CEPR Sanctions Watch December 2023

In this edition of Sanctions Watch, covering December 2023:

  • ICRC identifies sanctions as key factor behind suffering in Afghanistan;
  • New congressional resolution calls for annulling Monroe Doctrine, terminating embargo against Cuba;
  • House passes bill to kill agreement unfreezing $6 billion for humanitarian use in Iran;
  • US, Japan, Australia, and South Korea sanction alleged North Korean agents;
  • US authorizes “Iran-style” secondary sanctions on Russia;
  • UN Special Envoy warns Syrian economy is in “dire straits” amid sanctions, other pressures;
  • Prisoner swap is a sign of continued diplomatic engagement as sanctions relief slightly eases hardship in Venezuela;
  • Israel continues its deadly blockade of Gaza, and more.

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Background: Following the Taliban takeover in 2021, the Biden administration blocked Afghanistan’s central bank from accessing roughly $7 billion of its foreign reserves held in the United States. Half of these assets have since been allocated to a trust fund largely under US control that has yet to disburse funds to Afghanistan. Around $2 billion of central bank assets have also been blocked by European authorities. Along with a cutoff of aid, this asset seizure — representing the near totality of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves — has contributed to a collapse of the country’s economy.

On the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United States, the UK, and Canada imposed sanctions on alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses around the world, including against two Afghan government ministers for restricting access to education for women and girls. Despite the new measures, a former school teacher in Kabul interviewed by Deutsche Welle accused the international community of insincerity in its efforts to improve women’s rights: “By imposing purported sanctions on Taliban leaders, they seek to present a façade of concern for girls’ education.” Indeed, in addition to repressive government policies, women and girls in Afghanistan are suffering from an economic and humanitarian crisis caused in part by “the suspension of financial aid by international donors and sanctions imposed on banks,” as the International Committee of the Red Cross recently noted.

According to the Washington Post, over two-thirds of the Afghan population needs humanitarian assistance, due in part to “stall[ed] efforts to gain control over Afghan central bank reserves held abroad and to secure Western funding.”

Also last month, the US imposed sanctions on two former Afghan officials and 44 entities for corruption involving US government funds prior to the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

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Background: The US embargo against Cuba is one of the oldest and most stringent of all US sanctions regimes, prohibiting nearly all trade and financial transactions between the United States and Cuba since the early 1960s. After a brief loosening under Obama, sanctions were tightened and expanded under Trump — a policy the Biden administration has, for the most part, maintained.

Last month, Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Greg Casar (D-TX), Chuy García (D-IL), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Delia Ramirez (D-IL) introduced a resolution calling to annul the Monroe Doctrine 200 years after its creation. The bill urges the termination of all unilateral economic sanctions, citing the devastating economic and humanitarian impacts of the embargo on Cuba, and highlighting the particular baselessness of Cuba’s designation as a “State Sponsor of Terror.” Also last month, Biden administration officials admitted in a closed meeting with members of Congress that they had not yet begun the process of reviewing that designation. The news reportedly left the members “furious,” as they had previously been assured that the mandatory six-month review process was underway.

As the year came to a close, the Cuban economy minister announced that Cuba’s GDP may have contracted by 1 to 2 percent in 2023. As Reuters points out, “That would leave the economy as much as 10% smaller than its 2019 level.” According to the minister, inflation hit 30 percent, with food prices rising as much as 78 percent. The dire situation forced the government to impose new electricity and transportation rate increases that will further increase the cost of living.

The years-long crisis has led a record number of Cubans to attempt to migrate to the United States. The Guardian reports that “maximum pressure” sanctions are causing an unprecedented brain drain as the country’s health and education workers, having experienced a sharp decline in real wages, join the exodus. At a meeting with US officials on migration cooperation, Mexican officials reportedly urged the Biden administration to treat sanctions as a “root cause” of migration in the region. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador later called on the US to lift sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela for that reason.

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Background: US sanctions on Iran began during the 1979 hostage crisis, and currently bar US actors — plus some non-US actors — from almost all trade and financial transactions with Iran. Though certain sanctions were lifted as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal, the majority have been reimposed since the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement. The European Union also maintains certain trade and financial sector sanctions on Iran.

As tensions mount across the Middle East over Israel’s continued bombing of Gaza, the US House passed a bill that, if enacted, would permanently block the Biden administration’s agreement to allow Iran to conditionally access $6 billion in frozen assets as part of September’s prisoner swap deal. The move comes despite the administration’s assurances that these funds have been blocked since October and that, if released, could only be used for humanitarian purposes. Also last month, the administration announced new sanctions against 13 individuals and firms for their alleged support for Ansar Allah in Yemen, as well as against two Iranian intelligence officers who purportedly sought to recruit assets for operations in retaliation for the 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani, and against a network accused of helping to procure materials for drone production. The European Council imposed similar measures regarding drone production, and an expansion of UK sanctions against Iran — first announced in July — have now come into force.

