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Von der Leyen says EU sanctions regime ‘sends a clear message’ to human rights violators

Human rights sanctions adopted in EU

By Dan Byrne for AMLi

THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL has officially adopted the long-debated Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

It will mean the European Union now has all the structures in place for unified sanctions on individuals suspected of violating human rights, no matter where in the world they are.  

The new framework gives the bloc the power to freeze the assets or bar individuals from travelling to or within any of the 27 member states.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the regime, saying that it will “send a clear message: those who abuse and violate basic human rights will be held responsible.”

Her comments were echoed by EU Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets Union Mairead McGuinness, who promised the Commission would “work with EU Member States to facilitate implementation on the ground.”

Other senior figures who have welcomed the news Monday include EU High Representative and Commission VP Josep Borrell, Human Rights Watch EU Director Lotte Leicht, and former Belgian PM and MEP Guy Verhofstadt.

The new regime enables sanctions on individuals as a response to violations like crimes against humanity, genocide, gender-based violence and abuses of freedom of assembly.

‘Corruption’ is notably absent – owing to differences in definition worldwide.  

The regime has been dubbed the ‘EU’s Magnitsky Act’ by the media and some lawmakers, given its similarity to the American Magnitsky Act – in force since 2012 – enabling similar sanctions to be made from Washington.

The act’s namesake – Russian tax advisor Sergei Magnitsky – was central to the exposition of extensive corruption in Russia.

His work with investment firm Hermitage Capital Management saw him uncover widespread fraud involving both Russian government authorities and Russian mafia, among other prominent figures.

He was arrested in 2008 and died eleven months later in police custody. His living conditions are known to have deteriorated during his time.

Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, former colleague of Magnitsky’s and outspoken opponent of corruption said that the adoption of the EU’s new regime was a “monumental and historic day.”

“No more European holidays for human rights abusers,” he said. “Now we need to make sure that countries like Hungary, Cyprus and Malta don’t hijack the law with their ability to veto any future EU Magnitsky lists. This is potentially a big problem.”

With the regime now in place, focus will turn to deciding who will appear on the sanctions list, and the ‘veto issue’ may shackle this process in practice.

The approval of all 27 EU member states is necessary for any individual to be sanctioned, likely a spark for conflict given the internal political differences between them.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban had recently been dubbed “Putin’s trojan horse,” by Browder, owing to the much friendlier relationship the two leaders enjoy when compared to heads of other EU states.

Orban’s policies may result in various Russian officials being kept off the list.

Similar tactics by Cyprus and Malta could likely reflect their continuing desires to appeal to foreign investors even though both island nations are criticised by the EU for not thoroughly investigating the potential high-risk nature of some of these individuals.

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