The UK’s new targeted sanctions regime ‘a powerful new tool with which to uphold and protect human rights’

by H.E. Rita French, International Ambassador for Human Rights of the United Kingdom Asuntos contemporáneos y emergentes, Blog, Blog, By invitation

On 6 July, the UK launched a new ‘Magnitsky-style’ Global Human Rights (GHR) Sanctions Regime. The regime will be a powerful new tool to hold those involved in serious human rights violations and abuses to account. This marks the beginning of a new era for sanctions policy and will change the paradigm in which the UK engages on human rights.

Introducing the Regulations in Parliament, the UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said:

“Today this Government and this House sends a very clear message on behalf of the British people: that those with blood on their hands, the thugs of despots, or the henchmen of dictators, won’t be free to waltz into this country to buy up property on the Kings Road, or do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or frankly to siphon dirty money through British banks or financial institutions. The regulations are the latest next step forward in the long struggle against impunity for the very worst human rights violations.”

So, what is this new Global Human Rights sanctions regime? The regime allows for asset freezes and travel bans to be imposed on individuals and organisations around the world in response to their involvement in serious human rights violations and abuses against the right to life; the right to not be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the right to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour. It is designed to deter persons from committing human rights violations and abuses, and hold to account those who do.

The UK Government made immediate use of the powers provided by the sanctions regime and sanctioned a total of 49 individuals and organisations: 25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and subsequent death of Sergei Magnitsky; 20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, two high-ranking Myanmar military generals involved in systematic violence against the Rohingya; and two organisations involved in forced labour, torture and murder in North Korea.

So-called ‘Magnitsky laws’ are a developing international trend towards ensuring accountability for named individuals involved in human rights violations and abuses. They are named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and whistle-blower, who worked at the Moscow offices of Hermitage Capital Management. His subsequent allegations of large-scale corruption, sanctioned and carried out by Russian officials, led to his well-documented mistreatment and death in a Moscow prison. Since then, Bill Browder, Hermitage’s chief executive, has been driving an international campaign over more than ten years to hold those responsible for Magnitsky’s death to account. Browder and the family of Sergei Magnitsky were invited to the Foreign Secretary’s office on the day of the launch of the new regime on 6 July, and Browder tweeted that “this was the moment ten years in the making where UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab shows me the finished product of the UK Magnitsky Act. Hard to describe how touched and honoured I was that we finally made it happen.”

This global human rights sanctions regime is not designed to target individual countries. Instead, it will be used to impose sanctions on named individuals and specific organisations involved in serious violations or abuses of human rights around the world.

This focus on named individuals or organisations for involvement in specific violations or abuses is part of a wider trend of individual attribution, consequence and accountability with similar regimes already set up or under consideration in other countries.  The Foreign Secretary acknowledged the potential for autonomous corruption sanctions: “I can tell the House that we are already considering how a corruption regime could be added to the armoury of legal weapons that we have.”

By creating this new mechanism, to sanction those directly involved in the most serious human rights abuses and violations, we have significantly expanded the options available to us, in addition to the existing vital tools of diplomatic pressure and working closely with international partners, including through the United Nations. The UK remains a strong supporter of the UN human rights system, centred in Geneva, which includes the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, which increasingly encompass accountability for grave violations, as well as the expert Committees to monitor the human rights treaties, recommending steps for governments to take to address human rights challenges.

By adding a hard-hitting human rights sanctions regime to our toolbox in fighting human rights abuses and violations, we aim to turn formal commitments by states into practice, in our common fight against injustice and impunity.


H.E. Rita French is Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and the United Kingdom’s International Ambassador for Human Rights

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