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Syria/Region: Publication

Sanctions and Humanitarian Action in Syria

7 September 2021

Sanctions are a wide range of measures that aim to influence behaviour without involving the use of armed force. This fact sheet provides an overview of how sanctions work, and how they can affect humanitarian action, specifically in the context of the conflict in Syria.

1. How do sanctions work?

Sanctions are a wide range of measures adopted by the UN, regional organisations, such as the EU, and individual states that aim to influence the behaviour of other states, individuals or groups without involving the use of armed force.

Sanctions are permissible, but must not violate other rules of public international law. They should be crafted so as to have maximum impact on those whose behaviour they aim to influence, and to reduce adverse humanitarian effects or unintended consequences for persons not targeted.

2. Who imposes sanctions?

A number of different actors can impose sanctions.

The UN Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, can adopt sanctions. These are binding on all UN member states, which must give effect to them in national law.

The EU gives effect to UN sanctions for EU member states. In addition, it can adopt its own ‘autonomous’ sanctions. These can:

    UN and EU sanctions are implemented by states. They adopt the necessary laws and measures at domestic level, grant licences/authorisations, and enforce the sanctions. They may also adopt additional autonomous sanctions.

    3. What is the objective of sanctions? And how do they seek to achieve it?

    Sanctions seek to bring about a change in the policy or conduct of the persons or groups they target. These objectives could be preserving peace, ending conflicts, promoting compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law, or fighting terrorism.

    Sanctions aim to achieve these objectives by imposing various restrictions on the people or groups whose behaviour they seek to change. These include:

      The restrictions are imposed on ‘listed’ or ‘designated’ people or entities. Usually these are:

        UN and EU sanctions aim to be ‘smart’ or ‘targeted’ i.e., have an adverse effect just on the leadership figures whose behaviour they aim to change. Unilateral measures adopted by some states are broader in scope, and more akin to the comprehensive sanctions on countries that the international community moved away from in the 1990s because of their indiscriminate effects.

        4. Which sanctions must NGOs comply with?

        NGOs and their staff are likely to have to comply with the sanctions adopted by a number of different states.

        Some sanctions are directly applicable to them. These include:

          5. How can sanctions affect humanitarian action?

          Restrictions in sanctions can affect humanitarian action in a number of ways.

            Broader sanctions, such as those imposed by the US, may preclude many forms of support to the government of the state in question, prohibiting the provision of assets and support to ministries and departments responsible for meeting basic needs, such as the ministries of health and education.

            6. How can the tensions between sanctions and humanitarian action be reduced?

            There are a number of ways sanctions can safeguard humanitarian action.

              7. Sanctions imposed in relation to Syria

              Humanitarian action in Syria is affected by sanctions imposed for two principal purposes:

                8. A closer look at US measures

                US Sanctions

                Since 2011, the US has imposed broad sanctions in relation to the conflict in Syria. The key restrictions of relevance to humanitarian actors are:

                  Who, of relevance to humanitarian action, is designated under these sanctions?

                    Are there any exceptions?

                    Different possibilities exist, depending on who is conducting the humanitarian operations and the activities involved:

                      US export restrictions

                      In addition, export licences from the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Department of Commerce (BIS) are required for the export of goods other than food and medicine.

                      This is a different and additional process from applying for specific licences from the Department of Treasury.

                      Export licences are required for medical devices and technology such as computers and software needed for home schooling during COVID-19 lockdowns that contain more than 10% of US components.

                      Export licence applications to Syria are subject to a general policy of denial. Applications may nonetheless be considered on a case-by-case basis for:

                        What does this mean for humanitarian actors?

                        Obtaining export licences is an additional procedure to applying for specific licences in relation to financial sanctions from OFAC. The two processes are not connected. Obtaining export licences is complex and time consuming.

                        9. A closer look at EU sanctions

                        The EU’s Syria sanctions are far more targeted than those adopted by the US. In particular, they do not include prohibitions on the provision of support to
                        the Government.

                        But they include restrictions that can affect humanitarian action such as:

                          Although not prohibited, all these activities must be authorised by Member States. Procedures for obtaining authorisations are complex and slow and differ between the 27 Member States. In May 2020, the European Commission issued guidance on its Syria sanctions. These included three points of particular relevance to humanitarian actors in Syria and elsewhere: