Post Brexit: UK first standalone ‘human rights’ sanctions announced

Forty-nine individuals and organisations, “involved in some of the most notorious human rights violations and abuses in recent years,” are now subjected to asset freezes and travel bans.

The sanctions have been imposed by UK Government under the ‘Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020’.  This is secondary legislation using powers granted within the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018.  These are the first new sanctions created using the UK’s standalone sanctions regime.  Prior to leaving the EU, the UK had generally created sanctions using powers in the European Communities Act 1972 – which will be fully repealed by the end of the transition period.

As well as being the UK’s first new sanctions since Brexit, they are the first classified as ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions – named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax adviser who died in a Moscow prison after discovering a massive fraud conducted by Russian state officials.  Magnitsky legislation provides for sanctions against officials who carry out gross human rights abuses

The list of sanctioned individuals includes: Saudi Arabians allegedly involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul; and Russian officials allegedly involved in the mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky; and two high-ranking generals from Myanmar.  The two sanctioned organisations are both branches of the North Korean Ministry of People’s Security.

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to “further develop an independent Magnitsky-style sanctions regime to tackle human rights abusers head on.”  The Global Human Rights Regulations 2020 set out the human rights sanctions framework in full.

While debating the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, UK Parliamentarians argued that the Bill should contain the specific purpose of deterring gross human rights abuses.  Various amendments to this end were added during its passage through the Commons.

Announcing the sanctions in the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “These sanctions are a forensic tool, they allow us to target perpetrators without punishing the wider people of a country that may be affected.”

‘Magnitsky’ sanctions target individuals and organisations.  By contrast, ‘trade’ sanctions ban certain transactions with an entire country.  The economic damage caused by trade sanctions impact the entire population of the target country – and hurt vulnerable but innocent people.

The measures represent a significant departure from the EU – and were made without overt or formal co-ordination with allies.

Sanctions policy has been an important part of the Brexit discussions concerning the future relationship between the UK and the EU.  The EU proposed co-ordination on sanctions policy as part of its draft partnership treaty with the UK.  The UK does not view co-operation on provisions covering foreign affairs and defence as requiring a new treaty framework.

External expert commentators, however, contend that to be effective as well as independent, sanctions should be imposed in co-ordination with allies.  Analysts at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) argued: “The consideration of sanctions coordination should be an important – and urgent – priority for the UK government as it considers its future independent sanctions policy.”

Time will tell.