NicaNotes: Unilateral Coercive Measures and Human Rights

By Alfred de Zayas

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books.

[This article was first published in Counterpunch on Dec. 29, 2023.]

As a matter of proper terminology, it is best not to use the term “sanctions” too loosely, because the term is judgmental and implies that the entity imposing them has the legal or moral authority to do so. This is the case, for example, when the United Nations imposes certain coercive measures under article 41 of the Charter. By contrast, what politicians and media routinely denominate sanctions are actually “unilateral coercive measures” (UCMs) imposed by a country in pursuance of its geopolitical agenda and lacking any international legitimacy. Such measures actually constitute the “use of force” within the meaning of Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, and their purpose is also illegitimate since they entail the unlawful interference in the internal affairs of other States. For decades the General Assembly, the UN Commission on Human Rights and more recently the Human Rights Council have rejected UCMs as contrary to the UN Charter, customary international law, and the principles of freedom of trade and navigation.  More than two thirds of the international community reject them.

The “sanctions” currently being imposed by the United States on some thirty countries do not qualify as “retorsion” or “countermeasures” under articles 49/50 of the Code on Responsibility of States adopted by the UN International Law Commission in 2001.  Unilateral coercive measures constitute “collective punishment” against innocent persons and contravene the very foundations of the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and the principle of individual responsibility.

The impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights is predictable, demonstrable and measurable. UCMs dislocate the economies of the targeted countries, adversely affecting the standard of living of entire populations, restricting their access to food, water and sanitation, medicines, health services, shelter, education, employment, etc. and making the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals illusory.

Bearing in mind that human rights are interrelated and interdependent, it is inevitable that violations of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) will also engender violations of the civil and political rights enunciated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). UCMs also directly violate civil rights laid down in domestic legislation and numerous other international agreements, and raise issues under the following provisions of the ICCPR:

Art. 1 – the individual and collective right of self-determination of peoples, the right over their natural wealth and resources, the right to property, the right not to be deprived of means of subsistence.

Art. 2 – the right to a remedy

Art. 3 – women’s rights, since women disproportionately bear the consequences of the dislocations caused by UCMs

Art. 6 – the right to life.  UCMs demonstrably kill.

Art. 7 – the right not to be subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment

Art. 12 – freedom of movement

Art. 14 – due process of law, the prohibition of collective punishment, the presumption of innocence

Art. 17 – honour and reputation of persons whose names appear on sanctions lists

Art. 20 – the prohibition of war propaganda and incitement to hatred.  UCMs are routinely accompanied by fake news, fake history, negative stereotypes, hate speech against China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria, Russia, Venezuela, etc.  The media campaign of Russophobia and Sinophobia have been crucial in the attempt to render UCMs palatable to a democratic society.

Art. 22 – freedom of association.  Individuals and groups are frequently made to suffer defamation and financial loss just because of their association with persons or countries subjected to UCMs.  Even UN sanctions regimes can adversely affect the right of freedom of association.

Art. 24 – rights of the child.  UCMs are a factor in the rise of infant mortality and in the violation of the right to health and physical integrity of children.

Art. 26 – the prohibition of discrimination, in particular when assets are frozen or confiscated on a discriminatory or arbitrary fashion.

The gravity of the impact of unilateral coercive measures cannot be overstated, but the gravest violation of the human rights of individuals and groups is the violation of the right to life.  In countries like Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela, UCMs kill people by making it nearly impossible for the targeted governments to obtain sufficient food, medicines and replacement parts for medical equipment necessary to prevent deaths.  UCMs have caused desperation and consequent suicides, triggered uncontrolled migration flows, sometimes accompanied by tragedy in the seas.

Unilateral coercive measures entail a revolt against fundamental principles of the UN Charter, international law and international order.  Most importantly, it must be finally understood that UCMs are not innocent tools of “soft power”.  UCMs kill, just as much as bullets in war.  The level of deaths caused by UCMs in some 30 countries over the past decades are sufficient to raise issues under the 1948 Genocide Convention, which stipulates inter alia

“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part …”

Besides the assault on the right to life, UCMs seriously affect the right to property, which is protected in the domestic legislation of most countries.  Interestingly enough, the right to property is not specifically protected in the ICCPR, but article 26 ICCPR would be violated if the property were confiscated or frozen in a discriminatory fashion.  The right to property is protected ratione materiae in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and in the domestic legislation of most countries.  WTO law provides for the protection of private property, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade prohibits restrictions of imports and exports, as well as the freezing of assets and the restriction of international transfers and payments.

