Thursday

21st Mar 2019

France and Germany back Dutch on human rights sanctions

  • Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok (r) will ask EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini (l) to start work on the new measures (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU officials will shortly start drawing up new human rights sanctions, if foreign ministers give the nod to a Dutch plan at talks in Brussels on Monday (10 December).

The visa bans and asset freezes are meant to end impunity for individual abusers no matter where they come from.

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  • Sergei Magnitsky: The Russian case was a "worldwide ... symbol of impunity", politicians said (Photo: Dmitry Rozhkov)

They are also meant to snap into place more quickly than old-fashioned, country-based EU sanctions.

Britain, France, and Germany back the Dutch idea, EU diplomats told EUobserver on the eve of today's meeting.

Most other EU states also signalled assent in recent talks in The Hague, despite concern that one or other Russia-friendly capital, such as Rome, might block the project.

The weight of support and the timing will make it hard for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini to say no to Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok when he asks for action on Monday, the diplomats noted.

"Who can speak out against human rights on World Human Rights Day?", one EU source said, referring to the 70th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which falls on the same day.

NGOs, MPs, and MEPs from all over Europe put additional wind in Blok's sails with letters of endorsement last week.

The expectation is that Mogherini will task an EU Council 'working group' to start drafting the new sanctions blueprint.

The Dutch hope to have the new measures in place before next year's European Parliament elections in May.

Horse-trading

The proposal could still get caught up in EU horse-trading ahead of a summit later this week, one diplomat warned, however.

"No one is likely to stand up and voice strong opposition on Monday, but let's see how it comes out. There are different elements at play, some of which could be linked to each other," he said.

He spoke amid EU leaders' plans to extend the life of economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

They plan to blacklist extra names over "illegal" elections in Russia-occupied east Ukraine and Russia's use of a chemical weapon to try to assassinate a former spy in the UK.

They also need a deal with Italy on its plan to overspend on EU fiscal rules in its national budget.

But final decisions on most of these items will be made at the EU summit on Thursday, not by foreign ministers, the EU diplomat said, with the Dutch project at risk of getting dragged into the wider bargaining.

'Magnitsky' debate

For its part, the Netherlands has gone to some lengths to avoid linking its proposal to Russia or anything other than "values".

It has called it an "EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime", instead of an "EU Magnitsky Act".

Magnitsky Acts are similar sanctions already in place in the US, Canada, and in a handful of EU states in the name of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption activist who died in prison.

The Netherlands spoke of abuses more readily associated with Africa, such as "sexual violence", than with Russia-type regimes, in its internal EU papers.

It named Congo and Myanmar and highlighted US listings of abusers in Asia and Latin America, instead of ones in Russia.

But for some, Magnitsky's name, which brands a criminal stamp on the Kremlin's forehead, is an important part of ending the impunity the sanctions are designed to curtail.

"Sometime a name means everything," almost 100 MPs and MEPs from 18 EU states said in an open letter over the weekend.

"The way in which the Russian government tried to cover up his [Magnitsky's] murder and exonerate the people involved became a symbol of impunity ... worldwide," they added.

"Whatever the negotiations lead to, we will always call it the 'Magnitsky Act'," the European politicians said.

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Germany led the way on protection of human rights this year, but Hungary, Italy, and Poland "undermined the EU's moral standing" on the world stage, a leading NGO said.

Opinion

Unanimity under review, if new EU sanctions to work

Any new regime should focus on individual perpetrators, such as the prison guards and low-level administrators and officers - but it must also similarly allow the listing of individuals higher up in the command chain.

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Almost 1,000 Romanian nationals were caught trying to sneak into the United States in 2017, of which around half attempted to cross via Mexico. Nationals from countries like Hungary and the UK were also intercepted.

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