Challenging the EU sanctions regime: Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela


Manu Pineda MEP writes: The European Union wants to put in place a new mechanism of sanctions in the coming months. We, being on the left, strongly oppose being a tool of interference against the sovereignty of the peoples.

First of all, it is important to remember that only the United Nations Security Council has the capacity to impose sanctions at the international level, in accordance with Articles 39 and 41 of the United Nations Charter. Therefore, sanctions imposed by the European Union only have legitimacy when they are imposed on countries of the European Union itself. The rest are illegal and unilateral coercive measures that the United States and the EU impose on some countries as a form of collective punishment.

But in addition, sanctions and blockades in the midst of a global pandemic such as COVID-19 are even more outrageous, if that is possible. The UN Human Rights Council has already expressed its concern about these unilateral extraterritorial coercive measures, and the Special Rapporteur herself requested that these measures be lifted or eased so that people could receive basic products such as disinfectants, soap, ventilators or other medical equipment for hospitals.

From the European Union…

And in the midst of this context, the European Union decides to adopt its own comprehensive sanctions regime. It is worth mentioning that the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has already been increasingly resorting to sanctions for some time now, as an alleged “method” of defending human rights in other countries. Thus, we have reached the point where the EU accounts for approximately 36% of the sanctions imposed worldwide, with the European Parliament being a key player in all this.

Let’s focus on the facts, the European Parliament has repeatedly defended these years ago the need to create a mechanism at European level on sanctions against human rights violations, despite the fact that – as we already know – the legality of these sanctions are in question.

Precisely in March 2019, a resolution on a European sanctions regime was adopted and already at the end of that same year, but especially throughout 2020, both the European Council, as well as the foreign ministries of the Member States and the EU High Representative (formerly Federica Mogherini, now Josep Borrell) set out to design this European sanctions policy. The Netherlands was undoubtedly the leading country within the European Union on this issue.

Finally, the framework of this comprehensive EU sanctions regime came into force on December 8, 2020, following its approval by the Council.

Perhaps some of you have heard of this European sanctions regime referred to as the “EU Magnitsky Act”. It does not yet have an official name, however right-wing and far-right groups in the European Parliament have so named it, in clear reference to the law that in 2012 the United States introduced to punish Russian officials accused of the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and which became a globally applicable law that authorizes the US government to sanction whoever, that government itself and unilaterally, considers to be in violation of human rights.

As an overview of this regime that is about to see the light of day in the European Union, we can say that, in theory, it seeks to prosecute persons, entities and bodies (both state and non-state) that are responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses anywhere in the world. Persons and entities providing financial, technical or material support to persons/entities on this list, who may also be subject to prosecution.

Sanctions will consist of travel bans, and freezing of funds and economic resources – again, on both individuals and entities. And individuals and entities of the European Union will be prohibited from providing financial, technical or material support to those on the list.

The human rights violations and abuses addressed by the regime are genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and other cruel treatment, slavery, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance of persons, and arbitrary detention. It also addresses those violations or abuses that are widespread, systematic or otherwise of concern to the objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Who includes these persons or entities on this famous list? Well, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy may submit proposals to the Council, and then it will be the Council who, on the basis of these proposals, will decide on the final list. This list will have to be approved unanimously by all the Member States.

Here I would like to highlight one thing: the whole process, including who may or may not be considered on the list, is confidential. And the application of sanctions will be the responsibility of the member states. There is therefore no independent body in this process, and both civil society and the European Parliament are once again excluded from the process. Nor are any objective criteria proposed for deciding on sanctions.

Negative points to highlight

1) On the one hand, it is worrying that this is a mechanism that will almost certainly be used as a new tool of interference towards third countries, weaponizing human rights.

2) There are no uniform and objective criteria on the table to decide on the application of sanctions. What does this mean? What we already know: that if the human rights violators are from friendly countries, surely there will be no consequences.

3) Also notable is the lack of transparency throughout the process and in the decision making. In addition, the process by which information is obtained on individuals or entities is not transparent, and many times this information is obtained from intelligence services.

4) While it is true that the European Union is putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that this is a targeted sanctions mechanism (i.e., not a whole country), we know that targeted sanctions do not prevent harm to the civilian population of a country.

