Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

US asks EU to go after Russian and African villains

  • EU and US had coordinated closely on sanctions until Trump's Iran deal decision (Photo: prameya)

Notorious killers and corruption lynchpins, whether from Russia, Africa, or further afield could have assets seized and visas denied by the EU if Europe joins new American sanctions.

The project comes amid increasing interest in some EU capitals, but it also comes against the backdrop of the diplomatic crisis over the Iran nuclear deal, which could cast a pall on smaller initiatives.

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  • Browder (r) at the EU parliament with Magnitsky's family (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

A US official, who asked not to be named, said the EU should match the new US sanctions, imposed in December under a US law called the Global Magnitsky Act.

The law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption activist who died in prison, and the US list designated one prominent Russian: Artem Chayka, the son of Russia's prosecutor general, whom the US accused of corruption.

But the US official said it was "not Russia-focused" and was designed to "pinpoint" individuals instead of targeting foreign administrations. He mentioned Central America and Africa as areas of special interest.

The US also designated 51 other individuals and entities, including Yahya Jammeh, the former ruler of The Gambia, who used to run death squads, and Burmese and Chinese individuals.

The US official invited EU capitals to propose more names to co-sanction with Washington. "Yes. Absolutely. We'd look forward to collaborating with our [EU] partners," he said.

He spoke in Brussels after meeting EU officials and after visiting Berlin, London, Paris, and Madrid to beat the drum.

He will head to the Baltic states next week, which already have national Magnitsky Acts, to look for "ways to work together", he said.

He spoke amid increased interest on Magnitsky-type sanctions in some EU countries.

The British parliament passed a "Magnitsky amendment" to an anti-money laundering law on Tuesday (22 May), joining the Baltic states in their adoption of the US model.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have already imposed visa bans on 49 Russians linked to Magnitsky's death.

MPs in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden are also holding hearings on national Magnitsky Acts and on EU-level action.

"I would imagine that the first EU Global Magnitsky list would replicate the US Global Magnitsky list that was published last December," Bill Browder, a British human rights campaigner, who used to be Magnitsky's employer and who inspired the US project, told EUobserver.

The fact that African or Latin America rogues were in the frame should not mean that the Magnitsky programme's Russian roots should be overlooked, he added.

"I seriously doubt the EU would create a Global Magnitsky list and not sanction the people [49 Russians] who killed Sergei Magnitsky," Browder said.

"It's just a matter of time before we see them on an EU sanctions list," he said.

Iran crisis

The EU and US had a good track record on coordinating sanctions under the previous US administration of Barack Obama.

They are military allies and still coordinate foreign policy, for instance on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but US leader Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal threatens to disrupt smaller projects, such as the Magnitsky initiative.

Trump's decision could unfreeze a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, EU leaders warned him on trips to the US capital.

It could see America impose fines on EU firms that started doing business with Iran after the deal was put in place three years ago.

It could also lead to US sanctions against EU bank CEOs who are board members of Swift, a Belgium-based firm that handles international bank transfers, if Europe refused to lock Iran out of Swift's network.

The European Commission began drafting a "blocking statute" to protect EU companies from US action on Friday - the same day the US official met EU counterparts in the EU foreign service and EU Council buildings across the road in Brussels.

The US official said Magnitsky cooperation ought to go ahead despite the Iran fiasco because the moral issues were so black and white.

"This [Magnitsky] programme represents a value set that folks can generally coalesce around very easily. We're talking about going after the worst of the worst [offenders]," he said.

EU reluctance

The Trump problem is not the only obstacle to Europe joining the US programme, however.

Browder has campaigned for eight years for EU-level action, under various EU and US administrations.

He won European Parliament support, but leading EU states ignored MEPs.

EU diplomats dislike the Magnitsky Act in case it leads to vast numbers of rights abusers and crooks on blacklists. It could also disrupt strategic relations, they have said.

The US inclusion of a Chinese security chief, Gao Yan, deemed responsible for the death of human rights defender Cao Shunli, could, for instance, anger Beijing, a principal EU trade partner.

But targeting this or that Chinese or Russian official would not destabilise relations, while still holding abusers accountable, Browder said.

"It may target important people in certain countries who will be angry, but … national interest generally overcomes personal interests," he said.

Magnitsky sanctions would also raise the personal stakes for serving foreign leaders even if they were not targeted while in office, he added.

"[Russian leader] Vladimir Putin would be eligible if he's ever out of power for killing innocent Syrians and hundreds of other atrocities," Browder said.

Estonia joins US in passing Magnitsky law

Estonia has voted to ban entry to foreigners deemed guilty of human rights abuses in a law targeting Russia and inspired by the Magnitsky case.

MEPs clarify position on Magnitsky sanctions

Senior MEPs from the EU parliament’s main groups have urged diplomats to impose sanctions on Russian officials over the killing of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky.

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