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26th Sep 2020

New EU human rights sanctions to focus on Africa

  • Bill Browder (l) with Stef Blok - Browder's appeal to the Dutch to name the Sergei Magnitsky case in its proposal failed (Photo: government.nl)

A new EU sanctions regime for human rights abusers ought to focus on the kinds of crimes most readily associated with African conflicts, the Dutch foreign minister has indicated.

The list of potential areas to target was outlined by Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok in his speech at a meeting with EU diplomats in The Hague on Tuesday (20 November).

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He mentioned "sexual violence against women and girls in conflicts" and "militia leaders who recruit children as young as eight".

He included "government officials who abuse their position in order to rape women", "prison officers who systematically torture LGBTI people or minorities" and "use of hunger as a weapon of war".

He also mentioned "authoritarian regimes" which were "shrinking space for civil liberties".

The meeting in the Dutch capital was designed to drum up support for a new EU regime that would impose visa bans and asset freezes on targeted individuals no matter which country they came from.

The EU already has blacklists containing human rights abusers from countries such as North Korea or Myanmar, in what it calls "geographical sanctions".

But Blok said these were "sometimes too blunt an instrument to be used in practice. They may be too political", referring to the fact EU states often shied away from imposing sanctions for the sake of strategic relations with abusers' home nations.

"A global regime would allow us to combat human rights violations around the world even in difficult, politically sensitive situations," Blok said.

His own speech also shied away from "politically ... sensitive" situations, however.

He spoke amid a furore over Saudi Arabia's murder of a dissident journalist, which led Germany, two days ago, to unilaterally ban 18 Saudi nationals from entering the EU's 'Schengen' travel zone.

The ban was the same kind of targeted measure that Blok advocated in his speech.

"We in the EU can ensure that ... criminals suffer the consequences of their actions. That they can no longer travel freely in or out of the Union's territory, indulge in a care-free shopping trip to Budapest, Rome or Amsterdam, or visit top doctors in Paris," Blok said.

But he did not mention the Saudi case amid EU concern on burning ties with one of its top oil suppliers and weapons buyers.

Magnitsky

Meanwhile, Blok's proposal was born out of calls by Dutch MPs for an EU-level 'Magnitsky Act', named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption activist, who inspired similar laws in the US, Canada, and in four EU states.

Russian prison officers systematically tortured Magnitsky, the way Blok spoke of LGBTI victims, before he died in jail in 2009.

Russia also shot down a plane, flight MH17, carrying hundreds of Dutch passengers, in 2014, meddled in a Dutch referendum on Ukraine in 2016, and tried to hack an international body in The Hague, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, this year.

But Blok neither mentioned nor alluded to Russia in his speech out of sensitivity that Russia-friendly EU states, such as Austria and Italy, might also see any new Russia-linked sanctions as being too political.

He called the 60 or so diplomats from the 28 EU countries who gathered in The Hague "courageous individuals" from "European and Western countries who are not afraid. Who are willing to take responsibility".

Many human rights abusers get away with murder because they are never prosecuted either at home or in international courts.

But Blok said the new EU sanctions would be "a necessary additional instrument" to ensure "accountability" for abusers even if they have not been formally convicted of anything.

The Netherlands hopes to have the new sanctions in place before the European Parliament elections next year.

"We trust that this meeting provides a basis for more formal discussions in December in Brussels," Blok added, referring to an EU summit at the end of the year.

"Together, we are the world's largest economic bloc, and its largest financial market," he said.

"The best way to achieve this [human rights protection] is at European level," he added, after Dutch MPs, in a resolution earlier this year, bound the Dutch government to impose national-level measures if the EU failed to go ahead.

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