Another consequence of unilateral coercive measures is their impact as a “push factor” generating uncontrolled migration movements.  In this context it is pertinent to make a distinction between the legal regimes protecting the rights of refugees and migrants.  As I learned during my 2017 mission to Venezuela as UN Independent Expert on International Order, the vast majority of the persons who have been constrained to leave Venezuela since 2015 did not do so because of political persecution, but because of the economic crisis brought about by UCMs, because enterprises went bankrupt, people lost their jobs and could not feed their families.

In a more general sense, UCM’s constitute an attack on democracy itself, bearing in mind that UCMs deliberately aim at imposing one country’s economic system on another, thereby violating the right of the targeted nation to choose its own form of government. UCM pressures are incompatible with paragraph 135 of General Assembly Resolution 60/1, which stipulates:

“We reaffirm that democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. We also reaffirm that while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy, that it does not belong to any country or region, and reaffirm the necessity of due respect for sovereignty and the right of self-determination. We stress that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”

Purposes and effectiveness of UCMs

Pronouncements by many US government officials since the days of President J.F. Kennedy document the real intent of US coercive legislation and financial blockades.  A good explanation of the purpose of UCMs with regard to the Cuban embargo is contained in the statement of the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Lester Mallory in 1960.  He stated:

“The majority of Cubans support Castro … The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship … Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba … A line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of Government.”

In other words, the purpose of unilateral coercive measures is to cause suffering in the hope that chaos will lead to violence and “regime change”.  Yet, in more than sixty years, the UCMs and financial blockades against Cuba did not succeed in inducing the Cuban population to overthrow their government.  The same applies to Nicaragua, where US coercive measures since the 1980s failed to dislodge the Sandinistas.  Ditto in Venezuela, where the economic war since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 and the attempted coups in 2002 and 2019 have failed.

Over the past years, a less offensive narrative has been concocted to try to make the geopolitical nature of unilateral coercive measures appear reasonable and acceptable. According to the new apologetics, UCMs are intended to advance “human rights” and “persuade” the targeted governments to change their economic policies and make them more in line with those of the world leader in human rights, namely the United States. In order to make UCMs appear more “palatable” to a democratic electorate, propaganda is deployed to demonize the targeted governments, placing the blame on their “authoritarian” and “corrupt” leaders, who are allegedly guilty of gross violations of human rights and democratic principles.

UCMs are presented as a form of benign pressure aimed at bringing an end to alleged human rights violations.  Actually, there is little new in this tactic.  Already Tacitus in the first century AD noted that it is human nature to try to blame the victims of our actions.  Government propaganda and the echo chambers of the mainstream media are enough to anaesthetize the electorate of democratic countries so that they “accept” the moral legitimacy of UCMs.  This kind of demonization of foreign governments includes false accusations of being “sponsors of terrorism” and therefore constitute a threat to the “national security” of the country imposing the UCMs. This is compounded by a hybrid media war that incites hatred and clearly violates article 20 of the ICCPR.

Human rights restrictions by the targeted State in response to UCMs

As shown above, the purpose of UCMs is to cause chaos, a national emergency, a volatile situation with unpredictable consequences.  At the same time, the political narrative continues to invoke human rights and humanitarian principles as their true purpose. However, there is no empirical evidence whatever to prove that countries subjected to UCM have improved their human rights records.

Experience shows that when a country is at war – any kind of war — it usually derogates from some civil and political rights.  Similarly, when a country is enduring non-conventional hybrid warfare and is subjected to UCMs and financial blockades, the result is not an expansion of human rights, but exactly the opposite.  When UCMs trigger economic and social crises, governments routinely impose extraordinary measures and justify them because of the “national emergency”.  Accordingly, as in classical war situations, when a country is subject to a siege, it closes ranks in an attempt to reestablish stability through the temporary restriction of certain civil and political rights.

Article 4 ICCPR envisages the possibility that governments may impose certain temporary restrictions, e.g. the derogation from Art. 9 (detention), Art. 14 (fair trial proceedings), Art. 19 (freedom of expression), Art. 21 (freedom of peaceful assembly), Art. 25 (periodic elections).  While such derogations are undesirable and should be as brief as possible, every state’s priority is survival, the defence of its sovereignty and identity.  International law recognizes that governments have a certain margin of discretion in determining the existential threats posed by internal or external danger, whether by UCMs, paramilitary activities, subversive propaganda or sabotage.

Article 4 ICCPR stipulates:  “In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law and do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.”

Scholars have documented how external pressures to destabilize targeted governments have resulted in the adoption of emergency legislation in response.  This has been the case in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where the enjoyment of certain civil rights has been restricted in the name of national security.  Accordingly, it can be demonstrated that far from facilitating the improvement of the human rights situation in a targeted country, UCMs often result in the enactment or strengthening of restrictive domestic legislation that aim at maintaining stability and safeguarding vital interests.  In such cases UCMs reveal themselves as counter-productive.

