UN experts warn US sanctions endangering lives of Venezuelan cancer patients

The United States' attempt "to control the political agenda of Venezuela has had devastating consequences for hundreds of people undergoing treatment."

Six independent experts appointed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council on Wednesday warned that “hundreds of Venezuelan cancer patients could die” as a result of illegal U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuela and its state-owned oil company.

“The lives of Venezuelan transplant patients who are stranded in foreign countries, as well as those waiting to travel abroad for livesaving operations are under threat,” the U.N. special rapporteurs said. “A trip abroad for treatment has become the only hope for hundreds of critically ill patients.”

Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, who sought to topple the elected government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the U.S. in August 2017 began to unilaterally impose sanctions on Venezuela in violation of international law as well as the charter of the Organization of American States and other international treaties the U.S. has signed.

While Trump’s attempt to force a regime change in the South American country ultimately failed, U.S. sanctions “killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans in just their first year (2017–18), and almost certainly tens of thousands more since then,” according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.

In August 2019, following the failure of Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó’s U.S.-backed coup attempt, Trump moved to further strangle the Venezuelan economy—and ultimately, its population—by imposing a full economic embargo. Trump’s punitive executive order froze all Venezuelan government assets and outlawed transactions with them, including the state’s central bank and its oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).

The U.N.-appointed human rights experts argued last Wednesday that U.S. sanctions negatively affected a program run by the Simón Bolívar Foundation, the charitable arm of Citgo Petroleum Corporation, a U.S.-based refiner owned by PDVSA.

The program ”helped cancer patients, including many children, travel abroad for transplants and for other livesaving treatment,” the experts said. “Hundreds of these patients used to be linked to a national transplant program with the Venezuelan government, but their treatment was discontinued” because of U.S. sanctions.

According to the U.N. Human Rights Council, “There are some 190 cancer patients on a waiting list for foreign treatment, and some 14 children, including three toddlers, died between 2017 and 2020 waiting for treatment under the program.”

The U.N. special rapporteurs said the U.S. government as well as other countries and entities have been made aware that Washington’s economic blockade of Venezuela is endangering cancer patients.

“Third countries, groups of countries, banks, and private companies have been overly cautious in dealings with Venezuela because they fear unintentionally violating U.S. sanctions,” said the human rights advocates. “As a consequence, money cannot be transferred out of Venezuela, and some patients have been stranded, destitute, in countries where they went for treatment.”

The U.N.-appointed experts called on the U.S. and other countries and entities “to mitigate the unexpected consequences of sanctions, and reinstate treatment for people whose lives now are in danger. They must take full responsibility for the effect their actions have on the fundamental rights to life and health of every individual around the world.”

Last month, in a letter sent to U.S. President Joe Biden, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) drew attention to the deadly consequences of U.S. sanctions and urged the Biden administration to end “all secondary and sectoral sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the Trump administration.” Biden, however, has so far maintained his predecessor’s “murderous blockade of Venezuela,” as journalist Ben Norton called it on Thursday.

In their statement released Wednesday, the U.N. special rapporteurs said that “targeting PDVSA as a way to control the political agenda of Venezuela has had devastating consequences for hundreds of people undergoing treatment for transplant rejection, both in Venezuela and abroad.” They added that “people on a state waiting list for transplants have also been informed that their treatments will not continue.”

“States have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of every person affected by direct international action, even those outside their jurisdiction or effective control, no matter what their original intent was,” said the human rights experts.

“The right to health and the right to life are fundamental for every individual around the world,” they added. “We call on all states, banks, and private companies to take full responsibility for the effects of their actions on individuals, and to withdraw sanctions, zero-risk, and over-compliance policies affecting core human rights.”

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Kenny Stancil is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @kenny_stancil

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