Analysis

UK: New human rights-related sanctions likely to be used sparingly, strategically

  • EMEA
  • United Kingdom

UK: New human rights-related sanctions likely to be used sparingly, strategically



Foreign Secretary (foreign minister) Dominic Raab on 6 July announced the first list of individuals subject to sanctions under a new UK system.

  • The sanctions list is driven by human rights concerns, but geopolitics will undoubtedly play a part in future decisions on who to add and the UK is likely to want to avoid the inclusion of senior political figures from generally friendly nations.
  • The measures underline the UK’s intention to assert its standing after Brexit as a foreign relations power. However, the UK is unlikely to significantly diverge from EU or US positions.
  • The legislation is likely to be used sparingly and strategically, though organisations that do business with sanctioned individuals or entities could face legal or reputational risks.
  • Companies should ensure that they do not have a relationship with sanctioned individuals or organisations, and take steps to terminate relationships with them if they identify that there is a relationship.

 

The UK’s Magnitsky Act

The UK parliament passed the relevant legislation in 2018, which is in line with a trend of sanctions initiatives in Western countries that are increasingly focused on human rights and corruption. The initial list of individuals subject to sanctions focuses on those linked to specific crimes: the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magneitsky, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the running of prison camps in North Korea and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In all, 49 individuals and two organisations appear on the list, including 25 Russians and 20 Saudi nationals. The sanctions system will allow the UK to freeze the assets of individuals or organisations listed, and to refuse them entry to the UK.

Post-Brexit ambition

The UK intends to pursue an independent sanctions policy, having previously only imposed sanctions in conjunction with the UN or EU. In practice, the drivers behind sanctions applied are unlikely to diverge significantly from those of the EU or other allies (all but seven of the individuals and entities are on one of the US’s two Magnitsky sanctions lists). However, the UK will be able to act more swiftly than the EU should it choose to, given that the EU system is often delayed by divisions between the 27 member states. Progress on an EU-wide Magnitsky Act remains slow, prompting member states to consider adopting their own legislation at the national level. 

Targeted system

The legislation will have only a limited direct impact on business. Travel bans and asset freezes may have a significant impact on targeted persons, as well as their businesses and potentially their employees. The current list does not focus on economically important individuals or entities. However, companies could be exposed to reputational and legal risks if associated with sanctioned persons. 

The UK insists that its system will be applied based purely upon human rights considerations (and intends to later expand it to cover corruption offences) and it is unlikely to impose sanctions driven by economic rivalry. However, economics and politics will play a part in decision-making. The government is likely to refrain from placing sanctions on figures whose actions fit the criteria, but who are deemed economically or politically strategic to the UK. This is particularly likely given the UK’s desire to conclude free trade deals in the coming months with both the US and the EU.

Senior Conservative MPs on 6 July called for Chinese officials to be added to the list over the treatment of Uighur Muslims and for Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to be included over the imposition of the new national security law in the territory. If relations with China worsen in the coming months, as appears likely, the UK is likely to consider sanctions on Chinese officials. However, the UK is unlikely to want to sanction those in China’s most senior positions, given the UK’s desire to prevent a complete breakdown of diplomatic relations with Beijing. It is also unlikely to significantly diverge from the US in going further to sanction China.

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