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5th Jun 2020

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Human rights abusers don't stop for virus, MEPs tell EU

  • Human rights abusers round the world to face targeted EU sanctions after measures go through (Photo: banspy)

The EU should press ahead with new human rights sanctions despite the virus crisis, a group of MEPs has said.

"While we are focused today on the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot forget the ongoing human rights abuses taking place around the world at the hands of dictators and kleptocrats," they said in a letter to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell last Friday (27 March), seen by EUobserver.

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"It is therefore essential that the [EU foreign service] moves quickly in formulating the details of this global sanctions regime," they said.

The draft EU law was born out of national 'Magnitsky Acts' already used by the US, the UK, Canada, and three small EU states.

It is meant to slap EU visa bans and asset freezes on targeted human rights abusers overseas who enjoy impunity at home, such as the Russian officials who conspired to kill anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.

The Dutch, who first proposed the EU-level act, declined to use Magnitsky's name in its title for political reasons.

But the ball was now in EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell's court, after EU foreign ministers tasked him, on 9 December, to "prepare [legal] documentation" for the measures.

"We believe that excluding Sergei Magnitsky's name would be a huge political gift to [Russian] president [Vladimir] Putin, who has made deleting Magnitsky's name from the title of foreign legislation a high priority," the MEPs added.

It would also be "a terrible injustice" to Magnitsky's ultimate personal sacrifice, they said.

The group of 46 MEPs came from across the political spectrum and included big names, such as former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and former Estonian and Polish foreign ministers Urmas Paet and Radosław Sikorski.

Borrell's tasking came before coronavirus burst on the agenda.

But the pandemic has not stopped member states' ambassadors from discussing legislation in the EU Council in Brussels.

And it has not stopped EU capitals from adopting foreign policy decisions by "written procedure", such as agreeing to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia on 25 March.

"Discussions on the various elements of this future EU human rights sanctions regime are currently ongoing in the Council," Borrell's spokeswoman told EUobserver on Tuesday.

"Of course, everyone is conscious of the crisis, but on the other hand, we have things to do ... so we continue to work," another EU diplomat recently told this website.

The MEPs' letter spoke of a "European Magnitsky Act", but Borrell's service declined to use the same vocabulary in what might be seen as a rebuttal in the name dispute.

"The Magnitsky Act is the name of a US legislative act on global human rights sanctions. We do not have the equivalent at this stage in the EU," Borrell's spokeswoman said.

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