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Politics of Sanctions on Disaster Response

Qayyimah Al-Zelzy

Source: Rami Al Sayed for Getty Images

At the heart of humanitarian aid lies the universal principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. These principles are imperative to ensure that states and international organisations remain free from political, military, or religious objectives when delivering life-saving assistance to those in need. However, weak governance, political strife, and ineffective decision-making can often impede the independent work of humanitarianism. In conflict-ridden states, such as Yemen, since the civil war began in 2014, the Sahel, after the outbreak of violence took place in Northern Mali in 2011, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, since the civil wars began in the early 1990s, it is almost impossible to uphold humanitarian principles in  humanitarian assistance and disaster responses.

Turkey-Syria Earthquakes: International Response

On 6 February 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southeastern Turkey. On the same day, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck northern Syria. Death tolls surpassed 50,000 people almost overnight, and many children went missing. In the immediate aftermath of the situation, approximately 4,500 search and rescue operations came through Turkey with large machinery capable of clearing debris and rubble, food, and medical supplies for the earthquake victims.

However, Syrians had to wait three days for machinery and special tools to arrive at their earthquake-ravaged site. This is because aid convoys could only pass through the Bab al-Hawa crossing as it was the only land route approved by the United Nations (UN) to cross into the rebel-held country.

The Complex Nature of HADR Assistance in Syria

The earthquake struck Syria while it stood on weak institutional foundations due to prolonged conflict, weak governance, food insecurity, and breakdown in local institutions. Many argue that these foundations were exacerbated by the complex and extensive sanctions imposed by the UN, the European Union (EU), the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK). These sanctions were originally implemented to  discourage the Syrian government from exerting violence against its people and to press for political solutions to end the conflict. Although they have successfully prevented the transfer of arms and placed economic punitive measures on the Syrian government, paradoxically, they have also prevented the effective deployment of HADR assistance into Syria. As a consequence, these sanctions have contributed to a situation where over 15.3 million Syrians now find themselves in urgent need of humanitarian assistance to satisfy their fundamental requirements for food, shelter, and healthcare.

While sanctions are not intended to impact humanitarian actions directly—the reality is inherently different in practice. Aid workers in Damascus have argued that the shortage of heavy machinery required in the search and rescue operations had caused many people to work with simple tools or with bare hands to rescue the victims from beneath the rubble. They also highlighted that the absence of fuel and transportation prevented them from bringing the victims to the hospitals in Damascus.

Humanitarian Exemption Licences: Blessing or Burden?

In recognising that sanctions can lead to unintended humanitarian consequences, countries imposing sanctions have established mechanisms such as humanitarian exemption licenses to exempt certain activities from sanctions, specifically those related to humanitarian aid. These exemptions are intended to ensure that critical assistance—such as food, medicine, and supplies for basic survival—can reach people in need, even within sanctioned environments. However, there has rarely  been an occasion where licences were processed and granted swiftly. For instance, the US issued licences three days after the Turkey-Syria earthquake to allow for transactions related to relief efforts to flow into Syria. Moreover, the UK issued two licences nine days after the earthquake to authorise all HADR assistance and petroleum flows for humanitarian activities. Fortunately, the UK did eventually removed the expiry date on the licence. The EU also extended its licence until 24 February 2024, despite the fact that all exemption licences were initially set to last for six months. The US, however, did not grant extensions beyond the expiry date for fear that it would undermine their sanctions on the Syrian government.

The Moral Dilemma of Sanctions

The Turkey-Syria earthquake has underscored the complex relationship between international sanctions and humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) efforts. Observations from this and similar events highlight the need for ongoing evaluation of sanction policies to ensure they effectively balance geopolitical objectives with humanitarian considerations.

Governments need to develop long-term strategies to ensure that the spillover effects of sanctions are mitigated to allow for the conditions for sustainable development and stability to thrive in conflict-ridden states. These strategies require a delicate balance between achieving policy objectives and preventing harm to vulnerable populations.

Such strategies may include cross-sector collaboration to enable a collective exploration of efforts and decisions to mitigate unintended consequences on the population.  For instance, while EU sanctions allow  exemptions for essential goods like food and medicine, overcompliance issues, especially in financial transactions, can hinder humanitarian efforts. In response, Switzerland’s introduction of the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement in February 2020 exemplifies a proactive approach to facilitating humanitarian trade in Iran, ensuring essential goods reach those in need without breaching sanctions. This mechanism, complemented by the US’s broad exceptions for humanitarian aid, illustrates the importance of flexible frameworks that support the continuity of humanitarian assistance, adhering to international humanitarian principles. Regular evaluations and periodic assessments of these strategies’ humanitarian impact is crucial, enabling policymakers to make informed decisions and adjust their approaches accordingly.

The key benefit of this strategy is that it allows humanitarian aid organisations to continue providing assistance in spite of sanctions. Effectively, this also lays the groundwork for sustainable development and stability in such conflict-ridden states. As the world faces strife and conflict each day, it is clear that it is unsustainable to involve politics in humanitarianism. Doing so risks placing ourselves on a slippery slope to irreversible societal collapse. We need to be constantly reminded that all human rights matter. There should be no excuse for a population to suffer from the pernicious effects of sanctions. As the humanitarian crisis worsens in Syria, the road to recovery seems almost bleak. Yet, the actions of the UN Security Council as highlighted in a meeting in February 2024, allow us to cling onto the rungs of hope and optimism as they continuously work with Syria and international stakeholders to ensure the protection of Syrian civilians and restore Syria’s independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity.


Qayyimah Al-Zelzy is a Volunteer Research Associate at the Global Awareness & Impact Alliance (GAIA), a non-governmental think tank in Brunei Darussalam. Qayyimah’s research interests include foreign policy analysis, diversity and equal opportunities, and human rights. Qayyimah has previously released an article on environmental justice in Southeast Asia in the Southeast Asia Globe. For further enquiries, please contact