27th Feb 2021

Berlin repeats support for EU human rights sanctions

  • European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (Photo:

Berlin is "ready" to move ahead with new EU human rights sanctions, but internal bickering could delay them into next year.

"We are ready to take the work forward", a German EU presidency spokesman told EUobserver on Thursday (24 September), referring to plans to target human rights abusers around the world with visa-bans and asset-freezes.

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The European Commission and the EU foreign service have been drafting the legal documents for over six months.

And if they do not finalise them in the next few weeks, Germany, a vocal supporter of the sanctions, will run out of time to shepherd them into force before its presidency ends, as it had expected to do.

Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, also promised a "European Magnitsky Act" in a recent speech to MEPs, naming the sanctions after Sergei Magnitsky, a late Russian anti-corruption activist.

And the foreign service told this website: "All involved are working hard to ensure that the sanctions regime is up and running as soon as possible".

"This will be a new instrument in our toolbox, which will give further coherence to our external policy", a spokeswoman for EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell said.

But behind the scenes, EU turf wars risked further delay, sources warned.

For its part, von der Leyen's commission has been fighting for control of the visa-ban part of the regime with the EU Council, which normally enforces travel bans, one EU diplomat said.

And Borrell's service has been fighting the commission for control of the asset-freeze part, another EU source said.

The European Parliament has no powers on foreign policy.

But MEPs have also tried to shape the sanctions before they go forward.

A draft of the asset-freeze regulation, seen by EUobserver, catalogued 12 criteria for designations.

These included extrajudicial killings and torture, for instance, but not corruption.

The draft also named the sanctions "restrictive measures against serious human rights violations", instead of a "European Magnitsky Act".

But those were two "deficiencies" for a cross-party group of MEPs, including dozens of deputies from Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden.

"Individuals who contributed physically, financially, or through acts of systemic corruption to human rights abuses should be sanctioned," they said in a letter to Borrell last week.


"Magnitsky was tortured and killed for standing up to [Russian president] Vladimir Putin's corrupt regime and it would be a terrible injustice to his sacrifice if the EU did not incorporate his name in the legislation," they also said.

Targeted sanctions would be ideal for two egregious recent cases - the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny - if they were ready, diplomats previously told this website.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy is also struggling for "coherence" on other fronts, after Cyprus vetoed a blacklist of Belarusian officials despite regime brutality and election rigging.

And for the MEPs, "in light of the Navalny poisoning and the current situation in Belarus, the lack of progress in adopting this [human rights] law [was] particularly disturbing".

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