Monday

1st Jun 2020

EU agrees hair-trigger sanctions on chemical weapons

  • Scene of the crime: Russians tried to poison spy in Salisbury, England (Photo: Peter)

People who abuse chemical weapons are to face EU travel bans and asset freezes in a new hair-trigger mechanism - bypassing the old delays of national sanctions regimes.

Those guilty of human rights abuses could be next in line, in an EU version of what the US calls a "Global Magnitsky Act".

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  • Sergei Magnitsky: EU action against human rights abusers pushed by The Hague (Photo: Hermitage Capital)

The chemicals move could strike men like Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov - two Russian spies deemed guilty by the UK of having used novichok, a nerve toxin, to try to kill Sergei Skripal, another Russian spy, in England in March.

The human rights move could strike Pavel Karpov and Andrei Pavlov, a former Russian official and a Russian lawyer, deemed guilty by the US of being in on a conspiracy that saw the killing of a Russian anti-corruption activist, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009.

But individual names have not yet been discussed in either case, an EU diplomat said.

"Currently it's a blank sheet - no person is listed," another EU diplomat said, referring to the chemical weapons measures.

Chemical weapons

The chemical weapons sanctions were agreed by EU ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday (26 September).

Foreign ministers are expected to rubber-stamp them at talks in mid-October.

EU leaders "adopted conclusions in June 2018 calling for the establishment of a sanctions regime addressing the use and proliferation of chemical weapons," an EU foreign service spokesperson told EUobserver.

"Work ... is nearing completion and we expect the proposal to be adopted by the council in the next few weeks," the spokesperson said.

EU bans and freezes were in the past imposed via country-specific sanctions, such as those on Russia over its war on Ukraine or those on Syria over regime slaughter of civilians.

Such measures were agreed at the level of EU leaders or ministers, which often prompted objections on political or geopolitical grounds, shielding some culprits from action.

But names are to be added to the chemical weapons blacklist by ordinary EU diplomats in a so-called 'EU Council working group', an EU source said.

Counter-terrorism

The mechanism has been modelled on the EU's counter-terrorism blacklist, adopted in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, the source added.

The counter-terrorism list also targets individuals no matter what their nationality.

It is updated "at least every six months" in a behind-closed-doors meeting in which diplomats throw names into the ring with no political scrutiny.

"The transnational nature of the [chemical weapons] list is a novelty," the EU source said.

The chemical weapons proposal was originally put forward by France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, diplomatic sources told EUobserver.

The Netherlands has also proposed the creation of a hair-trigger mechanism for human rights abusers in an idea endorsed by the UK, the sources said.

Human rights

The move came after the Dutch parliament, in April, tasked its government to push for an EU-level 'Magnitsky Act'.

The UK, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as the US and Canada, have already imposed targeted sanctions on Russian individuals deemed guilty of involvement in the Magnitsky conspiracy.

But it remains to be seen if the Dutch and British initiative gets EU support, following years of EU resistance to the idea despite pressure by the European Parliament to go head.

"We don't necessarily see it as a follow-up to the new chemicals regime," an EU diplomat told this website.

"That discussion is still incipient," the diplomat said.

"The Netherlands started to think of a possible horizontal regime, but this is at an extremely early stage and not yet a debate at the level of the 28 [EU states]," another diplomat said.

A "horizontal" blacklist, in EU jargon, is one based on a theme, such as terrorism, chemical weapons, human rights, or cyber crimes, instead of a list aimed at one or other country.

"The European External Action service boss, Federica Mogherini, has been blocking an EU Magnitsky Act for many years in spite of near-unanimous support from the EU parliament," Bill Browder, who used to be Magnitsky's employer, but who now campaigns for human rights, told this website.

"I'm hoping that Putin's murderous behaviour will now make her [Mogherini's] past obstinacy untenable," Browder said, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Skripal case.

EU states expel over 30 Russian diplomats

France, Germany, Poland, and the US have led the largest-ever expulsion of Russian spies and diplomats in reaction to the UK chemical attack.

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