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Sanctions: UK launches post-Brexit regime amid concerns about trade ties

This article was posted on International Bar Association web site on Wednesday 09 September 2020 by Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia Journalist.

In July the British Government announced the first wave of targets of its new, post-Brexit sanctions regime. Forty-nine individuals and organisations have been targeted, meaning they are banned from entering the United Kingdom, channelling money through UK banks or ‘profiting from our economy’, as the government announcement stated.

The list of targets includes those accused of what the UK government calls ‘some of the most notorious human rights violations and abuses in recent years’. For example, the government has sanctioned 25 Russian nationals for what it claims is their involvement in the mistreatment and torture of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, after whom the United States’ 2012 sanctions regime was named and introduced.

Russia promised to retaliate and commented that the sanctions ‘will not improve Russian-British relations’.

But, announcing the launch of the regime, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the sanctions were a ‘matter of moral duty’, and that ‘we can’t turn a blind eye to gross violations of human rights’. He told the BBC that the UK ‘will apply the designations in the countries which we’ve designated today… for countries where we have a relationship, whether it’s an ally or other countries that we need to engage with, because that’s the world we live in’.

“The UK previously has and will continue to prioritise its political relationships with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and a host of autocracies over the protection of lives and accountability".

Toby Cadman European Regional Forum Liaison Officer, IBA War Crimes Committee

Bill Browder, Magnitsky’s friend and client at the time of his death, has actively campaigned for sanctions regimes to be brought in by as many countries as possible, including the UK and the US. He tells Global Insight he’s ‘pleased to see that the law is now being used and the door is now open for further designations’.

Browder believes such regimes, by targeting individuals with asset freezes and visa bans, more effectively hit the perpetrators of abuses and do not harm the victims or everyday citizens in the way sanctions implemented against countries might.

The UK regime currently allows for individuals and companies responsible for human rights abuses to be targeted, including for unlawful killings of journalists and violations on the grounds on religion, and can apply to those who ‘facilitate, incite, promote, or support these violations/abuses, as well as those who financially profit from [them].’

The UK will continue to participate in multilateral schemes, but this is the first time the UK has targeted human rights abusers independently of the European Union, to which its sanctions capacity was previously tied. Browder argues this independence is a positive, given that while seven countries including the US have issued sanctions in relation to Magnitsky’s death, the EU still hasn’t been able to agree to any sanctions.

The EU announced in December 2019 that it is working towards its own ‘Magnitsky Act’, but progress so far has been slow.

Foreign Secretary Raab declared the UK regime ‘a demonstration of Global Britain’s commitment to acting as a force for good in the world’, but human rights organisations are concerned about the scope of the regime and its designations.

For example, the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom – the independent body convened at the request of the UK and Canadian governments – released a statement in early July, acknowledging the importance of launching such a regime but expressing that its scope could be broader.

Most of the individuals sanctioned by the UK are already sanctioned by the US, there are no sanctions on Chinese individuals or companies and corruption isn’t yet included in the scope of the regime. The UK government has stated that more designations are to follow and that the regime is set to be expanded.

Toby Cadman, European Regional Forum Liaison Officer of the IBA War Crimes Committee and joint head of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, says ‘Given that the supposed aim of the regime was to “deter and provide accountability” for those involved in violations of human rights, the inability of the UK government to abide by its own regulations signals the overwhelming hypocrisy of its stance’.

Raab’s assertion that trade partnerships would not interfere with the moral duty to act in response to ‘gross violations to human rights’ leaves room for the reverse position – because the UK regime targets individuals, not countries, the government is able to continue trading with countries housing abusers. For example, the day after announcing sanctions against 20 Saudi Arabian nationals that the UK believes involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the UK resumed arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

Cadman adds ‘The continuance of arms trade with Saudi Arabia, and to some extent the continuation of diplomatic relations with the Kingdom, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, significantly hinders the efficacy of the sanctions regime, in addition to lessening the UK’s ability to be taken seriously as a world leader on human rights and democratic freedoms’.

In Cadman’s view, the central connection between UK-made arms and the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen and the Saudi-UAE-Egypt support of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, wholly contradicts any notions of alleged humanitarian concern. ‘The message that is therefore put forth is that the UK previously has and will continue to prioritise its political relationships with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and a host of autocracies over the protection of lives and accountability,’ he says.

Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee, acknowledges concerns regarding the regime but maintains ‘It is important that liberal democracies stand up for human rights, and send a strong signal that they will not tolerate the presence and business of egregious violators within their domestic boundaries.’

Indeed, speaking to the Parliament of Australia in May, Amal Clooney, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, urged Australia to commit to a similar regime, arguing that because ‘our moral nerve endings have been deadened’, ‘powerful governments are embracing isolationism’, and ‘the US, China and Russia are united in their disdain for the International Criminal Court’, sanctions are often the only recourse for human rights abuses and the only way to enforce international norms.

Given widespread concerns regarding the use of sanctions by the US government, including to target International Criminal Court officials, human rights advocates may be reassured by the UK’s creation of a special unit to consider future sanctions and designations, including by ensuring targets meet legal tests.


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