COVID-19: Trump Weaponizing Virus by Intensifying Sanctions on Iran & Venezuela

Economic and medical warfare during the pandemic amounts to a crime against humanity, writes Marjorie Cohn.

Workers disinfecting street in Tehran during Covid-19 pandemic, March 19, 2020. (Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Marjorie Cohn

As the entire world grapples with the most devastating pandemic of the modern era, the United States is pouring kerosene on the fire in Iran and Venezuela. The U.S. government has maintained punishing sanctions against the people of Iran and Venezuela to engineer regime change. But instead of ending the sanctions to help Iranians and Venezuelans fight the coronavirus, the Trump administration has expanded them and exacerbated the danger they pose.

“The world is facing the risk of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster,” the International Association of Democratic Lawyers wrote in a statement calling on the U.S. government to immediately lift all sanctions against Iran and Venezuela.

Sanctions (unilateral coercive measures), collective punishment and forcible regime change are illegal under U.S. and international law. Donald Trump’s intensification of sanctions against Venezuela and Iran during the pandemic constitutes a crime against humanity.

Iran Sanctions Add to Death Toll

Iran “has emerged as an epicenter of the virus globally and regionally,” 34 members of Congress wrote in a March 31 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, urging them to “substantially suspend” sanctions against Iran during this worldwide health emergency. The letter was endorsed by 13 groups.

As of April 13, Iran had suffered 73,303 cases of COVID-19 and 4,585 deaths. Trump’s sanctions are a primary cause of these extremely high casualties. “There can also be no question that the sanctions have affected Iran’s ability to contain the outbreak, leading in turn to more infections, and possibly to the virus’ spread beyond Iran’s borders,” Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Co-Director Mark Weisbrot said in a statement.

Adding insult to injury by “keeping up its economic pressure campaign,” the U.S. government has imposed additional sanctions on Iran in the middle of the deadly pandemic, according to Reuters. The Trump administration is “literally weaponizing the coronavirus,” human rights lawyer Arjun Sethi said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the sanctions “economic terrorism.”

Congress members who signed the March 31 letter called Trump’s March 18 sanctions “callous and short-sighted,” warning that the virus is reportedly spreading from Iran to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are stationed.

The United States had already maintained “an effective economic blockade” of Iran’s energy, banking and finance sectors, as well as its foreign investment and the targeting of basic foodstuffs and medicines, Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi wrote in December 2019.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, on July 14, 2015. (State Department)

In 2018, after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which was working to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he reimposed heavy economic sanctions. The U.S. government’s stated goal was to eliminate all Iranian oil exportation. It blacklisted 50 Iranian banks, individuals and ships, and Iran’s national airline and fleet of aircraft. Pompeo said the United States would “crush” Iran with new sanctions so severe they could lead to regime change.

As a result of the reimposition of sanctions, oil exports plummeted, Iran’s currency has been substantially devalued and the country is in a severe recession.

In October 2018, the International Court of Justice ordered the United States to lift its sanctions against Iran on food, medicine, humanitarian trade and civil aviation. The U.S. government refused to abide by the court’s decision.

An October 2019 Human Rights Watch report concluded that the U.S.’s “maximum pressure” campaign “drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.”

Foreign Minister Zarif referred to the U.S. refusal to lift the sanctions during the pandemic as “medical terrorism.”

The United States has escalated the sanctions during the pandemic while blocking Iran’s request for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund for its fight against the coronavirus.

In their March 31 letter, the congress members noted that “by targeting an entire economy that supports more than 80 million people, U.S. sanctions make it harder for ordinary Iranians to obtain basic necessities like food and hygienic supplies essential to stemming the pandemic and that are basic to survival.”

U.S. Sanctions Against Venezuela

Foreign leaders greeting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at his second inauguration, Jan. 10, 2019. (Presidencia El Salvador CC0, Wikimedia Commons)

As of Jan. 22, the United States had leveled sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, government and central bank and at least 144 Venezuelans or individuals connected to Venezuela.