Correlation of forces in the European Parliament

For us it is a matter of principle to strongly oppose this future European sanctions regime. In the coming months we will certainly have debates on this issue in the European Parliament but, honestly, it is not easy for us.

We have to understand the reality of the European Parliament, where the tendency of the right but especially of the extreme right is very strong, and the latter are gaining more and more hegemony in political discourse despite not having a numerical majority. Right now there is representation of the extreme right in the parliamentary group of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), in the parliamentary group Identity and Democracy (ID) and also within the European People’s Party (EPP) itself, which accepted to have in its ranks the formation of Viktor Orbán (Hungary). In other words, we have extreme right-wing members in no more and no less than 3 of the 7 parliamentary groups.

And this is causing us to witness debates in which, even from groups self-defined as progressive, their hate speech is being assumed with total normality in the parliamentary seat. An example of this can be seen in how the European Parliament has dealt with the issue of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, accepting with very little questioning that the European foreign policy in this regard is that of more Fortress Europe, more deportations, more agreements with third countries to accelerate the expulsions of people who come to our continent fleeing conflicts, and where it is intended to allow Member States that do not want to receive migrants, to put money to pay for their returns. This is a scandal in terms of human rights, and yet it is only a few of us who are pointing it out and denouncing it. But the most scandalous and illustrative case of inferiority complex and capitulation to ultra-right positions on the part of the majority of the European Parliament was the approval of an infamous resolution in which communism was equated with Nazism and fascism.

It is the same with sanctions. When there are such debates in the European Parliament, it is accepted almost as a matter of course that imposing unilateral sanctions is part of the EU’s foreign policy competences. And unfortunately, this is accepted not only by the extreme right-wing groups.

This is the correlation of forces in the European Parliament, we cannot fool ourselves. To this, we must add what we have been denouncing for some time, and that is that the foreign policy of the European Union is constantly subordinated to the foreign policy of the United States. Our position is clear, and whenever we can we emphasize it to Mr. Vice President and High Representative, Josep Borrell: we urgently need the EU to abandon its subordination to Washington and have an autonomous foreign policy.

Otherwise things like this happen: we are now on the verge of approving a sanctions mechanism, as the United States has, making the European Union fall into illegality as well. A European mechanism that, to all appearances, will continue to be used to fire against the countries that the United States targets: China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran…. and that will never be used against the Saudi or Israeli regimes, nor against the Colombian narco-government or against many others that systematically violate human rights but are protected by the U.S. administration.

I repeat again: only the United Nations Security Council has the capacity to impose international sanctions, everything else is to want to ignore international law.

To conclude…

In short and in conclusion, as you can see, the scenario is not at all encouraging for the European Union. This new policy will be added to the cruel policies of sanctions that the US continues to carry out. We cannot forget that the arrival of Trump to the White House was a strong brake on the progress made by the Obama administration in US-Cuba relations, even limiting remittances from the United States to the island, knowing that they are a source of income of high significance in its economy, and also limited non-family travel by Americans. More recently, in September 2020, Trump unveiled a ban on U.S. citizens staying in hotels with ownership ties to the Cuban government.

What to say about Venezuela, where unilateral sanctions have ended up causing the country to receive today only 1% of the foreign currency it received in 2014 from oil sales, when it is undoubtedly one of the main engines of the national economy. In the European Parliament the debates on this country are continuous, the EU has already established the travel ban to some officials and the embargo of assets held in banks of the European bloc, and in November it informed that it will extend until November 2021 the sanctions, with the objective of “promoting democratic solutions and bringing about political stability”.

And finally, the EU also pronounced itself against Nicaragua. In October, a resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority (609 votes in favour, 21 against, 64 abstentions), calling for new sanctions against Managua.

The future of the EU sanctions regime will be on the table in the coming months and it is foreseeable that we will have several debates on this issue. For our part, we will continue to stand for coherence: rejection of unilateral sanctions that do not contribute in any way to peace or stability; and that are nothing more than a terrible policy of weaponization of human rights to put them at the service of the interests of certain powers.

Those of us, who truly defend human rights, respect for sovereignty and peace, will continue to support respect for international law.

Manu Pineda is a Member of the European Parliament for Izquierda Unida, Spain’s United Left. This article was originally presented by Manu as a speech at a conference opposing US and EU sanctions on Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.


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