The software was inaccessible in Syria in the immediate aftermath of February’s 6.8 magnitude earthquake.
It is inaccessible in Iran, which has also suffered devastating earthquakes in the past.
Life-saving humanitarian coordination software used by the UN’s emergency response network was blocked in Syria after February’s devastating earthquake because of US sanctions, Middle East Eye (MEE) reported on 28 July.
The online system is also inaccessible in Iran, which has suffered from devastating earthquakes in the past, and where the rapid coordinated deployment of search and rescue teams may prove crucial to save people trapped under rubble after an earthquake in the future.
The 6 February earthquake killed tens of thousands of people across hundreds of kilometers of southern Turkiye and northern Syria, but thousands of people were also saved from collapsed buildings by search and rescue teams.
The software, known as the Insarag Coordination & Management System (ICMS), was developed by the UN’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (Insarag).
One of the developers of the ICMS has described its importance as “delivering key intelligence to the right people at the right place at the right time.”
Urban search and rescue teams can log details of rescue efforts via mobile phone apps, allowing coordinators to better understand the situation on the ground and appropriately deploy resources.
However, in Syria, the system was inaccessible on the ground in the critical first days after the earthquake.
The ICMS system was blocked because it runs on a platform called ArcGIS, which is developed and maintained by a US-based company, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI).
ESRI does not allow its products to be used in countries subject to US sanctions, and lists both Syria and Iran as prohibited countries on its website.
Rather than log data into the ICMS directly, rescue teams were asked to fill in paper forms and then send images of the forms via WhatsApp for others to input the information, MEE reported.
Urban search and rescue teams were later advised to download a VPN app to use the ICMS.
Though the use of a VPN is a potentially easy fix, no effort was made to notify rescue teams in advance that the system might be inaccessible or that a VPN should be used.
According to Mahsa Alimardani, human rights researcher at the NGO, Article 19, “There are ways to ensure your tech is accessible. It’s just whether it is a priority.”
Amir Rashidi, an Iranian internet security and digital rights researcher, told MEE, “The problem with the sanctions, which we’ve been dealing with for a long time, is over-compliance by the technology companies. There is a fear in these companies that they might face charges or fines.”
This highlights a common issue with sanctions. While US officials claim that sanctions imposed on enemy states provide humanitarian exemptions to avoid harming civilians, in practice, companies and NGOs seeking to provide aid not technically banned by sanctions nevertheless refrain from doing so for fear of penalties for violating sanctions.