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Sanctions on Syria: a very special UN Rapporteur

Syrie Factuel


Alena Douhan, special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, published a preliminary report on the “devastating effect” of international sanctions on Syria. But her work is tainted by conflicts of interest with authoritarian states allied to the Syrian regime.

“Sanctions are the favorite tool of the western regimes to punish the governments of which they disapprove” said Rania Khalek, host of Breakthrough News, a media outlet with several staff formerly employed by RT, the Kremlin channel. According to Khalek, who was rewarded by a pro-Assad lobby group and worked for several Russian propaganda outlets as well as The Grayzone, a pro-Kremlin conspiracy theory website, “it seems that suffering is in fact the goal” sought by those “western regimes”. To “discuss sanctions on Syria”, on November 17 she welcomed Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures.

Following a 12-days visit in regime-held areas Alena Douhan had just published a preliminary assessment on the impact of “unilateral coercive measures” on Syria. She denounced “the devastating effect” of the sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime in 2011 by the international community in response to the bloody repression of peaceful demonstrations by Bashar Al-Assad and called for their “immediate lifting”.

Alena Douhan (right) invited by Rania Khalek (left) on Breakthrough on November 17. Screenshot Syrie Factuel

The special Rapporteur told Rania Khalek that sanctions would be the main cause of the chaos in which the country has been plunged since 2011, without ever mentioning crimes committed by the Syrian regime against its own population or its massive diversion of international aid. On the very first page of her declaration, she took care to “thank the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria for the transparent and constructive way in which they facilitated this visit and arranged all requested official meetings, in Damascus as well as in the governorate of Homs”.

A mandate created by Iran’s initiative

The post of special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures was created by a 2014 resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council tabled by Iran on behalf of the non-aligned movement. This resolution presents sanctions as a tool violating international laws and the sovereignty of states. Among those who voted in favor of this resolution were China, Venezuela, Cuba and Russia. Countries that are often targeted by international sanctions for their violations of human rights. The United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan voted against it.

The appointment of Alena Douhan’s in march 2020 for a three year term as Special Rapporteur already caused concerns, as the European union was moving to impose sanctions against Alexandr Lukachenko’s regime after frauds during the presidential election in Belarus the same year. Alena Douhan, herself a Belarusian citizen, is also Director of the Peace Research Center at the Belarusian State University, an establishment close to the regime. Several of its staff have been put on the EU sanctions list for their role in the repression of the Belarusian opposition. Often cast as the “last dictatorship of Europe”, Belarus is also a close ally of Russia and Syria.

Alexandr Lukashenko meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2015. Source

In 2020, Alena Douhan had urged the international community “to take immediate measures to lift, or at least suspend, all sanctions until our common threat [the Covid19 pandemic] is eliminated”. In July of this year, she warned about secondary effects of sanctions on Russia and Belarus imposed in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. During her mandate, she also demanded the lifting of sanctions on Qatar, Iran, and Venezuela. “That is allowing oneself to be used for regime’s propaganda.” said the Venezuelian opposition leader’s envoy to the United Nations.

Contributions from China and Russia

Last May, the UN Watch NGO signalled that Douhan’s mission has benefited from a contribution of $200,000 from China in 2021. In a Human Rights Council report regarding the special procedures the same year, it is also stated that her mission received $150,000 from the Federation of Russia and $25,000 from Qatar. In 2020, her mission already received $160,000 from China and $115,000 for Moscow.

In 2020, China already gave $160,000 to Douhan’s mission, and Moscow $115,000.

The UN recalls that Special Rapporteurs “work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work.” But nothing prevents NGOs, private investors or states from contributing financially to those missions.

Excerpt from Human Rights Council report regarding the special procedures mentionning China, Qatar and Russia’s financial contributions to Alena Douhan’s mission in 2021.

China’s contribution to Douhan was by far the largest she was given in 2021. That same year, Russia gave the same amount of money to only one other Special Rapporteur.

In September 2021, Alena Douhan appeared at a China-sponsored event under the banner “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land”. Beijing is accused by the UN of carrying out arbitrary and discriminatory detentions in this same region against the Uyghur Muslim minority which may constitute crimes against humanity. Alena Douhan had denounced the American sanctions against China as illegal. According to UN Watch, Alena Douhan has participated in other conferences organized by China with the support of Russia, Belarus and Iran.

Alena Douhan was again at the centre of a controversy when it was announced she would visit Iran, last May. It’s coming to Tehran was criticized by human rights NGO and Iranian activists who accused her of allowing the Iranian regime to deflect attention away from government mismanagement and human rights violations.

After her 12-days visit, Alena Douhan slammed the “disastrous” effect of American sanctions on Iran on the “humanitarian level”. She will present a final report on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures to the Human Rights Council in September 2023

UN stamped Syrian propaganda

Alena Douhan published her first preliminary assessment on sanctions on Syria in December 2020. She was calling on the United States to abandon its sanctions which, according to her, “violate the human rights of the Syrian people, whose country has been destroyed by almost 10 years of ongoing conflict” — here again without ever mentioning Syrian regime’s responsibility. Damascus immediately took up Alena Douhan’s accusations, going so far as to call the US Sanctions “crimes against humanity”.

Alena Douhan speaking with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone on January 2021. Screenshot Syrie Factuel.

Those allegations were rejected by the US Special Envoy for Syria, but also by Syrian NGOs defending human rights. The Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity accused the Special Rapporteur of parroting false statements from the Syrian regime and it’s Russian ally.

Alena Douhan’s report was used as a platform for a public campaign against sanctions on Syria in the United States, the United Kingdom and France led by numerous pro-Assad militants, as Syrie Factuel reported at the time.

Seen on RT and the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV, Alena Douhan had already promoted her work among allies of the Syrian regime. She notably gave an interview to The Grayzone and spoke in private with Pierre Le Corf, a French propagandist close to far-right pro-Assad networks and a participants in the public campaign against sanctions on Syria. “I was discussing with Alena Douhan, United Nations special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures against Syria to try to move together in the same direction”, he wrote on Facebook.

On November 8th, the Syrian Network For Human Rights said “UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan should demand that the Syrian regime ends violations and crimes against humanity as a precondition for lifting sanctions”. The NGO added that “there are other aspects of the economic suffering of the Syrian people that are far more serious than the sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime, such as the regime displacing 14 million Syrian citizens, the arrest and disappearance of roughly 136,000 Syrian citizens at the hands of the Syrian regime, and the Syrian regime being ranked as the second-worst regime globally on the Corruption Perception Index for the year 2021”

(Update 25/11/2022: Adds China’s and Russia’s financial contributions to Alena Douhan’s mission in 2020.)

Read the French version here



Syrie Factuel

Collectif citoyen francophone contre la désinformation sur la Syrie : des faits et du contexte !