As the International Atomic Energy Agency warns that Iran has increased enriching Uranium, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged the US to lift sanctions and return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. However, despite diplomatic negotiation progress last year, hopes of a return to the deal look increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, inflation in Iran reportedly reached more than 40 percent, prompting economy minister Ehsan Khandouzi to point out that many Iranians can no longer “even afford to buy three loaves of bread.” In an attempt to mitigate the sanctions’ impact, Iran and Russia announced an agreement to stop using the US dollar in bilateral trade.

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North Korea

Background: The United States first imposed sanctions on North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s. Following the country’s 2006 nuclear test, more stringent sanctions were added, which have periodically intensified since then. US sanctions now target oil imports and cover most finance and trade as well as the key minerals sector. In addition, the UN Security Council has adopted nine major sanctions resolutions since 2006. The European Union has implemented these in addition to its own sanctions.

In response to a North Korean satellite launch in November, the US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea jointly imposed sanctions on eight North Korean agents based in Iran, China, and Russia for allegedly helping the government evade sanctions, generate revenue, and procure missile-related technology. The US separately sanctioned Kimsuky, a North Korean cyber espionage group. Citing National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the AP reported that the US, Japan, and South Korea “agreed to new initiatives to more effectively” counter North Korea’s evasion of sanctions. Finally, days before the new year, South Korea sanctioned the head of a North Korean intelligence agency and seven North Korean individuals for generating revenue for the government through “illicit cyber activities.”

In an article for Foreign Policy in Focus, Christine Ahn, an activist for peace on the Korean peninsula, writes:

While many in Washington advocate for more pressure in the form of sanctions and an information offensive, history has shown that these actions do not improve human rights. Instead, they increase tensions, and North Korea responds by doubling down on its nuclear weapons program. … North Korea is already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, and evidence suggests that sanctions are worsening the humanitarian situation.

Kyung-joo Jeon at the US Institute of Peace echoes some of these sentiments, stating, “Given that North Korea survived even self-quarantine during COVID-19, it is unlikely that more severe sanctions … will change the regime’s behavior. … A reliance on sanctions enforcement as a means to influence Kim’s regime is unlikely to improve prospects for engagement with North Korea, let alone contribute to its denuclearization.”

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Background: US sanctions on Russia’s financial, energy, and defense sectors began after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. This sanctions regime was greatly expanded, particularly by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union in response to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It includes the barring of most financial transactions and of Russian oil and gas imports and the freezing of Russian assets abroad, among other measures.

On December 1, the US imposed sanctions on three entities and vessels from Liberia and the UAE in an effort to tighten enforcement of the G7 Russian oil price cap. Later, the US announced another round of price cap sanctions on three Russian-owned ship managers and traders based in the UAE and Hong Kong. Washington also sanctioned five individuals and nine entities in six countries for allegedly participating in a Russia-related military technology procurement network. This was followed by sanctions on over 250 entities and individuals in more than eight countries targeting “Russia’s sanctions evasion, future energy capabilities, banks and its metals and mining sector.” Near the end of the month, President Biden signed an executive order expanding the US government’s ability to target financial institutions in third countries that “facilitate transactions involving Russia’s military-industrial base” by blocking them from the US financial system. It additionally bans certain goods with origins in Russia, even if they are “substantially transformed” in third countries. As the order authorizes secondary sanctions, Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury Department official at the Atlantic Council, said, “These are akin to Iran-style sanctions.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union adopted its 12th package of Russian sanctions. It prohibits imports of Russian diamonds, expands the list of restricted export items, requires EU exporters to contractually prohibit the reexportation of sensitive goods to Russia, restricts imports of goods that “generate significant revenues for Russia,” and sanctions over 140 individuals and entities, among other provisions. The UK also sanctioned 46 individuals and entities in six countries, and new trade and financial sanctions against Russia entered into force. In Asia, Japan and Taiwan have expanded their own sanctions on Russia.

For the fifth time since July, Russia’s Central Bank raised interest rates, this time by 1 percentage point — to 16 percent — in order to stem inflation. Reuters cited the Central Bank governor in reporting that “sanctions and a global economic slowdown are the [economy’s] main external risks”; she also told AFP that the economy is at risk of “overheating.” A brief by the US Treasury Department states: “The war and associated multilateral sanctions are putting Russia’s economy under considerable economic strain, contributing to rapidly growing expenditures, a depreciating ruble, increasing inflation, and a tight labor market reflecting a loss of workers.” The brief suggests that this and other factors will cause “a long-term decline in living standards” of Russian civilians.

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Background: As a designated “State Sponsor of Terrorism” since the list’s creation, Syria has faced unilateral sanctions in some form since 1979. These were augmented during the George W. Bush administration, and greatly expanded under Presidents Obama and Trump to bar most financial transactions with Syrian entities. The “Caesar Act,” passed by Congress in 2019, goes even further, imposing secondary sanctions on third-party entities that engage in such transactions, even if they have no connection to the US.

