Anti-Iran Sanctions (No. 6) Dan Kovalik: Unilateral Sanctions Are Disallowed UN Charter

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Dan Kovalik
By: Kourosh Ziabari

For more than 35 years, the United States has been imposing harsh economic sanctions on Iran based on unfounded and unsubstantiated charges for which it has never presented any reliable evidence or convincing reasons. Regrettably, the United States has never felt responsible for presenting a logical justification for its confrontational and hostile attitude toward the Iranian people; an attitude which has been stiffened and hardened over the past decade as Iran’s nuclear program was irrationally turned into the scene of an erosive conflict between Iran and the West. Aside from the sanctions the UN Security Council has imposed on Iran, the U.S. has prodded its allies in Asia, Africa and Europe to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran to shatter Iran’s economy and force it into making nuclear and political concessions.

However, there are conscientious and erudite legal experts in the United States who possess very precious information about the illegality and futility of the anti-Iran sanctions. One of these people is Prof. Dan Kovalik. Daniel Kovalik graduated from the Columbia University School of Law in 1993. He is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law. He is a Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO (USW). The Christian Science Monitor, referring to his work defending Colombian unionists under threat of assassination, recently described Mr. Kovalik as “one of the most prominent defenders of Colombian workers in the United States.”

Prof. Kovalik took part in an exclusive interview with Iran Review and described his insightful viewpoints regarding the anti-Iran sanctions from a legal perspective. He has described why the UN Charter disallows the imposition of unilateral sanctions against a sovereign country and prevents the member states from using instruments of coercion and intimidation against another country, especially in a time when the wrongdoing or crime of that country has not been judicially proved. He says that these unilateral sanctions are equivalent to an act of war and collective punishment which are forbidden by the international law. What follows is the text of our interview.

Q: Would you please touch upon the legal aspect of unilateral sanctions, not necessarily those which are imposed against Iran, as stipulated by the documents of the United Nations? Can the unilateral sanctions be categorized as part of the punitive measures foreseen in the Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter?

A: In short, Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which deals with the actions of the Security Council in the interests of maintaining international peace and security, by definition disallows the right of countries, such as the U.S., to act unilaterally in imposing economic sanctions – an act of war – against another sovereign nation.  

As Noam Chomsky first taught me, the entire UN structure, created as it was after the devastation of World War II, was designed to prevent international armed conflict. Indeed, this is right in the preamble of the UN Charter which talks about saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind . . .”   And, the framers of the UN Charter made it clear in this document that “the scourge of war” is best avoided when states do not act unilaterally against other states. And so, if we look at Article I, Section I of the Charter, it says, right up front, “[t]o maintain international peace and security, and to that end:  to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace . . . .”  Again, the Charter makes it clear that the UN will rely on “collective measures,” decided on by the consensus of the member states of the Security Council, rather than the unilateral measures of such rogue states as the U.S., to ensure peace and security.

Furthermore, Article 2, Section 1 makes it clear that “The Organization [the UN] is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”  In other words, no country is considered better, or more important, than another. Inherent in this statement is the prohibition against one state (usually by virtue of its greater size, military might, economic status) to attempt to exert its influence over another state by force.  

And indeed, in Article 2, Section 4, it clearly states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…”   A state’s unilateral use of economic sanctions against another state in order to coerce that latter state to bend to its will would in fact constitute an illegal “use of force” under this Section.

Q: Don’t you think that setting the focus of the sanctions on basic staples and goods, especially medicines, is tantamount to a continued and systematic violation of the human rights?

A: Yes, this is both a violation of human rights as well as a violation of international law. Indeed, lest there be any doubt about this, the UN General Assembly, on October 24, 1970, passed the Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (“Declaration”), which made this clear. Thus, in this document, the UN stated that “armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements are in violation of international law.” This document goes on to state that  “[n]o State may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.” Indeed, the use of economic sanctions to coerce the civilian population of a sovereign nation to take political action (in this case, against the Iranian government) fits the very definition of “terrorism” used by the U.S. government itself. 

I would further note that this Declaration also provide that “no State shall organize, assist, foment, finance, incite or tolerate subversive, terrorist or armed activities directed towards the violent overthrow of the regime of another State, or interfere in civil strife in another State.” Of course, the U.S. has for many years, as I learned from Seymour Hersh, violated this prohibition by training and supporting the anti-government terrorist group in Iran known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (“MEK.”).

Indeed, the U.S. was found guilty by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1986 for doing the very same in Nicaragua – i.e., by training and funding the Nicaraguan Contras. Of course, the U.S., believing itself to be above the law in all respects, never paid the penalty ordered by the ICJ in that case which was captioned, Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. U.S.).

Q: Is the United States entitled to the right to ask the international community to implement its domestic laws and regulations and stop doing business with Iran only on the basis that it has pioneered sanctions on Iran?

A: It is my opinion that this conduct would violate the Declaration’s proviso that “no State may encourage the use of economic . . . or any other type of measures to coerce another State.”

Q: It seems that the sanctions are not simply aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. The main objective of the sanctions is seemingly to create social unrest in Iran which can finally lead to a regime change. So, what’s the message which the sanctions impart? Diplomacy or conspiracy?

A: Indeed, the U.S.’s use of economic coercion against the civilian population to try to encourage it to engage in regime change is, quite simply, “terrorism.”   As Noam Chomsky has astutely pointed out, the U.S.’s own Army Manuals define “terrorism” as follows: “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature...through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.”

