EU adopts ‘Magnitsky’ style individual sanctions regime for grave human rights violations

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Accountability

Today, 7 December 2020, the EU formally adopted a decision and regulation establishing its new ‘Magnitsky-style’ individual sanctions regime for serious human rights, only a couple days ahead of 10th December – UN Human Rights Day. The step, coming 77 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is expected to make a significant contribution towards global human rights progress by strengthening the international community’s ability to hold individuals accountable for decisions or actions that lead to gross and systematic human rights violations.

The new European Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime gives the EU power to freeze assets and impose travel bans on individuals involved in serious human rights abuses, including genocide, slavery, torture, extrajudicial decisions, arbitrary arrests or detentions. Other human rights violations or abuses can also fall under the scope of the sanctions regime where those violations or abuses are widespread, systematic or are otherwise of serious concern as regards the objectives of the common foreign and security policy set out in the Treaty (Article 21 TEU). It will be for the Council, acting upon a proposal from a member state or from the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to establish, review and amend the sanctions list.

The first ‘Global Magnitsky Act’ (so-called because it can be used to address human rights violations committed anywhere) was signed by US President Barack Obama in 2012, and was originally used to target Russian officials deemed responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The US has since been joined in establishing such accountability regimes by Canada, the Baltic States and the UK.

Other countries, including Japan and Australia, are also said to be considering such steps. Notably, on December 6 2020, Australia’s bi-partisan parliamentary foreign affairs committee unanimously recommended that the Government pass an Australian Magnitsky Act and included a draft legislative proposal in support of its recommendation, paving the way for Australian to become the 35th country to adopt such a human rights sanction regime.

A European Magnitsky Act (though it will not be called that as the EU does not want it to be seen as targeting Russia alone) is especially powerful, considering the bloc’s global economic weight, and because many individuals responsible for serious human rights violations (e.g. politicians, army officers, police chiefs, financiers, corrupt businessmen) maintain bank accounts and/or second homes in Europe.

Moves towards an EU sanctions regime were initiated by the Netherlands in 2018. Speaking to his EU counterparts at the time, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok noted that while the international community has made enormous progress in the field of human rights since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the fact remains that seven decades on, human rights are under pressure in most parts of the world. In large part that is because, he argued, those who commit terrible human rights abuses often ‘simply get away with it.’

‘As Eleanor Roosevelt told us,’ we must always ask ourselves ‘how can we continue strengthening the human rights system […] Rules are rules,’ as the Dutch saying goes. ‘But only if breaking the rules has consequences.’

The eight members of the Nordic Council – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland – have also indicated that they will join the EU’s new individual sanctions regime.


Featured image: “why europe needs Magnitsky Law – EP book launch“, 13 November 2013, copyright ALDE Group

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