugoslavia (1991–1996), Libya (1992–2003), Iraq and Kuwait (1990–2003), and South Africa (1977–1994).

Each Committee is made up of the fifteen members of the Security Council, who elect a one-year chairperson from among the non-permanent Security Council members. The chairperson has a secretariat (a secretary and five to six staff members) and is part of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.

Each Committee adopts its own rules of procedure, but they are generally the same for all the Committees. The decisions are taken by consensus (therefore, all the members have veto power) and in the presence of all the members (meaning that any one absence blocks the decision).

Regional State organizations (e.g., the AU, OAS, etc.) can also create Sanctions Committees if they initiated the embargo. Their Committees’ composition and their exemptions procedures may differ.

Exemptions Procedures

The Sanctions Committees follow one of two decision-making procedures, which vary depending on the nature of the humanitarian goods under discussion.


When shipping certain goods (namely, goods that are humanitarian by nature), humanitarian organizations simply need to send a letter of notification to the Sanctions Committee. The acknowledgment of the letter’s receipt that is then sent out by the president of the Committee is the authorization allowing the goods to be imported.

Nonobjection Procedure

For all other goods, each exemption request must be sent to the secretariat of the Sanctions Committee on a standard form. The request is then transmitted to all the members and a deadline is chosen by which date the members must express any objection. If none has done so when the deadline expires, the president considers that the request has been accepted and informs the requesting organization by letter.

This exemption authorization is granted for a predetermined length of time (three months in the case of Committee 724 on the former Yugoslavia, which monitored the “general and complete embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment” to the former Yugoslavia, imposed on 15 December 1991 by Security Council Resolution 724). However, if one or more members of the Committee contest the request, it is subject to one, or possibly two, examinations. The final decisions of the Committees cannot be appealed.

NGOs have often criticized Sanctions Committees for a lack of transparency in their decisions. The decisions are taken behind closed doors and do not have to be justified, and no record of the meetings is held. The criticisms also refer to delays that occur in giving responses to requests for exemptions. Any kind of delay is, of course, incompatible with emergency situations.

Finally, the embargo procedures and the Sanctions Committees are meant to apply political pressure on a government, a constraint that often weighs against the independence of humanitarian actions undertaken in such circumstances.

Humanitarian Goods Excluded from Embargoes

Food and supplies strictly intended for medical purposes—medicine, medical supplies, and the like—are considered goods that are humanitarian by nature. They are exempt from any embargo and are subject only to the notification procedure.

The purpose of goods that enable certain institutions considered “indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” to operate, such as schools and hospitals (known as “goods that are humanitarian by destination”), may also be excluded from embargoes. However, they are subject to the more burdensome non-objection procedure.

EmbargoProtected objects and propertyReliefSanctions (diplomatic, economic, or military)Security Council of the UN

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