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Assessing the Current and Future Impact of the UK’s Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020

On 6 July 2020, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the United Kingdom’s first unilateral sanctions in an attempt to curb the “very worst” violations of human rights globally. The sanctions have initially established a blacklist of 49 individuals and organisations. Action has primarily been taken against officials involved in the torture of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who exposed tax fraud by Russian officials in 2008-09, and Saudi nationals implicated in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate in 2018. Further sanctions have also been placed against military generals in Myanmar and organisations in North Korea for their incitation of violence and torture.

For future use, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has released a list of descriptors as to what constitutes a designation in the first place. This means that there is scope for further sanctions in the future beyond the initial 49 listed individuals. It condemns any action which violates the right to life, including torture, punishment, or enacting any form of slavery. Furthermore, there is also an economic dimension to the sanctions. It has been declared a criminal offence for a company, financial institution, or firm to involve themselves in economic resources which are headed or controlled by one of these designated people, let alone to make funds available to them.

Legally, the regulations are established in accordance with and under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act (SAMLA) of 2018. This was originally created as a post-Brexit foundation to embrace sanctions and impose future penalties against individuals or organisations for “discretionary purposes” such as maintaining international peace or fighting terrorist operations. The 2018 Act has now enabled the UK to start operating autonomously when imposing its own structures for global breaches and violations of human rights. In doing so, the UK is departing from the need to achieve a consensus with the other 27 European member states at the European Union level.

The introduction of such a global regime is not without precedent. It follows the United States’ own Magnitsky Act of 2012, which first named the Russian officials involved in the large tax fraud, and draws on the US’ Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 which imposed sanctions on violators of human rights globally. The UK is also following similar legislation enacted since 2016 in Estonia, Canada, and Latvia.

Less than a month after the Magnitsky-style measures were announced, the UK has trialled them on the international scene. Subsequently, its use has questioned the nature of the sanctions themselves. Are they enforced purely to signal injustices and bring about a firm degree of cosmopolitanism in recognising global human rights? Or is there also an ulterior motive for the UK in introducing these sanctions? In the UK’s current transition period, it is fair to consider them as state instruments in a broader coercive diplomatic framework. Insofar as the rules condemn cruel violations of humanitarianism, they have another purpose of supporting the UK’s foreign policy objectives.

This ulterior motive is evidenced by the fact that the sanctions target specific individuals associated with a violation, with little or no reference to a particular state’s involvement with these individuals. Part 2 of the sanctions constantly states the “power to designate persons”. A notable example of this is the sanctions imposed against 20 Saudi individuals and officials believed to have been involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Despite claims published in an official report by the United Nations in 2019 that these nationals were agents acting on behalf of both the state of Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammad, the new sanctions only target the individuals and do not add sanctions against the state.

Why is the Saudi Arabian state unmentioned in these sanctions, despite the growing evidence that they were implicated? Just a day after the sanctions were announced, Britain publicised that it would resume arms sales with Saudi Arabia. In targeting officials and individuals of a state rather than the state’s central authority itself, the UK is seen to be fostering amicable relations in the form of trade. The sanctions are certainly trying to work two ways: Britain is creating a post-Brexit vision to meet the human rights guidelines of their Atlantic allies but is also strategizing to protect its own international interests.

There are also potential risks accompanying these human rights sanctions. The UK has declared an extended embargo of firearms and shackles to Hong Kong after China passed its new security law, giving Beijing exceptional powers over the region of Hong Kong. With increased demands in Parliament to impose new sanctions against China after their repressive international law was passed, the UK aimed to project themselves as a champion of UN standards.

For Members of Parliament across the political spectrum too, the embargo was certainly justified amidst the violent treatment of Uighur Muslims. However, the embargo also suggests that the humanitarian situation both dictated the UK’s trade policy and compromised a potential trade link. Potentially in the future, if such human rights violations continue to be sanctioned against, in an effort to further the UK’s post-Brexit vision, Britain could be at risk of economic reprisal.

The UK’s new global human rights regime is presented as a new post-Brexit branding. However, it is also conspicuously tied to ulterior interests. The past month and a half have revealed the complexities, compromises, and even contradictions which are sought within the new regime. The UK is both torn between creating and maintaining its democratic and humanitarian role with its transatlantic and European partners and is yet also committed to retaining its economic dominance.


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