U.S. sanctions against Venezuela caused 40,000 deaths in 2017 and 2018, CEPR reported. In April 2019, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Human Rights Watch issued a 71-page report detailing shortages of food and medicine and sharp increases in disease. They called the situation a humanitarian emergency.

In mid-February, the U.S. government imposed additional sanctions on Venezuela. The Trump administration continues to attack the Nicolas Maduro government, indicting him for a narco-terrorism conspiracy, with the Trump administration planning to deploy Navy destroyers to the Caribbean on the pretext of an anti-narcotics operation.

On April 6, dozens of legal organizations worldwide issued a letter to Pompeo and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging that U.S. intervention in Latin America be ended, especially in light of the escalation of U.S. threats against Venezuela.

The sanctions against Venezuela have contributed to “the largest economic collapse in a country outside of war since at least the 1970s,” The New York Times reportedIn February, Venezuela filed a complaint against the United States in the International Criminal Court, calling the sanctions crimes against humanity.

Although Venezuelans are not yet contracting Covid-19 in large numbers, the pandemic could prove catastrophic to the country.

But when Venezuela asked the International Monetary Fund for a $5 billion loan to help it cope with the pandemic, the U.S.-controlled IMF denied its request.

Measures Violate UN & OAS Charters

By imposing unilateral coercive measures for collective punishment leading to forcible regime change, the United States has violated several ratified treaties.

When the United States ratifies a treaty, it becomes part of U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which says treaties constitute “the supreme law of the land.”

The protection of health is a stated purpose of the United Nations Charter and all member countries are required to take actions that promote health. Yet the United States is doing just the opposite, magnifying the suffering of the Iranian and Venezuelan people in the midst of the pandemic.

Under the UN Charter, member countries must refrain from the threat or use of force against the political independence of any other country. Only the UN Security Council has the authority to order the use of sanctions. That means the United States cannot unilaterally impose sanctions against other countries without the approval of the Council.

Meanwhile, the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) prohibits any country from directly or indirectly intervening in the internal or external affairs of another country. That includes any type of interference against its “political, economic and cultural elements.” No state can use coercive economic or political measures “to force the sovereign will of another State.” The U.S. imposition of sanctions against Venezuela violates the OAS Charter.

A Covid-19 patient receiving treatment in a hospital in Tehran, March 15, 2020. (Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Violating Fourth Geneva Convention

U.S. sanctions against Iran constitute “the collective punishment of over 81 million Iranians through and by means of one of the most comprehensive and unrelenting sanctions regimes in modern history,” writes Sadeghi-Boroujerdi.

The Trump administration is also trying to coerce regime change in Venezuela by punishing the people with sanctions.

Collective punishment is a war crime. The Fourth Geneva Convention says, “No protected person [civilian] may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. . . . Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.” The United States is punishing the people of Iran and Venezuela for the actions of their governments. This constitutes illegal collective punishment.

Forcible Regime Change

After Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions, Pompeo said, “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That strategy hasn’t worked in Cuba. The U.S. blockade was imposed in 1960 pursuant to a secret State Department memorandum that advocated “a line of action which … 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.” But the Cuban people have not overthrown their government.

No country has the right to forcibly change the regime of another country. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes self-determination as a human right and guarantees all peoples the right to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Idriss Jazairy, UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of sanctions, stated, “Coercion, whether military or economic, must never be used to seek a change in government in a sovereign state.”

Protest against sanctions and intervention in Venezuela, Washington, March 16, 2019. (Elvert Barnes, Flickr)

More than 200 legal professionals and organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, wrote in a letter to Trump, Mnuchin and Pompeo, “Your administration’s disapproval of the government of a foreign state provides no legal justification for policies and actions intended to deprive residents of the targeted state of necessaries as a means of forcing a change to a regime more to the liking of the United States.”

The letter’s signatories called on the U.S. government to cancel the sanctions against Venezuela and Iran “at the very least,” because they violate the International Executive Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). The IEEPA empowers the president to impose sanctions only after he makes “a good faith declaration that the targeted country presents an ‘unusual and extraordinary’ threat to the U.S.” As the letter says, “Neither Venezuela nor Iran presents such a threat to the U.S.”

