EU’s new human rights regime ushers new hope
In a rare admission of the suffering caused by the targeted sanctions imposed by the United States, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, told the media that she had lost all banking services and had to transact solely in cash. Defying the US sanction by any commercial bank, even if that was wholly owned by Hong Kong nationals, would have meant the end of their global business. The abovementioned sanction which Ms Lam has been subjected to is known as the Magnitsky Act. It allows for the imposition of sanctions against individuals and entities accused of serious human rights violations and corruptions. The outgoing Trump administration has already used this act to slap sanctions, including travel ban and freezing of assets in the US, on over 500 individuals and companies from across the world. The majority of those on the list are from within the American continent, or from Russia and China.
The apparent success of this smart sanctions tool seems to be a preferred choice for western democracies. Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and a few others have long been advocating for the imposition of targeted penalties against individuals and institutions engaged in serious violations of peoples' rights. The European Union is the latest to join in the campaign, following Canada and the United Kingdom. The EU Council of ministers on December 7 adopted its own version of the Magnitsky Act. The council agreed to establish a global human rights sanctions regime that allows the EU to freeze the assets of, ban entry to, and prohibit dealings with human rights abusers, wherever they may be located.
The EU human rights sanctions regime has a special significance, since it combines 27 European nations with a better record among other western democracies in defending human rights globally. If implemented and enforced consistently and in coordination with the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, it has the potential to make an even wider impact in the global fight against human rights abuse.
Human rights defenders hailed the Magnistsky Act as a much needed "smart tool" to counter autocratic regimes, because it allows western governments to target perpetrators without punishing the mass people of a country. The US Congress in 2012 first enacted the Act and named it after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian auditor, allegedly tortured to death in a Moscow jail in 2009 following his revelation of a USD 230 million dollar fraud by Russian tax officials in the UK. The UK government enacted the British Magnitsky Act last July and imposed targeted sanctions against 49 people and organisations and among them 25 were Russians.
On December 10, Britain announced fresh sanctions on 10 politicians and officials accused of human rights breaches in Russia, Venezuela, The Gambia and Pakistan. The list includes a former president and his wife as well as a lower level police officer. The Gambia's former president Yahya Jammeh, whose election defeat in December 2016 forced him to flee, was one of three from the West African nation. His wife Zineb and the former director-general of the country's National Intelligence Agency, Yankuba Badjie, are also subject to asset freezes and a UK travel ban. Allegations against Jammeh include extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, kidnappings, torture, rape, as well as wider human rights violations. Both the ex-president and his wife are already under similar sanctions from the United States.
However, the inclusion of a former police super of Pakistan in the sanctions' list is a sign that it is being broadened to other countries to locate serious abusers. The Pakistani police official named by the British government is a former senior superintendent of police in Malir District, Ahmad Anwar Khan, who is known to be an "encounter specialist", suspected of being responsible for more than 190 "hits" that led to more than 400 deaths.
In a sign of coordination in taking actions against the worst abusers, the outgoing US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a statement issued to mark International Human Rights Day said: "We stand beside our partners in the UK who similarly took action against those seeking to rob individuals of their rights. We congratulate the UK on the actions it took today under its Global Human Rights sanctions programme." Mr Pompeo noted that in the past 48 hours the US and the UK together took action against 37 actors in total, in connection with corruption or serious human rights abuse. Welcoming the EU's Global Human Rights Sanctions framework, he said together along with other international partners we will ensure corrupt actors and human rights abusers will have no refuge within our jurisdictions.
The EU sanctions regime, however, is not a replication of the US or UK legislations. The EU legislation does not include persons accused of corruption and has been criticised by some activists. They argue that autocratic regimes want to silence their critics to suppress their own corruption. Despite this shortcoming, it is expected that the EU's regime would be a powerful tool to fight against human rights abusers as Europe remains an attractive destination to transfer assets.
Electoral successes of the Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden in the US is seen as an opportunity in the global fight against human rights abuse as he has pledged to make democracy and human rights the core principles of his foreign policy. Rights groups now hope that increased coordination across the Atlantic will be bring about positive changes in the protection of human rights all over the world.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.