UK announces first sanctions under new 'post-Brexit' global human rights regime on 49 people and organisations


On 6 July 2020, the UK Government enacted the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 ("Sanction Regulations"), which is secondary legislation made under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 ("SAMLA"). This marks the first time that the UK has independently sanctioned people or organisations for human rights violations and abuses under a UK-only regime. Although limited in scope at this stage, there are already calls to increase the number of individuals and organisations who are targeted by the new 'Magnitsky' style sanctions regime.

In 2016, the United States Congress enacted the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act ("Magnitsky Act"), which allows the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world. The immediate intention behind the Magnitsky Act was to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009 (although it has been subsequently been used more broadly to sanction those seen as human rights abusers internationally).

The UK is now following the U.S's lead in setting up its own regime with the same intention of acting as a deterrent against human rights abuses and to provide accountability for serious violations of an individual’s human rights. The Government's statement makes it clear that the new regime is intended to give the UK the power to implement sanctions on a unilateral basis going forward, with the purpose of targeting individuals and organisations around the world, including "those who commit unlawful killings perpetrated against journalists and media workers, or violations and abuses motivated on the grounds of religion or belief." A special unit will consider the use of future sanctions, with teams across the Foreign & Commonwealth Office "monitoring human rights issues."

The Sanction Regulations is implemented through powers set out under SAMLA. SAMLA was enacted to ensure that the UK could continue to impose economic and other sanctions following the UK's departure from the EU on an independent basis. The Sanction Regulations can be used to impose sanctions for serious violations or abuses of three human rights which, if carried out by or on behalf of a state within the territory of that state, would amount to a serious violation by that state of an individual’s:

  1. right to life
  2. right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or
  3. right to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

Those individuals and organisations subject to immediate sanctions (consisting of UK asset freezes and travel bans) under the Sanctions Regulations are:

  • 25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky;
  • 20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul;
  • Two high-ranking Myanmar military generals involved in the systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities; and
  • Two organisations involved in forced labour, torture and murder in North Korea's gulags.

The Russian Government stated on 7 July 2020 that reciprocal measures would be implemented in response.

In terms of their initial impact on business, this will be very limited, given the location of the parties/organisations and the fact that many are already subject to other U.S. sanction restrictions. The EU has not yet implemented its own Magnitsky regime (although one is currently being formulated), which is likely part of the reason why the UK has chosen to act independently in this instance.

It is difficult to gauge at this stage how widely these new powers will be used. Given the UK's existing position as one of the EU's most aggressive sanctions advocates, it is likely that it will begin to act on an independent basis more regularly in implementing unilateral sanctions. However, this will simultaneously need to be weighed-up against the UK's overarching need to tread carefully on the international stage now that independent trade policy has to be negotiated. This political environment may well end up curtailing the extent to which the UK can implement any unilateral sanctions, even against those individuals implicated in the worst kinds of human rights abuses.


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