22nd Jan 2021

EU debates first names to go on human rights blacklist

  • Russian anti-corruption campaigner Sergei Magnitsky died in prison in 2009 (Photo: Dmitry Rozhkov)

EU countries have begun talks on which names to hit first with new-model human rights sanctions.

The confidential talks come amid preparations to launch the measures next week.

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EU states' diplomats agreed the final draft of the legal text last Thursday (26 November).

It is to be formally agreed by EU foreign ministers next Monday and publicly launched on the UN's International Human Rights Day on 10 December.

For her part, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has been calling the measures a "European Magnitsky Act" in the memory of Sergei Magnitsky, a late Russian anti-corruption activist, who inspired similar legislation in the US, Canada, the UK, and the Baltic states.

But Magnitsky's name was kept off the official title of the EU sanctions, so that they would not look as though they were aimed at Russia.

The Dutch had floated the idea of referring to Magnitsky in the preamble of the legal act.

"But they realised it was going nowhere and they dropped it," an EU diplomat said.

Meanwhile, the EU visa-bans and asset-freezes will go after individuals deemed guilty of crimes such as genocide, torture, slavery, or extrajudicial killings.

They will not explicitly target people guilty of corruption, the way the US 'Magnitsky Act' does.

But the EU measures contain a clause saying people who are "otherwise involved" in human rights abuses can be eligible.

"I imagine this would include people who benefit financially from human rights violations in a corrupt system," the EU diplomat said.

It remains to be seen who will be the first names on the EU blacklist.

For his part, Alexei Navalny, another Russian anti-corruption activist, who survived an assassination attempt earlier this year, told MEPs by video-link last Friday that the EU should go after Russian oligarchs if it wanted to stimulate change.

"There is no sense to sanction colonels or generals or people who are definitely not travelling a lot or [do not] have bank accounts in Europe," he said.

"Just target Russian oligarchs. Just tell Mr Usmanov, Mr Abramovich: 'Guys, you are acting against Russian people, you are acting against Europe ... So please, take your yachts and get them somewhere to the nice harbours of the Belarus Republic," he said, referring to two Russian billionaires, Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovich.

And for his part, Bill Browder, a British human rights campaigner who was Magnitsky's former employer, said the EU should list Magnitsky's killers, the way the US and others have done.

But EU diplomats have, so far, spoken of human rights abusers in the Middle East, Africa, and the Far East as more likely first targets.

And for Browder, the fact the EU blacklists will be agreed by unanimity, instead of majority-voting, will help foreign regimes to call upon their friends in Europe to veto names they want to protect.

"Getting the [EU] act passed is only half the battle," Browder said.

"The more difficult battle will be getting egregious human rights abusers added to the list, because little EU states, such as Cyprus and Hungary, will be able to oppose them [sanctions] and water them down," he said, referring to two Russia-friendly EU nations.

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