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25th Jan 2021

Name row on new EU sanctions exposes deeper rift

  • Johannes Hahn spoke on behalf of the EU foreign service, tasked with drawing up the new EU sanctions (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU officials have voiced scepticism on new human rights sanctions, amid heated debate to what extent Russia ought to be named and shamed.

The hesitant tone was audible in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday (12 March), when EU commissioner Johannes Hahn briefed MEPs on the project.

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  • Finland's Heidi Hautala said sanctions were broader than the Sergei Magnitsky case (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU should "focus on the implementation of its existing toolbox" of sanctions, Hahn said.

Those existing measures were "already quite comprehensive", he added, noting that EU sanctions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, and Myanmar, for instance, already imposed visa bans and asset freezes on individuals deemed guilty of abuse.

Hahn spoke on behalf of EU foreign service chief, Federica Mogherini, whose department have been tasked with drafting new-model sanctions on the back of a Dutch proposal last year.

The novel measures are meant to target individuals no matter where they come from, instead of whole countries.

They are also meant to snap into life more quickly than the old, country-based ones, on the model of so-called 'Magnitsky Acts', which were first imposed by the US, Canada, the Baltic states, and the UK and named after the late Russian anti-corruption activist, Sergei Magnitsky.

EU states will hold further talks on the initiative in the EU Council on Wednesday.

But Hahn highlighted the question marks placed over the scheme by diplomats and officials in earlier meetings.

An assessment was needed to see whether they would bring "added value" and "usefully fill a gap", he said.

It remained unclear what kind of human rights violations ought to qualify and how to ensure that listings would not be overturned by legal challenges in the EU courts in Luxembourg, he noted.

The project was "a matter for the 28 member states to agree by unanimity", he added.

An EU source, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver that the kind of concerns voiced by Hahn were growing louder in the EU Council talks.

"We've identified 17 country-based sanctions which already have human rights-based listings, so the question is do we really need these extra measures?," the source said.

France and Germany spoke in favour of the Dutch proposal last December, but Hungary was "digging in its heels" in opposition, the source added, amid Hahn's warning on the need for "unanimity".

China and Russia

Most of the MEPs who showed up to Tuesday's debate with Hahn also voiced support for the initiative.

They gave a hint of which individuals the sanctions ought to target by mentioning human rights abuses in Belarus, China, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Just two of them voiced disapproval - Greek socialist Nikos Androulakis and Polish conservative Bogdan Zdrojewski.

It would be hard to agree who to blacklist because left-wing politicians tended to defend left-wing regimes, as in Venezuela, while right-wing ones defended their allies, such as Israel, Androulakis said.

"I don't believe in sanctions ... We need to talk, to communicate, to keep links open - that's the only way to achieve what we want," Zdrojewski said.

Naming row

The debate was more heated on whether the new measures should be called an "EU Magnitsky Act" or whether they should drop the reference to the Russian case and use a more neutral title, such as an "EU global human rights regime".

"Magnitsky stood up to corruption and the way the Russian authorities tried to cover up his murder and exonerated the people involved became a symbol of impunity worldwide," Sandra Kaniete, a Latvian conservative, said.

Using his name would "send a message" to Russia that that impunity was over, she added.

"It would be a small step for justice for Sergei," Dutch liberal Marietje Schaake said.

But Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green deputy, said it was "simply untrue" that using Magnitsky's name would make the sanctions "more important".

Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Green MEP, also told EUobserver that Magnitsky's name should not be used because "there are more authoritarian regimes in the world than just Russia".

The EP will vote on Thursday on a non-binding resolution on the sanctions, which may add fuel to the fire if MEPs reject naming the measures after the Russian victim.

Bill Browder, a British businessman who used to employ Magnitsky in Russia and whose subsequent campaign for justice led to the original US act, has accused Hautala and the Greens more broadly of trying to appease Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

"It may look that way, but it isn't that way," Hautala told this website, noting that the Greens' draft resolution mentioned Magnitsky twice in the text, even if plumped for a neutral title.

"It's all become quite nasty," she said.

Opinion

The Magnitsky Act - and its name

It is disappointing that so many MEPs in the Socialist and Green group caved in to Russian interests, in fear of challenging a plutocratic regime, by saying 'no' to naming the Magnitsky legislation by its rightful name: Magnitsky.

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.

Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks

Street violence in Russia redoubled calls for new sanctions when foreign ministers meet on Monday, after eight EU states earlier proposed asset-freezes and visa-bans.

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