In fact, the Trump administration’s intensification of sanctions against Iran and Venezuela rises to the level of “a crime against humanity against the people of Iran and Venezuela,” the signatories wrote.

Congressional Oversight of Sanctions

Congress members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib introduced a bill in the House titled “Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act.” H.R.5879 would require a report on why sanctions were chosen rather than another tool to address the emergency; whether the sanctions are unilateral and if so, why no other country has imposed them; and the requirements for lifting the sanctions.

Grassroots peace group CODEPINK is circulating a letter to Pompeo urging the lifting of sanctions on Iran, and a letter to Congress opposing military intervention in Venezuela and urging the lifting of sanctions against that country. Both letters have garnered thousands of signatures.

Meanwhile, constituents should pressure their congressional representatives to end the sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. Economic and medical warfare during the pandemic amounts to a crime against humanity perpetrated by the United States.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and a member of the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.”

This article is from Truthout and reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

Please Donate to Consortium News.

15 comments for “COVID-19: Trump Weaponizing Virus by Intensifying Sanctions on Iran & Venezuela

  1. dean 1000
    April 25, 2020 at 06:52

    Thanks for making the case against Trump’s sanctions Marjorie. Guilty as charged.

  2. KiwiAntz
    April 21, 2020 at 21:25

    America’s weaponisation of the Coronavirus is not only hurting its own Nation with its lousy, disastrous, Pandemic management, but is hurting others due to its illegal, murderous sanctions? If you are living in those sanctioned Nations & are watching America’s downfall both economically & the skyrocketing Infection rate & death toll, you would be looking forward to the utter collapse of this Nation as payback for all the grief the US has caused to others, call it poetic justice for its crimes against humanity? What goes around, comes around? What’s laughable is that certain US States & sections of the US Govt & European ones plan to sue China for the COVID 19 Pandemic outbreak & the subsequent Economic impacts & Death toll? Like they have a chance in Hell of that succeeding? Based on that logic then, Vietnam, Korea, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela & every other Nation that’s been subject to America’s Imperial invasions would be legally justified in seeking reparations from the American Empire for its War crimes? These Nations that have had their Leaders murdered, their Citizens killed & maimed in the millions by conflicts as a result of America’s Illegal Militarism & regime change Wars & Economic Terrorism sanctions! Those Nations would be totally justified in sueing the US Govt for hundreds of trillions of dollars in reparations for US crimes against humanity? America & its Leaders should be hauled before the Hague, like the Nazi’s where, & trials held to hold this Nation to account for War Crimes!

    • AnneR
      April 22, 2020 at 07:11

      Kiwiantz – “Based on that logic then, Vietnam, Korea, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela & every other Nation that’s been subject to America’s Imperial invasions would be legally justified in seeking reparations from the American Empire for its War crimes?”

      Oh so true (one can but cross one’s fingers in hope).

    • Joe Wallace
      April 22, 2020 at 19:36

      The imposition of “regime change” sanctions is an exercise in futility. After we, the United States, decide what we want the leader of the targeted nation to do (as though it’s our prerogative), we impose sanctions and make it clear that the sanctions will continue until the leader does our bidding. We punish the targeted nation, under the mistaken belief that the privations suffered by the populace will cause them to rise up against their leader, who, we trust, will be seen as the source of their sufferings. The rationale, in so many words, is: “Look what your leader has made me do! These sanctions will continue until you get rid of him!” Do we really expect that citizens of a sovereign nation will fall for this ill-concealed bit of political wizardry and be duped into thinking that their leader, and not the United States, has caused these sanctions to be levied against them? What could be more patronizing and condescending? And now, after we’ve insulted them, we expect them to rise up and carry out our wishes by deposing the (often elected) leader? What such sanctions provoke, more often than not, is resistance, defiance, unity, solidarity against so blatant an intrusion into their internal affairs.

