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28th Jan 2023

EU adopts 'Magnitsky Act' against human rights abusers

  • Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian anti-corruption campaigner who died in prison in 2009 (Photo: Hermitage Capital)

EU states have formally approved new sanctions against human rights abusers, modelled on the US 'Magnitsky Act'.

The decision, taken by foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (7 December), was called a "landmark agreement" by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

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The visa-bans and asset-freezes will target individuals guilty of crimes against humanity, slavery, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests.

Those responsible for human-trafficking, sexual violence, and abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, or religion will likewise be pursued.

EU countries have begun classified talks on who to designate in the first round of sanctions.

Potential names include those in Russia guilty of killing anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky in 2009, individuals in Saudi Arabia who butchered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, or Chinese officials responsible for persecuting the Uighur minority.

"It will [also] serve as an additional instrument against [Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko's] regime, allowing persecution of individuals responsible for the violence against protesters," Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya tweeted.

But when asked on Monday, Borrell said no member state had suggested listing Chinese names at this stage.

The new sanctions also let the EU go after people who make financial gain from human rights abuses under a clause on perpetrators who are "otherwise involved" in repression.

But they do not specify "corruption" as a headline criterion, prompting criticism by some advocacy groups and MEPs.

"The omission of corruption in the EU's new sanctions regime risks sending the message that Europe is a safe haven for dirty money," Laure Brillaud, from the Brussels-based NGO Transparency International, said.

"We hope the EU will consider following the UK model by committing without delay to adopting a separate sanctions regime which will target corruption worldwide," Margot Mollat, from British NGO Global Witness, also said.

"We will continue ... to try to improve this newly adopted instrument," Dacian Cioloș, the Romanian leader of the liberal Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, added.

Europe entitled its act a "global human rights sanctions regime", instead of calling it after Magnitsky, the way Canada, the US, the UK, and Baltic states have called similar legislation.

But it is being called the "European Magnitsky Act" informally, for instance, by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.

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"If evil is not defeated, it tends to expand", Natalia Magnitskaya, the widow of a Russian anti-corruption activist, has said, as EU diplomats discuss human rights sanctions 10 years after his death.

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