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UK government introduces new human rights sanctions

  • United Kingdom
  • Brexit
  • Competition, EU and Trade - Export controls and sanctions
  • Sanctions


On 6 July 2020, the UK Government issued the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 (“Regulations”) and accompanying guidance, intended to serve as a new independent sanctions programme aimed at deterring and providing accountability for serious human rights violations. This marks the first time the UK has imposed sanctions under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, which set out the domestic legal framework enabling the UK to implement UN, multilateral, and autonomous sanctions regimes, post-Brexit.

The Regulations enable the UK Government to designate persons who are “involved” in serious violation of the following human rights:

  • right to life;
  • right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and
  • right to freedom from slavery. 

These activities could be carried out by either a state or non-state actor and, accordingly, both state and non-state actors may be designated under the Regulations. The definition of “involved” is broad and includes: engaging in; facilitating; inciting; promoting or supporting an activity; concealing evidence of the activity; providing financial services, funds, goods or technology knowing or suspecting they might contribute to the activity; profiting or benefiting from the activity; failing to investigate responsibility for the activity in some circumstances; and contravening the prohibitions in the Regulations.

The designations under the Regulations mean that the sanctioned persons would be subject to travel bans or asset freezes. The language of the prohibitions is similar to the typical wording used in other sanctions programmes which previously implemented EU sanctions regimes, as follows:

  1. an asset freeze means a prohibition on:
    • dealing with funds or economic resources owned, held or controlled by a designated person;
    • making funds or economic directly or indirectly available to, or for the benefit of, a designated person;
  2. a travel ban means that the designated person is an excluded person for the purposes of section 8B of the Immigration Act 1971 (i.e. the person will be refused leave to enter or remain in the UK); and
  3. participating in activities which circumvent the prohibitions or facilitate such contravention is also prohibited.

Violations of the prohibitions amount to criminal offences and are punishable by a maximum of 7 years imprisonment and/or a fine.

The Regulations apply within the UK and in relation to the conduct of all UK persons, wherever in the world they are located. They also apply to all companies established in any part of the UK, including branches of UK companies based oversees.

The Regulations are intended to enable the UK to champion human rights, good governance, and the rule of law by using the UK’s leverage against those involved in serious violations of human rights. The Government has already designated 47 individuals and 2 entities under the Regulations, including persons based in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, and North Korea.


The Regulations are certainly a long-awaited move to implement autonomous sanctions by the UK, and the Government hopes they will demonstrate UK leadership and ambition on human rights, promote international respect for human rights, support specific human rights-related priorities, and create an opportunity for new areas of collective action on human rights.

The Government is anticipating that 100 additional individuals would be listed in a typical year under the Regulations, with the assumption that roughly 60% of those would already be designated under U.S. or Canadian human rights sanctions regimes. As there are currently approximately 2,000 sanctions designations across existing EU and UN sanctions, an increase of 100 individuals constitutes a 5% increase in designations.

There is some concern that the UK is setting itself on a diplomatic collision course with one of its key allies, Saudi Arabia, after designating under the Regulations a close aide to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed the Government admitted that the UK could incur costs from retaliation by some of the States and persons targeted, such as bilateral measures and litigation. Nonetheless, the Government believes that these costs are unquantifiable at this stage, as they depend on how sanctions are interpreted by third parties, foreign policy, and unpredictable future events.

There has certainly been strong cross-party support for the UK to bring an autonomous human rights sanctions regime into force. This interest, and the breadth of human rights matters that are relevant to the sanctions regime, means the Regulations are likely to be subject to significant scrutiny. It remains to be seen what the global and domestic reaction to this significant development will be.