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18th May 2021

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China and Russia top EU list of global rights abusers

  • China and the EU recently signed an investment treaty despite abuses of Uighurs and in Hong Kong (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

China, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Russia, and South Sudan are to be stigmatised as home to the world's worst human-rights abusers under new EU sanctions.

The move will cover some 11 officials and four entities in total from the six countries.

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  • Russia is the EU's main gas supplier (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The Chinese officials are linked to Beijing's persecution of the Uighur minority, rather than to its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, EU sources told EUobserver.

The Russian ones are linked to cases in Russia's Chechnya province, one source added.

The list was agreed by EU ambassadors in Brussels on Thursday (11 March) and will enter into force after foreign ministers give assent on 22 March.

The targets will face EU visa-bans and asset-freezes.

And they will be publicly named in the EU's legal gazette, piling opprobrium on the national administrations who condoned or ordered their crimes.

The EU move represents the second-ever round of penalties under its recently-adopted 'Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime'.

The first round named four Russians last month over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The latest list was favoured by the EU's largest countries - France, Germany, and Italy - and seen as rather daring in diplomatic circles.

"It's a miracle there was agreement to use this instrument against Russia and China at such an early stage," one EU diplomat said.

"They find themselves in quite 'good company'," he added ironically, given the notoriety of North Korea and the African states.

But it will be a disappointment to some human-rights campaigners, who were looking to see other Russians, as well as Saudi Arabia, in the EU basket of deplorables.

The new sanctions are informally known as the 'European Magnitsky Act' because they were modelled on similar ones of that name in the US, Canada, the UK, and the Baltic countries.

The US listed several Russians responsible for the death of anti-corruption campaigner Sergei Magnitsky in 2009, in a plot linked to the highest echelons of the Kremlin.

The EU did not feel obliged to match that because "this is an independent EU regime, so we don't need to follow the US example," an EU source said.

But for Bill Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, who campaigned for the US and European measures, it showed a "dysfunction in EU foreign policy on Russia because of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin's influence over weaker member states, like Hungary and Cyprus".

"This was the likely outcome", Browder said of the draft EU list.

Hungary's veto

Prior to Thursday's breakthrough, Hungary had threatened to veto the entire second round of sanctions on grounds of lack of evidence against the targets, sources said.

A handful of other states also voiced concern if the evidence would stand up in court, an EU diplomat noted.

And at least one of the 15-or-so targets could still change, following a debate on their "evidence-package" by diplomats in Brussels on Monday.

But at the same time, Hungary's veto-threat was designed to show EU colleagues the kind of trouble it could cause if they kept pressuring Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán over his own abuse of rule of law at home, sources said.

"It's strange that just one member state had such strong objections to the evidence," an EU source said.

"The Hungarians think they can get some kind of leverage in the rule-of-law dispute by being arseholes on everything else," an EU diplomat said.

Orbán's EU embassy declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the EU will also heap extra sanctions on Myanmar when foreign ministers meet later this month, following killings of anti-coup protesters.

But it will do so using a different legal tool, targeting the junta as a whole, rather than individual pariahs.

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