The US uses economic sanctions as a weapon against states that choose a development path independent of US global domination. Sanctions can take the form of blocking a nation's financial and trade transactions, not allowing financial institutions to process them. The US can also freeze the assets of another country.
The US uses sanctions as a tool to overthrow governments that do not kow-tow to it. Sanctions are a weapon of war on civilians. They destroy the economy of a country ("make the economy scream") by causing hyperinflation, unemployment, preventing the import of necessities such as food, medicine, and equipment to keep infrastructure and industries running. They drive capital flight from countries as corporations and financial institutions seek to distance themselves and avoid being targeted themselves. These result in deadly consequences for the civilian population.
US sanctions have both world reach and crippling effect because most trade and currency exchange between countries takes place with US dollars and the allied euro. Since the dollar is the world reserve currency, financial and trade transactions typically go through the US banking system. This enables the US to block money transfers for the smallest transaction and to confiscate billions of dollars held by targeted governments and individuals. By controlling the international financial system, Washington can demand banks in foreign countries accept US restrictions or face sanctions themselves.
However, according to the United Nations, US sanctions are unilateral coercive measures that violate international laws. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly called on all states not to recognize or apply unilateral coercive measures, such as those employed by the US. Every year since 1992 it has condemned the US blockade of Cuba; Washington's response has been to worsen it. The 120-member Non-Aligned Movement has condemned sanctions on Venezuela.
Despite this, the US continues to freely flaunt the UN by imposing these unilateral sanctions on a variety of countries, the most severe being against Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela. US sanctions contributed to 40,000 deaths in Venezuela just between 2017 and 2018, and to the deaths of 4,000 North Koreans in 2018, most of them children and pregnant women. In the early 1990s, US sanctions against Iraq led to the deaths of as many as 880,000 children under five due to malnutrition and disease.
The US even brazenly threatened to sanction judges of the International Criminal Court if they dare investigate US war crimes in Afghanistan. National Security Advisor John Bolton bullied them: "We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans." This turned out to be no idle threat.
The US has recently taken its unilateral coercive measures to an even more ominous level by charging and attempting to extradite foreign businesspeople who have been abiding by international law rather than these US coercive measures. The cases of Alex Saab, a Venezuelan, Meng Wanzhou from China's Huawei tech giant, and Mun Chol Myong from North Korea are each charged with violating US sanctions even though all are non-US citizens living outside the US, conducting business outside the US. All are being politically persecuted for acting in the interests of their own countries and not the US.
The Case of Venezuelan special-envoy Alex Saab
The Obama administration began unilateral sanctions against Venezuela in 2015 with the utterly baseless claim that Venezuela poses "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security" of the US. As Reuters noted at the time, "Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a US sanctions program."
Saab, a Venezuelan businessman, is a special envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, holding diplomatic immunity. He was on route to Iran to acquire basic food, medicine and medical equipment much needed for the people of Venezuela. He was detained, in effect kidnapped, in Cape Verde on June 12, 2020 during a stopover, and has been held since that time, first in prison and now under house arrest. Saab points out that his "illegal detention is entirely politically motivated."
The US charged Saab with money laundering. "Money laundering" in this and the two other cases means nothing more than making international trade transactions, which must generally pass through the US-controlled SWIFT financial system that processes all dollar transactions. In this way, the US can impose its unilateral sanctions on the trade any country undertakes with nations the US sanctions or blockades, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, or Russia. "Money laundering" is the charge or threat the US uses to enforce its unilateral coercive measures on the rest of the world.
Saab explained, "I have worked since 2015 to ensure the supply of basic food and medicine and other items to supply the government's social welfare food program (CLAP). Since April 2018 I have been working as a servant of the State, as a Special Envoy and not as a private businessman." In other words, he was arrested for not adhering to US sanctions on his people in his missions of buying food for the Venezuelan people suffering under these sanctions.
Saab said in a recent interview, "For seven months... from the first day of my abduction, they tortured me and pressured me to sign voluntary extradition declarations and bear false witness against my government." He refused, stating "President Maduro has shown incredible leadership in the face of unprecedented sanctions and dirty political tricks from the US. I am honored to be able to assist President Maduro in any way I can, as he seeks to ensure the well-being of the people of Venezuela." In jail he was kept in the dark for 23 hours a day, "lying on the concrete [floor]." He partially lost his eyesight. "I was forbidden to speak to anyone inside the prison, and everyone else was forbidden to speak to me... I have lost 25 kilos [55 pounds]."
On March 25, 2021, courts in Switzerland, determining there was no evidence that Saab committed any irregularity, formally closed its two-year investigation against him for money laundering through Swiss banks. Soon after the Swiss statement, on March 31, the US Treasury Department withdrew the sanctions that President Trump had issued on a group of companies allegedly linked to Alex Saab.
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