While no doubt an important instrument in the geopolitical tool box for some time, the proliferation of targeted sanctions over recent years has been hard not to notice. More and more, governments and supranational bodies around the world are turning to sanctions as a means of pursuing their foreign policy objectives. To this extent the sanctions are themselves becoming an ultimate expression of a country’s intentions, creating an increasingly informative gauge for observers of the relatively volatile and fluctuating geopolitical sentiments that characterise today’s global politics.

This is perhaps currently nowhere more pertinent than in the dramas of Brexit. While in the EU the UK was obliged to implement EU sanctions, with only limited ability to enact its own measures. The coming of Brexit presented an opportunity for the UK to pursue its own independent and autonomous sanctions regime, which it has done through the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 (“SAMLA”). Over the past few years much speculation has arisen about the shape of that regime.

In the years following the 2016 Brexit referendum the UK government often signalled its intention and desire to continue to work closely with the EU on foreign policy, raising the possibility that the UK would simply mirror sanctions measures imposed by the bloc. However, its actions since then have perhaps suggested otherwise.

At 11pm on 31 December 2020 the UK’s sanctions regime came into effect, and HM Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation issued its “Consolidated List of Sanctions Targets in the UK”. Large numbers of the individuals whose names had been listed under the EU’s regimes were not carried across to the UK’s regime, most notably many of those who had been designated by the EU under its “misappropriation of State funds” regimes (for the countries of Egypt, Tunisia and the Ukraine).

Indeed, there were signs even before this that the UK may have had ideas of its own. On 6 July 2020 the UK government introduced its Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, which were made under SAMLA. In its press statement accompanying the Regulations, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office announced that “the ground-breaking global regime means the UK has new powers to stop those involved in serious human rights abuses and violations from entering the country, channelling money through UK banks, or profiting from our economy”.

This step was particularly significant as it signified a marked move by the UK towards the “Magnitsky” style sanctions of jurisdictions outside of the EU, most notably the US, which introduced sanctions based on violations of human rights as far back as 2016. Other nations have also joined the wave of human rights-based sanctions regimes, including Canada, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, with Australia expected soon to follow suit.

Progress on similar measures in the EU, while now in full swing, had been extremely slow at the point the 2020 Regulations were adopted by the UK. Here then is an example of the UK following its own agenda.

Sanctions will likely continue to play a fundamental part in shaping the geopolitical landscape over the coming years. They are a diplomatic alternative to force, and for that reason they should be lauded, at least where the policy objective is commendable. However, as targeted sanctions become more and more wide spread it is also imperative that governments do not lose sight of the rights of those who are designated and the devastating effects such designation can have on individuals and their families. There would be a deep irony for example if sanctions implemented to protect the human rights of some were wielded in ways which violated the human rights of others.

For further information or advice, please contact Charles Enderby Smith.

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