      This tactic doesn’t work. Most people don’t like being used. Especially not by Uncle Sam.

    • Joe Wallace
      April 22, 2020 at 19:53

      Thank you, Marjorie Cohn, for pointing out how inhumane, how utterly depraved it is for the United States to be intensifying sanctions during the coronavirus pandemic. This country is no longer constrained by a capacity (yes, a capacity) to be ashamed of itself.

    • Sam F
      April 23, 2020 at 09:03

      Yes, the US government is no more than a front for political gangsters, and victims of its foreign war crimes would be justified in seeking reparations from the US for its gang operations, but it cannot be “hauled before the Hague” as it should, because:
      1. The US has refused to sign the Treaty Of Rome accepting jurisdiction of the ICJ;
      2. The US withdrew from the UN Statute creating the ICJ;
      3. The US is the only country with a law to militarily attack the ICJ if it prosecutes US military or government personnel for war crimes (the “American Service-Members’ Protection Act” of 2002), of course in direct and deliberate subversion of its own Constitution.

      The US use of NATO as an excuse for aggression, although created for defensive purposes, in direct and deliberate violation of its Constitution, is a “high crime” sufficient for impeachment, and for imprisonment of most of its leaders for generations.

      But there is no way to prosecute within the US, because its DOJ and judiciary are integral parts of the political gangs that took over its formerly democratic institutions by means of campaign bribes. The bribes are largely for foreign wars, either for the zionists (in the Mideast) or for the rich generally (against socialist democracies, largely in this hemisphere).

        April 23, 2020 at 11:10

        The American Service-Members’ Protection Act of 2002 is directed explicitly to the International Criminal
        Court (ICC), a different body than ICJ.

  3. Sam F
    April 21, 2020 at 12:35

    Let’s recall that none of this is due to the current clown-car administration. All US administrations have done such things to these countries and many, many others. The countries attacked show only the sources of campaign bribes to US politicians, especially when economic sanctions and small operations are used.

    US tyrants use the MIC to attack small countries to pose with the flag as defenders, which generates MIC campaign bribes because it profits, but the MIC does not care who is attacked or why.

    When using sanctions, US politicians always attack (1) whomever the zionists oppose (Iran), to get their campaign bribes (all of Hillary’s top ten campaign “donors” were zionists, and Trump’s allegiances to them are plain); and (2) whomever the rich oppose, to get their campaign bribes (any socialist democracy like Venezuela). None of the goals of that targeting have anything at all to do with justice, democracy, or US interests.

    So mere Trump opposition has no effect whatsoever upon these policies: democracy must be restored, destroying the duopoly of gold. Because gold controls the tools of democracy, mass media and elections, we do not have the tools to restore it.

    • AnneR
      April 22, 2020 at 07:08

      I do so agree with your assessment of the situation – as it exists and has existed, since at least WWII.

  4. AnneR
    April 21, 2020 at 11:55

    Ms Cohn – thank you for this overview of the US imposed, barbaric economic sanctions (siege warfare, in fact, as also are blockades). Both are and have been used by US govts of “both” faces of the Janus, single party, the DemReps. Neither is worse, more barbaric than the other; the Dems do the same things to peoples in other countries and their governments as the Reps, but in a more highly polished, politer verbiage way. Both aspects of the duopoly are barbaric, grotesque, inhumane, criminal; both aspects ignore international law vis a vis human rights, the sovereignty of other nations when they want.

    So, too, since at least the end of WWII, has the USA worked assiduously, one way or another, to remove the governments of non-compliant countries (i.e. those unwilling to accept US hegemony over their culture, society, natural resources) in order to replace them with such as the Shah of Iran, the Pinochet death squad military government, that of Ukraine. (Many more instances in reality.)