If the international community wants to help a country improve its human rights performance, it should endeavour to eliminate the threats that make governments retrench instead of opening-up.  Precisely because UCMs aggravate a country’s economic and social situation and disrupt the proper functioning of state institutions, they actually weaken the rule of law and lead to retrogression in human rights terms.

In the light of the continuing threats by some politicians against countries subjected to UCMs, it would seem that an old French adage applies:

— la bête est très méchante, lorsqu’on l’attaque, elle se défend.

The beast is very nasty — when you attack it, it defends itself.

Another collateral effect of UCMs is that targeted governments frequently use their own propaganda means to bring about a “rallying around the flag” effect, emphasizing national identity and “embattled sovereignty”. North Korean and Iranian leaders have succeeded in appealing to nationalistic feelings among their populations in an attempt to make them accept the government’s resilience to sanctions. During my UN mission to Venezuela in November/December 2017, I discovered that the mood in the population, universities and churches was one of being under “siege” by the US, and a majority of those whom I interviewed, including dozens of persons active in the large NGO community, blamed the US for their misery and not the Maduro government.

The bottom line is that “democracy” cannot be exported and imposed by force, that human rights are not the result of a vertical, top-down enforcement but rather require a horizontal recognition of the dignity of every human being. The exercise of human rights depends on peace, education, mutual respect and solidarity.

In my own reports to the General Assembly and Human Rights Council, I have proposed that the General Assembly adopt a resolution under article 96 of the UN Charter referring the legal questions around unilateral coercive measures to the International Court of Justice, requesting an advisory opinion on the consequences of the continued imposition and enforcement of UCMs.  The ICJ should also estimate the level of compensation due to the victims of these international wrongful acts.


By Nan McCurdy

Progress in Caribbean Coast Electoral Process 
On Feb. 22, the Nicaragua Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) presented a report on progress in the electoral process leading up to the March 3rd regional elections in the North and South Caribbean Coast regions (RAAN and RAAS). The report states that political parties and electoral alliances presented their provisional lists of candidates for members of the Regional Councils. The report also noted that the authorities that will make up the 15 Regional and Municipal Electoral Councils have been sworn in and, in compliance with the Law on Equal Rights and Opportunities, eight women will head Electoral Councils and seven will be headed by men. CSE President Magistrate Brenda Rocha explained that “In the upcoming elections there will be 308 Voting Centers and 751 Voting Stations (polling places) to ensure an agile and transparent electoral process for the 500,000 citizens that make up the regional electoral registry and are eligible to exercise their right to vote on the Caribbean Coast.” (Nicaragua News, 23 February, 2024)

Palestine Thanks Nicaragua for its Unwavering Support
The Palestinian National Council thanked Nicaragua for its outstanding position in defense and support of the Palestinian cause and the struggle for its liberation.

In the letter signed by Council President Rawhi Fattouh and addressed to President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, Fattouh expressed his sincere appreciation and gratitude for Nicaragua’s courageous position in supporting the case of South Africa at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He highlighted Nicaragua’s stance in defending human lives, human rights and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. In the letter, Fattouh recognizes that they have the support of Nicaragua and the free people around the world who defend justice, freedom and firmly oppose the 75 years of oppression of the Palestinian people and the complicity of the US in aiding and abetting that oppression. Finally, he states that he hopes to deepen the relationship between the two nations and increase ties of cooperation. Nicaragua was the first country to formally ask to join the court case against Israel initiated by South Africa. The Anti-Apartheid Department of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) called on all free countries to support South Africa’s position and join the lawsuit. It also expressed the need to boycott and isolate the occupying state and hold it accountable for all the crimes it has committed against the Palestinian people, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced displacement and settlements. (La Primerisima, 24 and 28 January 2024)

Malnutrition in Children Drops
Last week, the Ministry of Health presented its report on the 2023 Nutritional Census, carried out to study the nutritional conditions of children from birth to 14 years of age in rural and urban areas of the country. The census surveyed 1.4 million boys and girls in 2023, finding that between 2022 and 2023 acute malnutrition in children between the ages of zero and six years was reduced 9.3% and chronic malnutrition fell 8.2%. In children ages six to 14, acute malnutrition fell 13% and chronic malnutrition fell 4.3%. Health Minister Martha Reyes explained that “With this data, programs like Zero Hunger, Family Gardens, School Lunches, Food Production Bonus, the Family Support Plan and the Healthy Schools Plan will be strengthened, enhancing efforts to eradicate malnutrition through adequate nutrition guidelines, vaccination and periodic weight and height monitoring of children.” (Nicaragua News, January 25, 2024)

