On 6 July 2020, the United Kingdom implemented its first independent sanctions under a new global human rights regime, which targets individuals and entities alleged by the UK government to be connected to human rights violations and abuses. Forty-seven individuals and two entities have been targeted by the UK with an asset freeze and travel ban. Among those targeted are a number of Russian nationals accused by the UK government of aiding and abetting in the death of Sergei Magnitsky and certain Saudi nationals accused by the UK government of allegedly facilitating the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Sanctions were also imposed on two high-ranking generals from Myanmar, as well as North Korean organisations involved in the running of its prison systems and labour camps.
The sanctions have been introduced under the new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. This piece of secondary legislation was introduced following the introduction of the UK's Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, which gave ministers the power to introduce new sanctions regulations for a number of different reasons, including to provide accountability for or be a deterrent to gross violations of human rights, or otherwise promote compliance with international human rights.
As specified in the legislation, this new regime can be used to impose sanctions for serious violations or abuses of three human rights:
- an individual's right to life;
- the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; or
- right to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour.
When announcing the new regime, UK Ministers indicated they were already exploring adding other types of human rights to the legislation, including specifically considering whether to include corruption as a ground for sanctioning by the UK.
Those sanctioned can challenge the decision in court or request a ministerial review of the decision. All designations will be reviewed every three years.
The UK scheme is similar in approach to the "Magnitsky" and "Global Magnitsky" sanctions programs in the United States. The programs are named after the Russian lawyer who died in police custody following his uncovering of widespread corruption by a group of Russian tax and police officials. Indeed, nearly all of those now sanctioned by the UK were already listed on the equivalent U.S. program, but the UK's action is expected to enhance the impact of the sanctions, given its position as a financial centre.
Further, in parallel to recent U.S. sanctions activity in connection with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and recent sanctions legislation related to events in Hong Kong, the UK government is under some national political pressure to consider introducing similar sanctions in future.
The UK's actions are part of a broader global trend for countries to extend their existing sanctions regimes by taking measures against individuals and entities that are alleged by them to be involved in human rights abuses. At the end of last year, the European Union announced the launch of its preparatory work to prepare its own equivalent of the Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky sanctions programs to include persons it believes to be human rights violators. This EU development follows various initiatives led in particular by the Netherlands and Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, who initially floated the idea of an EU human rights sanctions program in 2018. Although specific timing is still unknown, it is expected that the EU human rights sanction program will be launched in the near future.