    As for Iran getting/having nuclear weapons and the USA (together with the region’s sole nuclear weaponed “power” – so-called Israel, really Occupied Palestine tout court) – by what right do they, or the rest of the western “powers,” seek to force Iran to *not* have such weaponry? Do they – especially the USA and “Israel” and France and the UK (and now Germany appears to be considering such weapons or at least buying military aircraft capable of carrying and using them) – ever suggest that they are totally willing to give up all of their nuclear arsenal? How much more hypocritical and arrogant can the western world get? Silly question, there seems no end to these aspects of the western governments’ mindset: Do as We Say [i.e. Tell You to Do] or suffer whatever consequences we decide you will.

    Iran would be a lot safer (well, perhaps) had it a nuclear arsenal. But Iran’s religious leader, Khamenei (? spelling), has stated clearly that such weapons are not acceptable for an Islamic country. Certainly a more humane, non-barbarous position than that of the supposed “christian” nation.

  5. dndslblty
    April 21, 2020 at 11:43

    The Public will screams for humane non-interference in the world, and potus and congress ignore the scream to their own detriment.
    Nationalize the Fortune five-hundred for a start – then every avaricious underneath.
    RICO once had teeth.
    Masks or no masks, do not fight each other – aim at the oligarchs and kleptocrats!

    • Sam F
      April 21, 2020 at 12:45

      Yes, “RICO once had teeth.” As long as the corrupt were not of the same political party, rich, zionist, or useful to them. But no doubt you know that RICO is not enforced against major corruption, because the US judiciary, DOJ, and FBI refuse to investigate or even hear about political racketeering, because they are the most essential component of the racketeering enterprise.

  6. Aaron
    April 21, 2020 at 11:27

    Quick summary of this article:

    “Orange man bad”

    the article just lists several actions Trump has taken to weaken authoritarian leaders but fails to explain why he took those actions. The author does this to frame the article (opinion piece) to fit her narrative and deceive readers in to thinking Trump is doing this because he is just a terrible man.

    A real journalist would list the facts… Few examples:
    -What did Iran and Venezuela do over the past 10-15 years?
    -What did past presidents do?
    -What led to these sanctions?
    -Are there any requirements that must be met to lift sanctions? If so what are they and why have their leaders met them to help protect their people? Like any money going to these shady leaders will go to their “people”.

    Also, I didn’t vote for anyone in the UN and they do not represent me or American. They can vote all they want but using them as a source as to why the U.S. Gov must do something is stupid… and you’re a lawyer.

    Then let the reader decide.

    • Jeff Harrison
      April 21, 2020 at 18:29

      Only an idiot would need to be told that all these sanctions are as a result of these countries failing to kowtow to American demands and/or being socialist.

      As to why you have to listen to the UN? Read your constitution. It states that any treaty entered into by the US becomes the supreme law of the land. Ms. Cohen explained that but you appear to have reading comprehension issues.

    • AnneR
      April 22, 2020 at 07:05

      Perhaps you could explain why *ANY* US president, regime, considers they have the *right* to weaken any other government, “authoritarian” (in US speak) or not? Why can’t the US just f****** well mind its own business? Look after its own citizens? You know, rather than bomb, bomb, bomb other peoples thousands of miles from these shores?

      And please tell us what exactly Iran and/or Venezuela did that was anywhere near as abominable as the US over the past 15 years (actually the US has been inflicting abominable devastation, death and destruction on other countries/peoples, overthrowing their genuinely elected governments and replacing them with rapacious, murderous, authoritarian regimes because those regimes allowed US corporate-capitalists to plunder the resources, because those regimes did what the US regime wanted – obedience to its diktats.

      Neither Iran nor Venezuela have invaded any other country – Iran not in over two hundred years. The US couldn’t truthfully say that it hadn’t invaded anywhere over the past couple of years.

      Yes Iran’s army helps its ALLIES. Oh, sorry, US-Speak calls them “proxies” – if Iran’s allies and friends are “proxies,” then what are the NATO countries? Are Saudia, the UAE and so-called Israel (Occupied Palestine)? And of course, those so-called “rebels” in Syria (actually offshoots of Al Qaeda and other Takfiris – i.e. Jihadis) – allies presumably of the US and not what they *really* are: Proxies.

Comments are closed.