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19th Jan 2020

Dutch to host EU talks on human rights sanctions

  • Belarus: EU sanctions on human rights abusers currently imposed on country-by-country basis after major events (Photo: EPA)

The Netherlands has invited EU diplomats to discuss the creation of a new sanctions regime against human rights abusers worldwide.

Its idea is to target individuals, via EU visa bans and asset freezes, to discourage them and others from violations, potentially saving lives.

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  • The Dutch informal paper mentioned Congo and Myanmar in passing, but not Russia (Photo: United Nations Photo)

The project has roots in a Russian case, but the new measures are meant to target such individuals no matter where they come from.

The sanctions are also meant to snap into place quickly, without first waiting for a major event, such as a war or a massacre, to take place, and without clunky debate by EU ministers on the politics of country-based listings.

"Targeted human rights sanctions could be used against individuals acting in or misusing their official capacity and individuals belonging to non-state actors," an informal Dutch paper on the move, seen by EUobserver, said.

"By placing such individuals and their crimes in the limelight, these sanctions would put a price on committing gross human rights violations and abuses, [and] function as a deterrent," it said.

Action was needed because most abusers were never convicted of crimes at home, the Dutch noted.

"Impunity is a blow to our efforts [to protect victims]," their paper said.

The project is to be launched at a conference in The Hague on 20 November, one day after EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels.

The Dutch have asked each of the 27 other EU states to send two senior diplomats, one dealing with sanctions policy and one with human rights.

They will bat around questions such as what is the "added value of a human rights sanctions regime" and "which human rights violations" should qualify, according to the Dutch invitation note, seen by EUobserver.

They will also discuss "listing/de-listing and due process" because European sanctions are often challenged in the EU court in Luxembourg.

They will be joined by diplomats from the US and Canada, which already have such sanctions, "to learn from their experiences", and from Australia and Japan, which are interested in introducing them.

The talks are meant to see if there is enough support for The Hague to initiate formal EU proceedings, a Dutch diplomat told EUobserver.

"We don't expect a negative feeling in the room, but we do expect concerns to be raised, and that's the point of this event - to address such concerns," he said.

"We really want this to fly ... we hope to have the measures in place in fewer than 12 months' time. Ideally, before the European Parliament elections [in May 2019]", he added.

The Dutch foreign ministry first floated the idea in July, under pressure from Dutch MPs.

France, Germany, and Italy have raised no objections in contacts between EU capitals over the past two months, according to other diplomatic sources.

The UK, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which already have such sanctions at national level, are on board, with the UK especially keen.

The other Benelux countries, many central and eastern EU states, Ireland, and Nordic countries also have a positive attitude.

But some Mediterranean states and the EU foreign service have proved reluctant, in an area that requires consensus to go ahead.

Russia

The informal Dutch paper mentioned Congo and Myanmar in passing.

It did not mention Russia, amid some EU states' concern that if Russians were targeted it might trigger retaliatory measures at a time of already-heightened tension.

The draft Dutch title for the initiative is an "EU global human rights sanctions regime".

But the project has roots in what the US called a "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act" when it created the first sanctions of the type in 2012.

Magnitsky was a Russian anti-corruption activist who was killed by a group of Russian officials and mobsters linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

When the US listed them, the Kremlin hit back with sanctions of its own.

The US then passed a "Global Magnitsky Act" in 2016.

It designated individuals from as far afield as China, Turkey, and Guatemala, but also Artem Chaika, the son of the Russian prosecutor general, infuriating the Kremlin once again.

When the UK and the Baltic states imposed national measures, they called them Magnitsky acts.

When Dutch MPs turned up the heat on Dutch diplomats earlier this year, they also did so after the UK accused Russia of trying to kill a spy in England in March.

Russia's cyber-plot against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog in The Hague, exposed on Thursday (4 October), will make its name hang even heavier in the air when EU diplomats meet next month.

"Everyone knows this is the Magnitsky Act," Bill Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, whose activism prompted the original US legislation, told EUobserver.

"Eventually, morality and truth will overcome realpolitik," he said.

Due process

Part of the internal EU reluctance also stems from due process.

The EU already has a transnational blacklist of alleged terrorists and recently agreed a new one for people deemed guilty of chemical weapons violations.

But a human rights one could open a "Pandora's box" of possible listings, a contact in the EU foreign service told EUobserver, in a scenario in which member states throw all kinds of names into the ring, out of the thousands of nefarious individuals around the world.

The Netherlands recognised that a human rights list posed novel questions, but said its November conference, which was to involve an NGO and a legal scholar, was designed to identify answers.

"Chemical weapons violations are well defined [in international treaties], but human rights ones are less so - there are many levels of severity ... so where do we start and where do we end?," a Dutch diplomat said.

"Should we be talking about 'gross violation' or a 'pattern of violations'? Should we target the general who gives an order, or the officer who carries it out?," he added.

The EU counter-terrorism register has in the past faced criticism for big member states pushing through listings in secretive meetings with no political scrutiny.

But "this sanctions initiative is not intended to bypass any member states," a Dutch diplomat said.

"The sanctions wouldn't work if someone in the room didn't feel comfortable, because they wouldn't be properly implemented," he said.

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