Does EU Sanctions On Iran Reveal Double Standards On Human Rights?

On Saturday, 24 April 2021, Iran published a formal letter protesting against the European Union’s (EU) sanctions and blacklisting of eight Iranian military commanders and security officials, over their roles in the deadly crackdown on protests in 2019. Significantly, this is the first time the EU has imposed sanctions on Iran on account of human rights violations since 2013.


Written by the High Council of Human Rights of Iran, the letter criticises the EU for policies it says are “enforcing the illegal and oppressive sanctions” which violate the human rights of Iranians living both inside and outside the country. Aside from the 2019 sanctions, Iran chides the EU for having failed to condemn the U.S.’s January 2020 assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Alongside this, the council’s belief that several European countries continue to shelter members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq – who Iran recognises as a “terrorist organisation” that supplied chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s – has found its way into the letter.


The sanctions, which also target three prisons where detainees reportedly endured inhumane conditions and torture, impose travel bans and asset freezes on human rights violators. The latest sanctions, implemented on 13 April, come as a response to the government-authorised lethal crackdown of protestors demonstrating against the 200 per cent hike in gasoline prices in 2019. Amnesty International estimated 300 people were killed and thousands more were detained during that time. 


Several critics question the EU’s delayed response, to which the EU points to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran that was only published on 9 March. The report confirms that Tehran used lethal force during the protests, further probing why Iran had failed to conduct proper investigations or hold anyone accountable. It was then that the EU moved forward with sanctions.


However, they are not the first sanctions to be imposed on the Middle Eastern nation.


In 2018, the Donald Trump administration imposed its own set of punishing economic, trade, and financial sanctions after they had jettisoned the 2015 nuclear accord, a deal that interferes with nuclear bomb building activities. This not only saw the ramping up of Tehran’s nuclear capacity and production of enriched uranium as the country’s oil exports fell by 80 per cent (Reuters), but several European countries’ refusal to work with Iranian firms on vaccines and medical advancement (High Council of Human Rights of Iran) – a particularly harmful impact amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic. 


While the Council of the EU is yet to receive the letter, Peter Stano, an EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, refuted the assertion that the 13 April 2021 sanctions are politically motivated. “Quite to the contrary, the EU repeatedly rejected the unilateral imposition of the U.S. sanctions and prevented U.S. efforts under the Trump administration to reintroduce UN sanctions on Iran,” noted Stano to Al Jazeera. On top of this, he added that the EU has been proactive in securing food and medical supplies to Iran, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. 


To Stano’s point, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, – the European trio collectively known as the E3 – participated in the Joint Comprehensive of Action (JCPOA) talks in Vienna, where they all cited progress being made on lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran and safeguarding the 2015 nuclear accord. However, future progress may be inhibited as the EU’s imposition of sanctions prompted Iran’s foreign ministry to announce that it will immediately suspend talks and cooperation with the EU on human rights, including “terrorism,” illicit drugs, and refugees (Al Jazeera).


Not all hope is lost, however. According to Iranian ambassador Seyyed Majid Tafreshi, the Human Rights Council is calling on the EU to “bring the violators of the fundamental rights of the Iranian nation into trial without politicisation” (Al Jazeera). What exactly, “without politicisation,” entails, is yet to be determined. Although the EU is firm in its denial that sanctions were not politically motivated, they may have to re-evaluate their position or approach in order to bring Iran back to the table and prevent further harm to innocent Iranian citizens. This is crucial so as to prevent an impasse on human rights progress, and further harm being imposed on innocent lives.


Within Iran, the sanctions were described to have had “intentional damage on the health and wellbeing of the Iranian people, particularly children, women, the elderly, and persons with disability” (High Council of Human Rights of Iran). In particular, more than a dozen children have died due to the lack of access to medicine treating a rare medical condition called epidermolysis bullosa (EB). Meanwhile, Iranian migrants and students are facing increased discrimination in European countries, with several Iranian citizens facing mistreatment in European prisons after being held on “arbitrary” charges, claims the High Council of Human Rights of Iran. If not the removal of sanctions, then swift action must be taken by international organisations to support Iran with socio-economic harm caused by said sanctions.