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 United Nations Security Council (UNSC) establishes Sanctions Committees to monitor the implementation and effects of embargoes or sanctions it has decided to impose against states as well as non-state entities or individual. Embargoes can be imposed in opposition of 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, protected by international humanitarian law under the category of goods essential for the survival of the population victim of conflict, cannot be prohibited or otherwise impeded from reaching their destination. Such humanitarian supplies must remain outside the scope of embargoes and sanctions. They must benefit from general or ad hoc exemption in the various sanction regimes.

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 general or case-by-case basis (see below for more information). Such requests can only be made by states and intergovernmental humanitarian organizations (e.g., UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross).

Non governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking exemptions or relief supplies 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 the request to the state’s ambassador to the UN, who finally submits the request to the relevant Sanction Committee.

Sanctions Committees are usually created by the resolution that initially imposed the sanctions. They are created according to Article 28 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council and are generally referred to by the number of the UNSC resolution that imposed the sanction. As of January 2022, Sanctions Committees exist for the following eleven countries: Central African Republic (since 2013), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (since 2006), Democratic Republic of Congo (since 2004), Guinea-Bissau (since 2012), Iraq and Kuwait (since 2003), Libya (since 2011), Mali (since 2017), Somalia (since 1992), Sudan (since 2005), South Sudan (since 2015), and Yemen (since 2014). In addition, two Sanctions Committees were established in 1999 (1267) and 2001 (1373) to supervise sanctions imposed against specific individuals and entities linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban and those supporting terrorism: The ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee oversees the implementation of resolutions 1988 and 1989 (2011). This Sanctions Committee was established in 2015 to supervise sanctions against “individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with the Taliban in constituting a threat to the peace, stability, and security of Afghanistan”.

Sanctions Committees have also been established to monitor sanctions imposed on individuals, such as political figure or state representatives. It is the case of the Sanctions Committee established in 2003 (1518) to further identify senior officials of the former Iraqi regime and their immediate family members, including entities owned or controlled by them or by persons acting on their behalf. Another Sanctions Committee was established in 2005 (1636) to supervise sanctions imposed against individuals suspected of involvement in the 14 February 2005 terrorist bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.

Sanctions Committees also existed for the following countries but have since been dissolved: Angola (1993-2002), Côte d’Ivoire (2004-2016), Eritrea and Ethiopia (2000-2001), Haiti (1993-1994), Iraq and Kuwait (1990-2003), Liberia (1995-2001, 2001-2003, and 2003-2016), Libya (1992-2003), Rwanda (1994-2008), Sierra Leone (1997-2010), Somalia (1992-2018), South Africa (1977-1994), Southern Rhodesia (1968-1979), and Former Yugoslavia (1991-1996, 1998-2001). An additional Sanctions Committees was established concerning the Iranian nuclear issue (2006-2015).

Each Committee is made up of the fifteen members of the UNSC, 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 the procedures are generally the same for all Committees. 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 different decision-making procedures regarding exemptions, which vary depending on the nature of the humanitarian goods under discussion.

1. Notification for Humanitarian Goods

The general procedure for humanitarian goods is used by member states, IOs or NGOs. IOs and NGOs have to ask for an exemption through a member states, they have to liaise with the government of the state in which their headquarters is located. The request must mention all the details asked by the UNSC (nature of the humanitarian assistance, why, when it will be delivered, what actors are involved, routes, financial transactions, etc.)

In practice, this means that NGOs must direct their request to the appropriate Ministry, which then transfers the request from the state’s ambassador to the UN, that finally submits the request to the relevant Sanction Committee. If it is impossible to ask the state in which its headquarter is, the IOs or NGOs can ask the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator to the DPRK or the Committee Secretary.

However, for the United Nations agencies, the ICRC, the IFRC and the International Olympic Committee, the procedure is simplified. They only need to send a letter of notification to the Sanctions Committee. The acknowledgment of the letter’s receipt, then sent out by the president of the Committee, suffices as authorization allowing the goods to be imported.

2. Nonobjection Procedure for all other Goods

For all other non-humanitarian goods, each exemption request must be sent to the secretariat of the Sanctions Committee using a standard form. The request is then transmitted to all the members of the Committee and a deadline is chosen by which date the members must express any objection. If no objection has been raised before the deadline expires, the president considers the request to have been accepted and informs the requesting organization by letter.

This exemption authorization is granted for a predetermined length of time (for example, an exemption of three months was granted 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 country, imposed on 15 December 1991 by Security Council resolution 724). However, if one or more members of the Committee contest the request, the request is subject to one, or at most two, re-examinations. The final decisions of the Committees cannot be appealed. Each of the five categories of goods especially mentioned by the UNSC (arms embargo, travel ban, assets freeze, correspondent account approval and refined petroleum produce) might have slightly different requirements, the procedure for each is detailed on the UNSC website.

NGOs have often criticized Sanctions Committees for the lack of transparency in their decision-making process regarding exemptions. The decisions are taken behind closed doors and do not have to be justified, and no record of the meetings is logged. NGOs also criticize the 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. The Sanctions Committees procedure often weighs against the independence of humanitarian actions undertaken in such circumstances. It asks humanitarian aid organizations to respect specific procedures before being able to offer the urgently needed humanitarian aid, thus delaying its delivery. Moreover, unforeseen consequences of sanctions can have a major impact on the civilian population of a country affected by an armed conflict. For example, the imposition of sanctions by the UN in Iraq since 1989 created a humanitarian disaster, including a health crisis.

3. Humanitarian goods excluded from embargoes

Food, and supplies strictly intended for medical purposes (including 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.

Certain other goods that enable the operation of certain institutions, such as schools and hospitals, which are considered “indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” are known as “goods that are humanitarian by destination.” Such goods 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

For Additional Information:

Biersteker, Thomas, Zuzana Hudakova, and Marcos Tourinho, UN SanctionsApp: An Interactive Database of UN Sanctions , August 2020, https://unsanctionsapp.com.

Caritas Europa, A People Sacrificed: Sanctions against Iraq , February 28, 2001, https://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/people-sacrificed-sanctions-against-iraq-report-caritas-europa

Cortright, David and A. Lopez, George, “Are Sanctions Just? The Problematic Case of Iraq” In Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring 1999): pp. 735-755.

World Health Organisation, The Health Conditions of the population in Iraq since the gulf crisis , WHO/EHA/96.1, March 1996, https://apps.who.int/disasters/repo/5249.html

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