On Monday the 6th of July, the United Kingdom imposed sanctions on a number of individuals accused of human rights abuses, including 25 Russian and 20 Saudi nationals. This is the first time that the United Kingdom has been able to impose asset freezes and visa bans independently – previously, sanctions were only approved as part of the European Union or under the guidance and approval of the United Nations.
The British government’s imposition of economic sanctions on individuals is part of the nation’s attempt to present a strong foreign policy footing in the post-Brexit era, particularly when dealing with human rights abuses. Speaking to Parliament, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “If you’re a kleptocrat or an organized criminal, you will not be able to launder your blood money in this country.” He went on to add, “Today this government … sends a very clear message on behalf of the British people that those with blood on their hands – the thugs and despots, the henchmen and dictators – will not be free to waltz into this country to buy up property on the King’s Road, to do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or frankly to siphon dirty money through British banks or other financial institutions.”
The law which the UK has implemented bears similarity to the American “Magnitsky Act,” which allows authorities to ban individuals or seize their assets if they are guilty of human rights abuses. The UK law allows the British government to prevent sanctioned individuals from entering the country and stops them from channelling money through British banks or profiting from the British economy. By imposing sanctions on individuals, rather than nations, the British law allows for the continuation of diplomatic ties on a national level. In targeting certain individuals, these sanctions also avoid the issues which plague wider, state-level sanctions; namely, the harm caused to members of the international community who have little-to-no involvement with ongoing events.
Many of the individuals targeted by this first round of sanctions are foreign nationals who stand accused of involvement in the deaths of either Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky or Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, this list also extends to organizations such as North Korea’s Ministry of State Security Bureau (sanctioned for running prison camps in North Korea), and commanders of Myanmar’s armed forces (who have been accused of organizing systematic violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority).
While foreign governments may be unhappy about the imposition of sanctions on their citizens, these targeted sanctions provide a safer option than wide-scale, nation-targeting economic sanctions. Individuals who have been accused of, or found guilty of, human rights abuses can be punished, while respective governments do not have to undergo the same economic harm. That being said, the imposition of sanctions should not be considered the be-all, end-all. Individuals who are guilty of human rights abuses should be brought before an international court, with appropriate punishment as a result of a trial before the global community. Even now, the oligarchs and abusers who have been targeted should have been punished by their home governments; that many of them walk free indicates complicity with their actions. With this legislation, Britain is certainly taking a step to try and defend human rights more strongly, which is admirable. However, targeted sanctions cannot be considered a replacement for international justice.