South Korea Supports Livestock and Sesame Development
Authorities of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) and the Korean Cooperation Agency Kopia signed a cooperation agreement to support the continuity of livestock and sesame development in the country. The agreement will have a duration of three years in order to increase sesame planting areas and sesame yield as well as genetic improvement in milk and meat. During the signing of the agreement, the director of INTA, Miguel Obando, said that INTA expects that more than 2,000 sesame producers and 3,000 livestock farmers will benefit. Korean ambassador Jeahoon Min explained that the signing also represents an economic collaboration of US$240,000 for each project to achieve the improvement objectives. (La Primerisima, 25 January, 2024)

Ensuring Health Services for North Caribbean Coast
The Ministry of Health announced that, within the framework of the My Hospital for my Community Health Campaign, medical brigades at the Nuevo Amanecer Regional Hospital carried out 15,000 medical consultations and programmed surgeries in nine specialties in three municipalities of the Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region, benefiting more than 5,000 Indigenous and Afro-descendant inhabitants. The campaign is part of the Family and Community Healthcare Model being implemented nationwide. (Nicaragua News, January 29, 2024)

Over 400 Bluefields Families Receive Affordable Housing
The Municipality of Bluefields and Institute of Housing have radically changed the living conditions of 419 families who have received decent housing free of charge. These houses have provided happiness and, above all, stability and security to the families.

Mayor Gustavo Castro said that the delivery of the houses has given a 360-degree turnaround to the beneficiaries and that the government is committed to continue lifting this region of the country out of poverty. The mayor explained that the houses are aimed at low-income families or where there are people with disabilities, humble families that with the few resources they receive do not have the ability to build a house. Beneficiary María Tenorio Corea said that, thanks to the government, her children have something secure. Last year the roof of the house where they lived was bad, they were afraid of a hurricane, but now she says they feel safe and live in better conditions. (La Primerisima, 30 January 2024)

President Ortega Ranks High in Government Management
On January 24 M&R Consultants polling firm presented the results of its most recent regional survey “Approval of Government Management in the Americas,” corresponding to the third quarter of 2023. The survey states that with 83.4% job approval, President Daniel Ortega ranks second in the Americas among the best evaluated Presidents, surpassed only by Nayib Bukele of El Salvador with 84.4% job approval. It added that the Nicaragua Government registered 85.6 on the Government Management Capacity Index, ranking first in the region followed by the Government of El Salvador with an index of 83.5; Mexico (61.3); Costa Rica (49.3); Dominican Republic (48.6) and Uruguay (42.7). (Nicaragua News, 25 January 2024)

Government Provides Gifts to Children as School Year Begins
More than 1,800,000 students across the country return to the classroom on January 29 to start the 2024 school year. Products were delivered to public and subsidized schools to guarantee a meal to students in the classrooms. Backpacks were also delivered to students and briefcases with materials to teachers. The Ministry of Health carried out a fumigation day in schools to eliminate mosquitoes. The students starting classes were enrolled in Initial, Special, Primary and Regular Secondary Education and Normal Schools. The Ministry of Education delivered also toys this past weekend to students of kindergarten, special education and first and second grade prior to the beginning of the 2024 school year. The children received dump trucks, dinosaurs, balls, bows and arrows, billiard tables, dolls, cup sets, dollhouses, among others. The gifts have been distributed to the children by teachers in the schools. See photos: (La Primerisima, 28 January 2024)

Ensuring Good Education and Facilities
On Jan. 29 the Ministry of Education reported that US$2.4 million was invested to rehabilitate, expand, and equip the Blanca Aráuz School in Managua, benefiting 1,757 students. The financing is part of the Project for Improvement and Rehabilitation of Educational Centers that the government is implementing throughout the country, ensuring access to free and quality education for all. (Nicaragua News, 30 January 2024)

More than 4,000 Inmates Begin 2024 School Year
On Jan. 30 more than 4,400 inmates began the 2024 school year in the country’s penitentiaries. The different courses that are taught include literacy, primary, secondary and even university subjects such as agribusiness, all coordinated with the Ministry of Education and the National Agrarian University. Commissioner René Vargas Artola, director of penal education said, “We have an enrollment of 4,461, including men and women.” He also said that higher technical courses of study with a duration of three years will begin in coordination with INATEC: In Matagalpa, agronomy; and in Estelí, business administration and accounting. “The prison sentences are educational and every prisoner has the opportunity to improve himself or herself,” he added. Enrollment this year 2024 is higher than in 2023 and new students will continue to be recruited in all study levels during the month of February. See photos:
(La Primerisima, 30 January 2024)

President Xi Jinping Receives Credentials from Ambassador Campbell
On Jan. 30 the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, received the credentials of Nicaraguan Ambassador Michael Campbell Hooker. During a ceremony in which he also received the credentials of 42 other ambassadors, President Xi stressed that China values its bilateral relations with all countries in the world, which are based on respect, solidarity and mutually beneficial cooperation. See photos: (La Primerisima, 30 January 2024)