Updated: Aug 26, 2020


The US-Iran conflict has raged on for more than 65 years, reaching its culmination and threatening a World War in January 2020 with the assassination of General Soleimani, a widely celebrated and revered war hero and military general in the Middle East. However, the threat of a hot war has been brought to an abrupt halt due to the deadly spread of COVID-19 as both countries face a major challenge in effectively containing the highly infectious disease. Moreover, amidst the raging pandemic, the Trump administration has re-imposed severe sanctions on Iran that have had a catastrophic impact on the country’s fight against the virus. The article analyses in detail these sanctions, their impact and why America’s actions are a blatant violation of international obligations.

The US Strategy of “Maximum Pressure”

Today, Iran is facing the toughest economic sanctions in history that are drying out its oil revenues and isolating its economy because of the “maximum pressure” strategy of the US government. Certain categories of sanctions, such as those on banking, finance and shipping have directly caused shortages of medical equipment and created an overall negative impact on Iran’s health sector. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said that this “economic terrorism” has “drained Iran’s economic resources” and Iranian authorities are also arguing that American sanctions are crippling an already collapsing healthcare system, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths.” While it is true that the Iranian government has failed to take appropriate measures at the correct time to tackle the spread of the virus, it is also undeniable that American actions have proved to be fatal for the Iranian population. These sanctions are also hampering the delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN and other international organizations. Recently, America also blocked Iran’s requests for $5 billion in emergency aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on the grounds that it is fearful of the loan being used for state-sponsored terrorism, instead of battling coronavirus in the country.

International Obligations: Economic Sanctions and Rights

America’s continued imposition of sanctions during the ongoing pandemic is in direct violation of Iranian’s Right to Health. The Right to Health or “The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” is an essential part of the Human Rights framework and is fundamental to achieving human dignity for all. Right to health has two critical components: equality and non-discrimination. This implies that states must ensure there is no distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of various grounds which may have an effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of the right to health. That being said, the right extends special protection to vulnerable groups such as women, children, persons with a disability, or persons living with HIV/AIDS. The right also takes into account underlying determinants of health that protect and promote health for individuals and communities, such as the right to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, right to safe food, and right to adequate nutrition and housing.

The Right to Health is protected under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It also finds mention in Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Article 25 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), amongst others.

Human Rights cannot function in isolation and rather, are indivisible and interrelated. Hence, a violation of Right to Health would, in turn, have a detrimental effect on other human rights such as Right to Life, Right to Education and Right to Work. Henceforth, enjoyment of the right to health is dependent on and contributes to, the enjoyment of other human rights.

CESCR General Comment No. 14 states that all States must uphold the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health in other countries, placing an obligation on the US to ensure its actions do not violate the same in Iran. More specifically, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) instruments such as The Hague Convention, The Geneva Conventions etc. provide limitations on sanctions through Humanitarian and Human Rights Law. Accordingly, all States imposing economic sanctions must consider the impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially regarding their access to essential commodities, including medicines and food. Further, IHL dictates that in times of crisis, the value of human life is utmost and eminently superior to any political or economic considerations.

The US is in direct breach of these obligations as the Iranian people continue to suffer under devastating sanctions that have a direct effect on the availability and quality of health care facilities- which form an essential element of the right to health.

Global Backlash and Criticism

International Organizations have warned that the consequence of continued sanctions could mean absolute catastrophe. The Human Rights Watch has urged Iran to ensure that its domestic funds are being used in providing better healthcare for its people. Iran was also advised to release all political prisoners and dissenters as a peace offering while asking America to reconsider economic sanctions that could block Iran’s access to essential commodities required in containing the virus. Michelle Bachelet, The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has advised members of the United Nations (UN) to ease all sanctions imposed on other countries to allow medical systems throughout the world to effectively limit the contagion. She stressed on how American sanctions are choking Iran’s supply of medicines and medical equipment- from ventilators to protective gear for frontline workers. As a result, over a 100 medical professionals have already lost their lives and over 10,000 have been infected in Iran. Subsequently, several nations such as China, UK and Russia have urged the US to lift such restrictions on humanitarian grounds. The UN has also called for a global ceasefire to focus all resources on defeating the “true fight of our lives” and has expressed deep concerns at the imposition of unilateral coercive measures on Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

Conclusion: The way forward

In such precarious times, the respect and fulfilment of International obligations is paramount since the true victory over global crises such as coronavirus requires dedicated international co-operation. In the same spirit, America must immediately ease-out all sanctions, even if just as a temporary humane measure and not contribute more to the spread of this humanitarian disaster in Iran.

Title image source: Foreign Policy. Original source: Getty Images.

NOTE: Via this (Title Image) image, HRLPR does not intend to create hatred or disaffection towards any community or leader. It is merely for creative visualisation.

Nalinaksha Singh is a BA.LLB candidate at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. The author has previously written for the Oxford Human Rights Hub (OxHRH) Blog and has a keen interest in International Law, Constitutional Law and Equality Law.