The U.S. is using the violence of economic sanctions to squeeze the civilian population of Iran in order to advance the U.S.’s political goal of regime change. This fits the U.S’s own definition of “terrorism.”

Q: Have there been other instances of unilateral sanctions against a certain country other than Iran? Have the sanctions been as extensive and comprehensive as those which are imposed on Iran? What were the impacts of these sanctions?

A: Of course, the quintessential case of unilateral sanctions is that which the U.S. has imposed against Cuba for the past fifty-plus years. These sanctions have been thorough and comprehensive, even to the extent of amounting to an embargo.  The embargo against Cuba, which has been denounced by the UN General Assembly time and time again with few dissenters, has done billions of dollars of damage to the Cuban economy and has pushed Cuba, especially during the 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the brink of economic ruin. It is actually a credit to the Cuban people, and to the Cuban government as well, that they have been able to manage the crisis brought on by the U.S. sanctions, even to the point of being able to provide exemplary healthcare to their own people as well as to many other people in the Global South. But again, the price of these sanctions has truly been immeasurable for the Cuban people.

The other classic case of sanctions, this time UN-approved sanctions, were those against Iran’s neighbor Iraq.   While those sanctions were UN-approved, many in the UN, including the UN Secretary General himself, Koffi Annan, ended up decrying them due to the incredible humanitarian toll brought about by them. Thus, these sanctions literally killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, including up to 500,000 children. As we all know, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when questioned about the loss of so many children due to these sanctions, stated, “we think the price is worth it.” This response, from the U.S.’s highest diplomatic official, exposes the cruel mentality of U.S. officialdom towards peoples it views with hostility simply because they are not allowing themselves and their country to be wholly exploited by the U.S. and its multi-nationals.

Q: Cutting Iran’s access to such mechanisms as SWIFT has made some countries like the BRICS member states think that the infrastructures of global economy are not completely reliable as they may boycott one country for political reasons some day. As a result, there are discussions underway among these countries to devise alternative mechanisms and solutions. Doesn’t political treatment of these mechanisms decrease their credibility among the world nations?

A: Yes, while it is claimed that the global capitalist economy is run pursuant to some “invisible hand” of the market, it is in fact run by the rich few in support of their own interests, and to the great detriment of the vast majority of the world’s peoples. This has been exposed time and time again, most recently by the world banking collapse of 2008. And indeed, the great “crime” which the U.S. and its allied NATO countries were really attempting to prevent Muammar Gaddafi of Libya from committing was attempting to create an African Bank which would be independent of the IMF and other Western financial institutions. The U.S. does not look very kindly on such efforts of nations to act independently of the Western-dominated economic system, and it will use extreme violence to prevent such acts.

Q: Are there legal ways to file lawsuit against the states which unilaterally and outside the framework of the Security Council impose sanctions on other countries? Do the unilateral sanctions have legal warranty and are the UN member states obliged to abide by the decisions of a certain power in imposing unilateral sanctions against another country?

A: There is a legal mechanism for challenging the unilateral and illegal use of force (in this case, by sanctions as well as the support of terrorist groups) by the U.S. against Iran, and that is through a case against the U.S. before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – a Court created pursuant to the UN Charter itself. Indeed, I would urge Iranian legal advocates to take a close look at the case of Nicaragua v. U.S. for precedent for such a legal action.
Q: The economic sanctions which have been imposed on Iran are deteriorating the daily lives of the ordinary Iranian citizens by denying them access to foodstuff, medicine, agricultural crops, safe and secure aviation fleet, sustainable energy resources, etc. Some political commentators and lawyers believe that these sanctions signify collective punishment, and collective punishment is a crime under the international law. What’s your perspective toward this analysis?

A: I am in full agreement with other legal scholars who believe that the economic sanctions against Iran, focused at they are in undermining the very survival of the civilian population itself, amount to a form of collective punishment outlawed by the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions alike. There is never a justification for such collective punishment of civilians. Indeed, even a legitimate claim of self-defense would not justify such collective punishment under international law.

Moreover, I would emphasize that the U.S., the state in the world with the largest nuclear arsenal, has no legitimate claim of self-defense in any case. Thus, the mere fact that Iran has a nuclear program -- which, by the estimates of U.S. intelligence, is years away from even having the potential of being weapons-grade -- cannot under any circumstances constitute an imminent threat to the security of the U.S. In such circumstances, the U.S. has no claim of self-defense to justify any act or threat of force against Iran.

Key Words: Unilateral Sanctions, UN Charter, Violation of Human Rights, Iran, US, Nuclear Program, SWIFT, Collective Punishment, Kovalik

*Anti-Iran Sanctions (No. 5) James H. Fetzer: Anti-Iran Sanctions Violate International Law

 *Anti-Iran sanctions (No. 4) Thierry Meyssan: Western Nations Suffer from the Anti-Iran Sanctions

*Anti-Iran Sanctions (No. 3) E. Michael Jones: Sanctions Show US Foreign Policy Hypocrisy

*Anti-Iran Sanctions (No. 2) Mike Gravel: Sanctions Are Illegal and Ineffective

*Anti-Iran Sanctions (No. 1) Kenneth O’Keefe: US Sanctions on Iran Tantamount to Collective Punishment