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Is it time to lift sanctions on Syria?

November 15, 2022

An independent UN expert has called for all sanctions against Syria to be lifted. But legal experts and Syrian activists are opposed, saying the expert is misrepresenting the situation.

Thousands of anti-Syrian government protesters shout slogans and wave revolutionary flags
In 2021, 10 years after the revolution began, Syrians in the areas not controlled by Assad were still protestingImage: Ghaith Alsayed/AP/picture alliance

Last week, an independent human rights expert working for the United Nations called for an end to all sanctions on Syria.

"I urge the immediate lifting of all unilateral sanctions that severely harm human rights and prevent any efforts for early recovery," Alena Douhan, a Belarusian law professor and the UN's special rapporteur on human rights and unilateral coercive measures — that is, sanctions imposed by individual countries — said in a statement.

Douhan had just spent 12 days in Syria and in her end-of-mission statement she suggested sanctions on Syria "may amount to crimes against humanity."

Sanctions have been imposed on Syria by European countries and the US since 2011, when the Syrian government, headed by authoritarian leader Bashar Assad, sparked a civil war by brutally cracking down on anti-government demonstrations during the so-called Arab Spring.

A woman with dark hair in a white shirt speaks during a press conference
Special rapporteur Alena Douhan gave a press conference in Damascus last weekImage: Omar Sanadiki/AP/picture alliance

Sanctions are a controversial topic at the best of times, with academics, analysts and politicians often arguing about how effective they really are. There are questions about how much impact sanctions really have on leadership in countries like Syria, Iran or Russia. Often it seems civilians suffer more than their authoritarian rulers.

This was what Douhan's UN report was addressing. But, almost immediately, her report was questioned by Syrian activists as well as experts on sanctions.

In a statement, members of the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition Forces said Douhan was not impartial and was ignoring crimes committed by the Syrian government.

"Douhan didn't comment at all on why sanctions were imposed against the Assad regime in the first place," confirmed Fadel Abdul Ghany, the head of the UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, which has been monitoring human rights violations inside the country since it was founded in 2011.

For example, in her report Douhan talks about how 6.8 million Syrians left the country over the past years "due to poverty and despair." She does not mention that they were also fleeing civil war and brutal repression, activists pointed out. Additionally, they said, the special rapporteur only visited regime-controlled areas of Syria. Organizations that operate there cannot speak out against the government. 

"Assad continues to commit crimes against humanity in Syria," said Abdul Ghany. "Instead of asking for sanctions to be lifted, why didn't she [Douhan] ask that Assad release political prisoners or that he investigate who committed war crimes against ordinary Syrians?"

Douhan's work described as controversial, 'eccentric'

This is not the first time that Douhan's recommendations have caused an uproar. In the recent past, Douhan has issued similar statements suggesting that sanctions on Iran, Venezuela and Zimbabwe be dropped. 

In a recent article in Eucrim, the European criminal law association's magazine, legal expert Anton Moiseienko described Douhan's work as "eccentric" and suggested it was only a matter of time before her opinions were used to argue against sanctions on Russia.

Children in a camp for displaced persons in Darat Izza, northwest of Aleppo.
Around 90% of Syrians now live in poverty, according to aid organizationsImage: Juma Mohammad/Zuma/picture alliance

But Douhan told DW she believes the main reason people get so upset is a basic misunderstanding of her job. The UN has over 40 special rapporteurs, all of whom work in different areas, everything from assessing the situation in a certain country, to issues like housing or child trafficking, or the right to privacy. They are often academics or experts in the field, they are not paid for the job and are only meant to offer an independent opinion.They do not represent the UN's official position.

A very specific UN role

Douhan's particular UN role was created in 2014 by a special resolution, first mooted by Cuba. Many European countries, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, voted against it. But countries like Russia, China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia backed the resolution. Douhan's job is, quite literally, to look only at the negative impact of sanctions on human rights.

"People often think that when I go to certain countries, I should be asking the government questions about human rights but that is not part of my mandate," explained Douhan, who's been in the role since March 2020. As she sees it, her work is not political.

It is true that people don't understand her mandate, agreed Karam Shaar, a political economist and expert on Syrian sanctions who has authored multiple reports on the topic. "But I believe the topic of sanctions is far more nuanced than is presented in the rapporteur's report. She fails to prove causality and she fails to communicate the nuances related to that too," he told DW.

Syrians stage a protest against Bashar al-Assad regime
Syrian activists say the Assad regime always wants the international community to discuss sanctions, but won't take responsibilityImage: Muhammed Abdullah/AA/picture alliance

Anybody who works in this area knows how difficult it is to figure out causality, or exactly how certain sanctions impact a country, Shaar said. For example, it's about things like the impact of civil war, displacement, corruption, the emergence of warlords and many other factors, and how they are all connected, he explained.  

"But the rapporteur seems very certain that everything bad that is happening in the country is due to sanctions," Shaar noted. "She does not look at the wider context."

Better sanctions are possible

Having said that, sanctions experts do agree with the special rapporteur on some points. "I don't question that sanctions have negative impacts on human rights," Shaar said. "Nobody can argue that. But we should be talking about the context and the rest of the story, too."

Both Shaar and Abdul Ghany, of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, think sanctions need to be evaluated regularly to see what impact they are having, as this can change over time. Both also believe in what are known as "smart sanctions." These are more selective sanctions that target specific groups or people, rather than whole sectors, and are meant to minimize unintended suffering.

Later this week, Berlin-based Syrian civil society organization, Adopt A Revolution, will publish a new report by several Syrian legal experts looking at how sanctions on their country could be improved. Besides regular evaluations of unintended impacts, the experts also suggested the continuation of exemptions for humanitarian and medical goods, improved information on impacts and better communication directed at sanctioned individuals telling them how they can get off the sanctions list. 

They also recommend better monitoring of overcompliance — for example, when a German bank won't work with a Syrian civil society group because they're worried about US financial sanctions. In other words, the bank errs on the safe side. Getting money in and out of Syria is an ongoing problem for many ordinary Syrians.

Presumed innocent?

UN special rapporteur Douhan has a different view. Asked whether she thinks sanctions imposed by individual countries can be positive in any way, her answer is a pointed "no."

Douhan believes sanctions should adhere to international law, and should only be imposed by bodies like the UN Security Council, or UNSC. There are other ways for nations to show their displeasure, she argued, such as, for example, curtailing trade agreements or reducing diplomatic presence.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (left) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin light candles in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Dormition
Russia's President Putin (right) has supported Assad (left) militarily against anti-government opposition since 2015Image: Alexei Druzhinin/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

As for targeting individuals with so-called smart sanctions, this too should be done within international law, Douhan argued. "If a head of state committed a crime, it should be proven in due process [a fair trial] and that's a case for the UNSC," she said, adding that only then should they be punished with sanctions. Douhan also added that it was not within her mandate to talk about the Syrian president.

However, at the UNSC resolutions regarding Syria have regularly been vetoed by Russia, whether they were about cross-border humanitarian aid in 2020, or the condemnation of the abuse of anti-government demonstrators back in 2011. Russia and Syria are close allies, and the Russian air force was instrumental in turning the tide of the Syrian civil war in Assad's favor. 

It is highly unlikely that the UNSC would refer somebody like the Syrian president to the International Criminal Court for a trial, and it is just as unlikely to sanction him.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler