On Monday (6 July) the Government announced the first new sanctions under the post-Brexit legislative framework. Forty-nine individuals and organisations, “involved in some of the most notorious human rights violations and abuses in recent years,” were subjected to asset freezes and travel bans.

The sanctions were imposed under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. This is secondary legislation using powers granted in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. These were the first new sanctions created using the UK’s standalone sanctions regime. Before leaving the EU the UK had usually created sanctions using powers in the European Communities Act 1972. By the end of the transition period, the 1972 Act will be fully repealed.

What are Magnitsky-style sanctions?

As well as being the UK’s first new sanctions since Brexit, they are the first to be seen as ‘Magnitsky sanctions’. Magnitsky sanctions are 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 and is based partly on the US Global Magnitsky Act of 2016.

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.

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 Government’s 6 July announcement and the Global Human Rights Regulations 2020 set out the human rights sanctions framework in full.

Along with further details of the legal framework came the list of the first sanctioned individuals and entities. Individuals included 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. Two high-ranking generals from Myanmar were sanctioned. Two organisations are also included: both are branches of the North Korean Ministry of People’s Security.

Targeted sanctions

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.”

The sanctions target individuals and organisations. In contrast, trade sanctions ban certain transactions with an entire country. The economic damage that trade sanctions cause affects everyone in the target country. This can particularly hurt vulnerable people.  

There is a vigorous debate as to whether sanctions work and, if so, what type is best. But Western countries have used targeted sanctions more than trade sanctions in recent years.

Lack of co-ordination

The measures taken by the UK Government represent another departure from the EU. They were made without overt or formal co-ordination with allies.

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

Many commentators 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.”

This article was updated on 13.07.20 to add that generals from Myanmar were sanctioned. A previous version stated branches of the Myanmar Ministry of People’s Security were subject to sanctions. This should have read North Korean Ministry of People’s Security and has been corrected.

Further reading

Magnitsky legislation, House of Commons Library.

The future of sanctions, House of Commons Library.

Do sanctions work? House of Commons Library.

About the author: Ben Smith is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.

Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor