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Update: Arria-formula Meeting on Unilateral Coercive Measures and Counter-Terrorism*

This morning (25 March), Russia will convene an Arria-formula meeting on the impact of unilateral coercive measures (UCMs) on global counter-terrorism efforts. It was initially scheduled for 20 February but has been postponed.* The expected briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism and Head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) Vladimir Voronkov; UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights Alena Douhan; and Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, a lawyer and former UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order.

In addition to Security Council members, the meeting is open to the broader UN membership, permanent observers, UN entities, civil society organisations, and the press.

While there is no strict definition of UCMs, the term usually refers to economic measures imposed by one state or group of states to compel a policy change in another state, including through national sanctions regimes. The term itself is contentious and most often used by countries subject to UCMs, who argue that such measures are illegal under international law and have detrimental effects on the concerned countries’ humanitarian and economic conditions.

Countries opposed to UCMs have frequently voiced their criticism in international fora. It appears that the Arria-formula meeting will be the first time that Council members discuss the issue in the context of counter-terrorism, however. The concept note circulated by Russia asserts that UCMs “produce severe repercussions” for international counter-terrorism efforts by instigating “political instability, economic hardship, and social unrest” in targeted states, which in turn creates “breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism”. It further says that the purpose of the meeting is to examine the role of UCMs in “exacerbating insecurity, [and] fostering resentment, radicalization, and hostility among affected populations”, as well as in impeding international counter-terrorism cooperation.

Several UN bodies have taken up the issue of UCMs. The General Assembly has adopted a biannual resolution titled “Unilateral economic measures as a means of political and economic coercion against developing countries” since 1989, and an annual resolution on “Human rights and unilateral coercive measures” since 1997. The Human Rights Council (HRC) has also regularly adopted a resolution on the topic “Human rights and unilateral coercive measures”, continuing a practice started by its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 2014—when several Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea—the HRC established the mandate of a special rapporteur on the negative impact of UCMs on the enjoyment of human rights.

Events in recent years have renewed focus on the issue. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many Western countries and their allies imposed additional and increasingly severe sanctions on Russia. Several Western countries also imposed harsher sanctions against Belarus for its role in the invasion, further expanding measures imposed following the authorities’ crackdown on anti-government protests after the country’s August 2020 presidential elections.

In 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme and reimposed national sanctions on the country. More recently, in September 2023, as the restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program imposed by Security Council resolution 2231 of 20 July 2015—which endorsed the JCPOA—were due to expire, France, Germany, and the UK announced that they will retain the restrictions in their national sanctions regime because of “Iran’s consistent and severe non-compliance with its JCPOA commitments since 2019”.

Since 2011, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the UK, and the US, among others, have imposed economic sanctions against Syria in response to alleged human rights violations committed by the government led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some of these countries have also imposed sanctions on Venezuelan individuals associated with the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for their alleged role in corruption and human rights violations committed during protests held in the country in 2014 and 2017. In 2019, in a bid to further isolate Maduro in response to Venezuela’s deteriorating political situation, the US expanded the sanctions to target the country’s petroleum, mining, and banking industries.

There are divergent views among Council members regarding the use of UCMs, particularly between Western countries, on the one hand, and China, Russia, and African countries, on the other. China and Russia have frequently criticised the use of UCMs, such as those imposed on Belarus, Syria, and Venezuela. In 2020, these members—together with former elected members Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and South Africa—convened an Arria-formula meeting on the negative humanitarian and economic effects of UCMs in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the meeting, Council members who are opposed to UCMs may reiterate their position that such measures are illegal under international law and have a detrimental effect on the concerned countries’ economic and humanitarian situations. They may argue that these negative consequences exacerbate conditions conducive to radicalisation and violent extremism. By contrast, Western countries may describe nationally imposed sanctions as a legitimate foreign policy tool that is designed in a targeted fashion to minimise unintended consequences on civilian populations. These countries may also contend that the concept note for the meeting does not establish a direct link between sanctions measures and acts of terrorism or impediments to international counter-terrorism cooperation.

UCMs are not the same as sanctions imposed by the Security Council. Article 41 of the UN Charter gives the Council authority to impose sanctions under its mandate to maintain international peace and security. Currently, there are 14 active UN sanctions regimes. To alleviate their unintended humanitarian consequences, the Council adopted resolution 2664 of 9 December 2022, establishing a standing humanitarian exception to the asset freeze measures imposed by all UN regimes. Some countries have since incorporated the resolution’s provisions into their domestic legislation regulating national sanctions regimes, although implementation reportedly remains uneven.


Post-script (20 February, 9:30 am EST): Following the publication of this story, the Arria-formula meeting was postponed from 20 February to an undetermined date.


Post-script (24 March): The Arria-formula meeting has been rescheduled to 25 March.

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