Michele Bachelet, Presidente of Chile speaks during Special Session of the Human Rights Council. 29 March 2017.

“Broad sectoral sanctions” on countries such as Zimbabwe should urgently be re-evaluated as the measures could cripple their capacity to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the UN High Commission for Human Rights says.

Any sanctions could potentially have “debilitating impact on the health sector and human rights”, Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

Global banks are especially wary of dealing with Zimbabwe due to US sanctions on the country, which impose heavy fines on institutions that handle transactions on behalf of listed Zimbabwean entities and individuals.

Bachelet mentioned Zimbabwe among countries such as Venezuela, Iran and Cuba, where she said sanctions measures could delay movement of medical supplies.

“The majority of these states have frail or weak health systems. Progress in upholding human rights is essential to improve those systems – but obstacles to the import of vital medical supplies, including over-compliance with sanctions by banks, will create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities.

“The populations in these countries are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions, and to varying degrees have already been living in a precarious situation for prolonged periods.”

The US insists that its sanctions are only targeted at a select few individuals and entities that are responsible for rights violations in the country. The US embassy in Harare in 2019 launched a strong publicity campaign against government charges that American sanctions are behind Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.

According to Bachelet, any form of sanctions must be suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic to protect vulnerable health systems.

“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us,” she said.

“Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorisation for essential medical equipment and supplies,” Bachelet said.

In Iran, where at least 1,800 people have died from COVID-19, human rights reports have emphasised the impact of sectoral sanctions on access to essential medicines and medical equipment – including respirators and protective equipment for health-care workers.

More than 50 Iranian medics have died since the first cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus were detected five weeks ago.

“It is especially important to protect the health of health-workers themselves, and medical professionals should never be punished by the authorities for pointing out deficiencies in the response to the crisis,” Bachelet said. “Doctors, medics and all those working in health structures are in the front line, protecting us all.”

Bachelet however said countries under sanctions should provide transparent information, allow humanitarian assistance, and prioritise the needs and rights of vulnerable people.

“No country can effectively combat this epidemic on its own. We need to act with solidarity, cooperation and care,” she said.  – Newzwire