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19th Sep 2020

Ball rolling on EU human rights sanctions

  • Diplomats working on details of Dutch proposal ahead of EU elections in May (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

The ball is rolling for targeted EU sanctions on human rights abusers worldwide following initial talks in Brussels.

A Dutch proposal, which earlier won French and German support, was discussed by member states' diplomats in the EU capital on Wednesday (27 February).

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  • 'Some [EU] countries say: 'We want to give support, but we want a more neutral name',' Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said in December (Photo: European Council)

The same group, the so-called Working Party on Human Rights, in the EU Council is to hold further talks on 13 March, 27 March, and 10 April.

The new "EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime" is to impose asset freezes and visa bans on individual abusers, such as foreign warlords or torturers, no matter where they come from.

They are meant to snap into life more quickly than old-fashioned, country-based sanctions and to end impunity for people who evade criminal justice at home.

The Dutch had hoped to have the measures in place before the European Parliament elections in May, when the EU legislative machine clunks out of gear.

But the proposal must also be finalised by another EU Council group, the so-called Working Party of Foreign Relations Counsellors, and by member states' ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee, before it gets the green light.

For its part, Hungary has questioned whether Europe needed the new-model sanctions and has voiced "procedural grumblings", an EU source said.

There were also concerns that Italy's Russia-friendly government might block them if the measures appeared to pose a threat to Russian elites.

The EU takes foreign policy decisions by consensus.

But neither Hungary or Italy have objected to moving ahead at this stage despite those "grumblings", the EU source noted.

The Dutch initiative was inspired by the US, which first imposed targeted sanctions on human rights abusers in what it called a "Magnitsky Act" in 2012, named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption activist who was killed in 2009.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the UK, and Canada have also adopted "Magnitsky Acts".

They listed Russian officials, who stand accused of embezzling the Russian state, killing the whistleblower, then laundering the money in EU banks and spending it on real estate, yacht charters, and luxury goods.

The Dutch proposal for EU-level measures dropped the reference to the Russian case, favouring a more neutral title, however.

"The 'Magnitsky' laws also cover corruption. This [the proposed EU] human rights regime is not about that. It's purely about human rights," a Dutch diplomat told EUobserver on Friday.

But Bill Browder, a British financier who used to employ Magnitsky in Russia and whose subsequent campaign for justice gave birth to the US legislation, countered that line.

"That's not true," he told this website.

"The original Magnitsky Act passed by US Congress in 2012 was solely about human rights, and was triggered by the torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky," Browder said.

Redacting Magnitsky name's from the EU bill was an "appeasement strategy" toward the Russian regime, he added.

New EU human rights sanctions to focus on Africa

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.

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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