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Heavy Toll of Sanctions on Syria Raises Questions of Morality and Justice

Wissam al-Saliby

If a man is hungry and comes to the church for food, should the church push him away if he is on the United States sanctions list? This delicate question is haunting many Christian ministries in Lebanon and Syria today.

Amid conflict, economic crisis, and mass displacement, Middle Eastern churches and Christian ministries are serving the poor, the displaced, and the marginalized in inspiring ways. But this gospel work is becoming very difficult in the mess of international politics and sanctions. One Christian ministry is doing a random sampling of a percentage of their beneficiaries every month to verify and document that the beneficiaries are not among the Syrians and Syrian entities sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. Other ministries have categorically refused to implement such surveys because they are not willing to deny humanitarian aid to anyone in need.

In addition to compliance dilemmas, ministries and humanitarian actors are faced with the challenges of “unintended negative consequences” of sanctions. For example, bank transfers from abroad to Lebanon have been blocked for the simple fact that a denomination’s name includes the word “Syria” (for historic reasons, the names of many church denominations include the phrase, “for Lebanon and Syria”). Banks in Lebanon have refused to open bank accounts for Syrian refugees employed by Christian ministries—including one of which I was a board member—as a result of over-compliance.

In this context, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Caritas Internationalis, the World Council of Churches (WCC), and other Christian groups made a statement at the Human Rights Council this month, relaying to the international community that:

The complexity and the impact of unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria have exacerbated the situation by seriously hampering the ability of NGOs and Church-based organisations to deliver essential aid and to contribute to a just recovery. (…) Importing certain humanitarian items is becoming increasingly challenging. Increased levels of bank de-risking often prevent NGOs and local Church-based organisation (sic) from receiving funds allocated for their humanitarian aid and to their early recovery programmes, despite humanitarian exemptions. This often results in the delay of programming and suspension of life-saving activities.

Sanction decisions always include humanitarian exemptions that aim to counter their “unintended” consequences. However, exemptions are not the answer to over-compliance by banks. Furthermore, hundreds of Evangelical and Protestant churches and Christian ministries do not have the resources and connections to apply for an exemption in Washington D.C. or in Brussels. Banks and transport companies are too afraid of helping the organizations that have received exemptions.

Today, more than 30 states are sanctioned by the U.S., the E.U., and the United Nations. Sanctions can include travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and trade restrictions. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, sanctions have become one of the most favored tools for governments to respond to foreign policy challenges. On the other hand, most research into sanctions indicates that economic sanctions are very likely to fail to achieve their stated objectives, and are unintentionally inhumane.

Earlier this month, a U.S. Department of State spokesperson blamed the Syrian government, not sanctions, for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The European Parliament issued a resolution on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian conflict, calling on renewing and maintaining sanctions, while stressing “the importance of avoiding any unintended negative consequences of sanctions.”

Christian ministries and churches are speaking up against sanctions as well. In 2020, representatives of the Syriac Orthodox, Greek Melkite, Armenian Evangelical, and Presbyterian churches in Syria and Lebanon spoke up against the sanctions. Christian Solidarity International addressed a letter signed by 90 leaders worldwide to U.S. President Joe Biden, calling for him to “lift economic sanctions that kill, displace, impoverish and otherwise harm the civilian population of Syria.”

This month, World Vision International, in its report “Too High a Price to Pay: The Cost of Conflict for Syria’s children,” recommended to “review and address the negative impact of sanctions on civilians in Syria in accordance with the Recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of the Unilateral Coercive Measures [UCMs].” In December 2020, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of UCMs called on the United States to remove unilateral sanctions which may inhibit the rebuilding of Syria’s civilian infrastructure destroyed by the conflict. Additionally, Open Doors issued a brief on Syria that included a recommendation for governments and institutions imposing sanctions on the Syrian Government to “conduct a thorough assessment of their effect on the Syrian people and remove those measures which contribute to human rights violations, prevent or restrict access to humanitarian aid or inhibit the reconstruction of basic infrastructure destroyed by the ongoing conflict.”

To be clear, WEA, WCC and Caritas’ statement this month did recognize that “all parties to the conflict bear responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian population” – not only the countries imposing sanctions. However, echoing what our respective constituencies are advocating for, WEA, WCC, and Caritas called for the removal of “sanctions that prevent the Syrian population from accessing basic needs and services, essential health supplies, including access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and that inhibit the reconstruction of basic infrastructure destroyed by the ongoing conflict.” It also called to “urgently address the unintended implications of sanctions,” and to “address bank over-compliance challenges.”

Our respective organizations are not against sanctions as a tool in international relations. In 2007, the World Evangelical Alliance endorsed the sanctions on Sudanese officials as well as on Burmese officials. In 1995, the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches adopted a Memorandum and Recommendations on the Application of Sanctions that stated, “sanctions are a valuable tool available to enforce international law and to bring about the peaceful resolution of disputes.”

However, the argument today is that sanctions on Syria, and more broadly the “maximum pressure” sanctions, are failing the exact same people they claim to protect and compound the suffering of vulnerable populations. These “targeted” sanctions are, in effect, not discriminating between perpetrators of heinous crimes and the broader population. Their “unintended” impact is not proportionate to their stated objectives. They have become immoral, unjust, and unjustifiable.

Sanctions on Syria serve to freeze the situation until the conditions for a political solution are available and attainable. But how long should we wait for this? Ten more years? In the meantime, the Syrian population – including Christians – are paying too heavy a price.

How can peace be reached in Syria? We may not know, and yet we must strive for an answer because we are peacemakers.

How will justice be served for the conflict in Syria? We do not know, but I hope that justice will prevail and that impunity will end. I do not wish for the Syrians to taste the bitter consequences of impunity for war crimes that we, the Lebanese, have tasted after 15 years of our (un)civil war.

Will the internally displaced and the refugees – half of Syria’s population – return home in the foreseeable future? This appears doubtful.

Who will heal the wounded and the sick, feed the hungry, and show compassion to the needy in Syria and among Syrian refugees? Churches and Christian ministries will endeavor to do so – in addition to humanitarian organizations. Do not let the sanctions stand in our way. And do not let the sanctions starve people and deny them access to healthcare.

Wissam al-Saliby is an Advocacy Officer of the World Evangelical Alliance in Geneva, Switzerland where he advocates with the United Nations on behalf of national evangelical alliances in over 130 countries for freedom of religion, rule of law, and human rights. You can follow him on Twitter at @walsaliby.

1 Comment

  1. Rev Brian Talbot says:

    Amen a superb article This is so clearly in line with biblical teaching on this subject

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