The United Kingdom has finally adopted the long-awaited Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime aimed at tackling human rights abusers around the world. With the announcement of targeted measures known as Magnitsky sanctions against individuals and entities accused of serious human rights violations in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea on Monday, the UK has now joined the United States and Canada in bringing in legislation to penalise rights abusers. The term "Magnitsky sanctions" is derived from the name of a Russian auditor, Sergei Magnitsky, who died from custodial torture in a Moscow jail in 2009 after his revelation of a USD 230 million fraud by Russian tax officials in the UK.
The Magnitsky Act, first enacted by the US Congress in 2012, was hailed by human rights defenders as a much-needed "smart tool" to counter autocratic regimes across the world. It allows Western governments to target perpetrators without punishing the ordinary people of a country. Since then, legislators in all major Western countries have been demanding similar initiatives in their respective countries. Baltic nations have already enacted such laws. The European Union has also drafted a European Magnitsky Act, and the UK draft had been awaiting approval since 2018. This legislation enjoys cross-party support and the opposition has been blaming the ruling party, the Conservatives, for its deferment. Meanwhile, the US administration in recent years has slapped dozens of travel bans on civil and security officials including ministers and their family members from a number of countries under this act. It has also frozen assets and bank accounts linked to those individuals and organisations.
On Monday, announcing the imposition of sanctions on 49 people and organisations behind the most "notorious" cases of human rights abuse in recent years, the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab termed them "thugs of despots and henchmen of dictators". He said the move sends a clear message and will stop those trying to launder their "blood-drenched ill-gotten gains". Among those named in the sanctions list are 25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and death of Sergei Magnitsky, 20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, two Myanmar generals accused of violence against the Rohingyas (Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, and his deputy Soe Win), and two North Korean organisations linked with forced labour.
The criteria, unveiled by the UK government, under which alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses will be determined are: 1) the right to life, where it is threatened by assassinations and extrajudicial killing; 2) the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and 3) the right to be free from slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour. The new legislation empowers the government to target a wider network of perpetrators, including those who facilitate, incite, promote or support these crimes. According to Mr Raab, this network of perpetrators extends beyond state officials to non-state actors as well. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson later told LBC Radio that "future targets of the regime may include those who commit unlawful killings perpetrated against journalists and media workers, or activity motivated on the grounds of religion or belief."
The Magnitsky Act in the US and Canada covers corruption by foreign dictators, their families and associates. Foreign Secretary Raab said that his government would explore the possibility of expanding the law further in line with the US and Canada. Recognising the limitations of such punitive actions against the worst offenders, Mr Raab told parliament that "targeted sanctions are most effective when they are done through coordinated collective action." He said that the UK would be working closely with other partners including the US, Canada, the European Union and Australia (the latter two are currently considering similar legislation).
Though this legislation is widely regarded as a right step in the right direction, doubts remain among rights campaigners about its wider application due to the current scale of human rights abuse in the world by various authoritarian regimes. Application of the act by the Trump administration has already shown that it is very much a selective one, and many of the worst offenders are being spared. So possible exclusions due to wider strategic and trade interests may require some convincing of the rights groups. Inclusion of 20 Saudi officials in the list may help alleviate such suspicion. In the UK parliament, backbench MPs from the ruling party have already raised questions about why no one from the Chinese government was included in the sanctions list despite the persecution of Uyghur minority Muslims. Sir Ian Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party, has demanded imposition of sanctions against the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam.
Questions will inevitably arise about sparing authoritarian leaders and limiting actions against a few officials instead of the whole regime of a country where a climate of gross violation is set by the leaders. Despite these crucial questions, the latest British action should be seen as a powerful message to serious abusers that impunity enjoyed in their own countries does not extend beyond their borders. There are reasons to be hopeful that given the closer ties between some Commonwealth countries and the UK, it might work as a deterrent in places that suffer from democratic deficiency and lack of rule of law.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London, UK.