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Possible sanctions in response to human rights violations

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New EU Parliament resolutions under the EU Global Human Rights sanctions regime

On 8 July 2021, the EU parliament adopted three resolutions in relation to Hong Kong, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The purpose of these resolutions is to encourage the European Commission and Member States to impose sanctions on these countries as a result of human rights abuses:

  • In relation to Hong Kong, the resolution was adopted in response to the treatment of journalists and activists by the Chinese authorities, calling for the release of prisoners detained arbitrarily and to put a stop to the violent repression of political activists under the National Security Law introduced in June 2020.  The EU Parliament expressed its condemnation of the recent forced closure of the Apple Daily newspaper and called on the Hong Kong authorities to stop intimidating journalists.  The European Parliament strongly urges Member States to adopt sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for Human Rights abuses across Hong Kong and China and lists certain individuals and institutions it believes should be targeted.  The EU Parliament is also calling on the EU Commission to implement rules to prevent European investment in companies “complicit in gross human rights violations in China and Hong Kong”.

It is notable that on 16 July 2021, the US designated a number of Hong Kong officials stating the same rationale as the EU, i.e. the treatment of the free press by Chinese authorities under the National Security Law.  Whether the EU (and indeed the UK) will follow suit and actually impose sanctions remains to be seen.

  • In relation to  Iran, the European Parliament called on the Iranian Government to halt the execution of Swedish-Iranian Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, drop charges against arbitrarily detained foreign nationals including multiple EU nationals and UK nationals and release political prisoners. The EU Parliament expressed a desire that the European Council consider more targeted sanctions against officials and entities involved in the detention and death sentencing of EU nationals. The targeted sanctions would include travel bans and assets freeze. In its resolution the EU Parliament emphasises the fact that action taken by the EU in April 2021 when it designated 8 Iranian individuals and 3 Iranian entities for their role in the killing of protestors in 2019 was the “the first time the EU has taken such a decision since 2013”.  We will have to wait to see whether further sanctions are imposed and what position the UK and the US take, particularly with the backdrop of talks regarding the US’s re-engagement with the JCPOA.   
  • In relation to Saudi Arabia the European Parliament adopted its resolution in response to ongoing executions of child offenders based on unfair trial and confessions obtained under torture. In the resolution, the EU Parliament strongly states its support in favour of the EU sanctions imposed against Saudi officials responsible for human rights violations under the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime which was introduced in December 2020 and urges that further steps be taken to combat the situation in Saudi Arabia.  Furthermore, the EU Parliament calls for the suspension of dual-use goods and surveillance technology exports to Saudi Arabia.

Nicaragua - a call for further designations

On 8 July 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in response of the Nicaraguan Government’s human rights violations in repressive actions against its opponents. The resolution calls for the Council and EU states to sanction more individuals and entities, including the President and Vice-President of Nicaragua. Although it was adopted on the same day as the other resolutions mentioned above, this resolution is not passed pursuant to the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, but rather the existing Nicaragua sanctions regime first introduced in October 2019 and renewed afterwards, which had been designed in response of human rights violations and political unrest at the time.

This comes just before the US announced on 12 July 2021 that it was imposing travel bans through visa restrictions on 100 individuals affiliated to the Nicaraguan regime. On 14 July 2021, Canada aligned with the EU and the US position and imposed sanctions on a further 15 individuals pursuant to its current Nicaragua sanctions regime. It is yet to see whether the UK will, in the upcoming weeks or months, also impose sanctions on further Nicaraguan individuals.

The approach in respect of Nicaragua highlights a current trend of co-operation between the US, the EU, the UK and/or Canada, with those jurisdictions taking unified steps when adopting sanctions regimes. In June 2021 in our Sanctions Developments Monthly Round Up, we reported the same approach in relation to sanctions in respect of Belarus and Myanmar.

What does this indicate?

On the same day as the resolutions detailed above, the European Parliament also adopted a resolution regarding the EU Global Human Rights sanctions regime more generally, expressing the fact that the regime “strengthens the EU’s role as a global human rights actor”.  It did, however, express regret that the EU Council has decided to apply unanimity voting as opposed to a majority voting for actions under the regime and encouraged a change in this regard.  The resolution also noted the importance of co-operation with “like minded countries”, particularly referencing alignment with the US in respect of approach to human rights abuses. 

Sanctions relating to human rights abuses is a clear example of a continued move towards thematic sanctions, as opposed to country based.  Whilst there have been sanctions targeting specific regimes for human rights abuses for some time, we are seeing a growing trend across Europe and in the UK towards sanctions more broadly targeting human rights abuses across the globe.  If the EU is to take action in line with the European Parliament’s 8 July Resolutions (which are not binding) then it is likely we would see the UK follow suit in a similar manner. 

In addition to human rights based sanctions, we have also seen in the last 6 months the UK’s introduction of Global Anti-Corruption sanctions which is another example of thematic based sanctions and another example of alignment between the UK, the US and Canada.  We are likely to continue to see such alignment going forward particularly on thematic based sanctions, as both the UK Government and the EU has previously indicated a desire to work closely with its allies in the US and/or Canada.

Whilst any proposed new sanctions in this area would add new names to sanctions lists, the principle of the proposed restrictions – asset freezes and travel bans – are not new for UK institutions to navigate.  What compliance functions should continue to monitor is this growing shift to thematic based sanctions, as it is possible that we may see further “themes” which become the subject of sanctions in the future.