The World Food Programme announced that it would end its general food assistance to northwest Syria due to funding shortfalls, despite extreme ongoing need. Al Jazeera reports that 91 percent of the region lives below the poverty line, while nearly 41 percent don’t have enough food. Speaking to the UN Security Council, Special Envoy Geir Pederson warned, “The economy is in increasingly dire straits. … Critical infrastructure, including electricity, is under major strain. It is vital to ensure that any adverse effects of sanctions on ordinary Syrians be avoided and mitigated.”

Warning that the economic crisis has forced many young Syrians to leave the country, the Archbishop of Homs condemned the “oppressive sanctions against Syria, which directly affect the people, and the corruption.” And in an article for the Quincy Institute, former National Security Council senior director Steven Simon writes:

it is … widely understood that sanctions are generally ineffective and that they punish ordinary people rather than their intended targets. … Given that these conditions are widely studied and broadly acknowledged, sanctions devolve to performance, not policy. And sending messages to oppressors through the bodies of the oppressed is deeply unethical. Indeed, it further undermines the human rights of the immiserated population and provides neither justice nor relief.

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Background: While the George W. Bush and Obama administrations adopted sanctions on arms and against Venezuelan individuals, it was under Trump that broad financial sanctions and restrictions on oil exports were implemented. These have caused at least tens of thousands of deaths of Venezuelans, from the resulting economic collapse, and loss of essential imports and production, including food, medicine, health care, and health infrastructure In addition, the United States, the United Kingdom, and others have frozen — and in some cases transferred to opposition actors — Venezuelan state assets.

In late December, the United States and Venezuela announced a prisoner swap that saw the release of Alex Saab — a Colombian national with Venezuelan diplomatic credentials who, in 2020, was controversially arrested in Cape Verde and extradited to the United States on charges of money laundering, in contravention of diplomatic immunity. Saab was freed in exchange for over 20 Venezuelan and 10 US nationals — including those involved in the possibly US-backed 2020 armed coup attempt known as “Operation Gideon.” The swap has been seen as evidence of continued engagement following the easing of sanctions announced in October. Earlier in the month, the Maduro government announced that it would create a path for opposition politicians to appeal to the Supreme Court the legal decisions barring their candidacies. Though the announcement fell short of US demands to end all candidacy restrictions — a demand not explicitly outlined in the Barbados agreement between Maduro and the opposition — it was sufficient to put off US threats of a sanctions snapback. Leading right-wing opposition figure María Corina Machado later announced that she had filed such an appeal. Heightened tensions regarding Venezuelan claims to Guyanese territory did not immediately appear to affect sanctions relief or ongoing diplomatic engagement.

If the relief measures remain in place, the Venezuelan government reportedly expects a 27 percent increase in income from its state oil company in 2024. According to CEPR Senior Research Fellow Francisco Rodríguez, the Venezuelan economy could expand by 2 to 6 percent in 2024, as inflation subsides. However, oil production growth has been slower than originally hoped, in part because the threat of reimposed sanctions discourages the long-term investment needed to return the industry to its former capacity.

As noted above (see Cuba), a new bill that would annul the 200-year-old Monroe Doctrine highlights the humanitarian impact of economic sanctions in the region and urges an end to unilateral coercive measures, including those against Venezuela. Meanwhile, the Mexican government urged Biden to ease sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela to ease migration pressures.

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Israeli bombings and ground operations, coupled with the tightening of a 16-year blockade and restrictions on the entrance of humanitarian aid have led “over 90 percent of the population [of Gaza] … to face high levels of acute food insecurity,” according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a food security monitoring initiative used and developed by governments, UN agencies, and major NGOs.

For this reason, Human Rights Watch has accused the Israeli government of using starvation as a weapon of war — a war crime under international humanitarian law. The organization states: “Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival. … Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza, as well as its more than 16-year closure, amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population.” In an article for The Hill, Alexander B. Downs, a professor at George Washington University, writes:

The irony is that the suffering of Palestinian civilians will not achieve Israel’s aims. …The logic of coercion by punishment is that by inflicting pain on the population, an attacker can compel an adversary to concede. This logic assumes that the population can influence the government’s decision. This is obviously not the case in Gaza — and it is questionable whether it applies to any authoritarian regime.

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About Sanctions Watch

Economic sanctions have become one of the main tools of US foreign policy despite widespread evidence that they can cause severe harm to civilian populations (which may, in fact, be the point). Though now a defining feature of the global economic order, sanctions and their human costs receive relatively little attention in most US media outlets.

CEPR’s Sanctions Watch news bulletin aims to generate more awareness on the use and impact of sanctions through monthly round-ups of news and analysis on US sanctions policy.

Click here to see past editions of CEPR’s Sanctions Watch.

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