The UK’s ‘Magnitsky Laws’: an effective deterrent against human rights abuses or simply posturing?

Tomos Owen

Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, announced that the UK would be sanctioning 49 individuals and groups accused of gross human rights abuses. This was the first time the UK had individually imposed sanctions for human rights abuses and in Dominic Raab’s own words, ‘“sent a clear message” in regard to the UK government’s position on these actions. Rather than introducing new legislation altogether, the powers to impose sanctions through the so-called ‘Magnitsky Laws’ actually stem from amendments to two existing pieces of legislation. The Criminal Finances Act 2017 amends the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to include gross human rights violations or abuses under their definition of ‘unlawful conduct’. This allows the UK government to freeze the assets of human rights abusers in the UK. An amendment was also made to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill (now the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018), which allows the UK government to impose sanctions on individuals and groups on the basis of gross human rights violations. This latter amendment includes imposing travel bans on human rights abusers. 

These types of sanctions are not without precedent and have been in use in other countries for a number of years. The first Magnitsky sanctions originated in the United States in 2012 following the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who uncovered a massive tax-fraud scheme in his country. This involved hundreds of millions of dollars being fraudulently siphoned off from a private company, Hermitage Capital Management, and into the pockets of officials. Magnitsky reported that this had been possible because the police raided the company following an unjustified accusation of tax evasion, enabling them to confiscate material and pass it onto organised criminals. The criminals then took over three of Hermitage’s Russian companies, made them look unprofitable and fraudulently claimed back $230m in tax paid to the Russian state. Considering that this money belonged to the Russian state you would be forgiven for thinking that Magnitsky was hailed a hero. However, the result was far different and rather than those guilty being brought to justice, a criminal case was actually brought against Magnitsky himself. In 2008, he was arrested and held in poor conditions without trial and without visits from his family or any access to medical treatment. In November 2009, having been beaten and tortured, he died at the hands of officials. This led to the United States to create the Magnitsky Act which enabled them to punish human rights abusers, including freezing their assets and banning them from entering the US.

The Magnitsky laws in the UK have so far been used to sanction a range of human rights abusers. First, and foremost, the UK government used their first set of sanctions to punish those in Russia responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky. This was completely justified, although equally symbolic given that these types of sanctions originated as a response to his death. The others sanctioned by the UK government perhaps give a better indication of where the UK government believes the worst human rights abuses have been, or are currently being, committed around the world. Those which also make the list include 20 Saudi nationals responsible for the muder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and a top Myanmar military commander responsible for the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim population in the country. Interestingly, the sanctions also included two North Korean bodies, the Ministry of State Security Bureau 7 and the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau, which are responsible for running prison camps where torture and murder are common practices. 

The first steps taken by the UK government are positive and it is clear that those sanctioned were wholly deserving of punishment. Overall, the ability for the UK to impose these types of sanctions offers a new and welcome boost in the fight to uphold human rights globally. Whereas previously the UK would have been more inclined to work with the EU or rely on the UN to introduce human rights sanctions focused on geographical locations, the powers under the Magnitsky Laws allows the government to take a far more targeted approach. That is not to say that the former approach is obsolete and many of the sanctions that the UK were part of through the EU have since been made UK regulations in their own right. However, rather than having to formulate separate sets of regulations for geographical human rights sanctions moving forward, the UK can now move with speed to simply target those responsible through existing legislation. There is also growing evidence that imposing geographical sanctions is ineffective and rather than deter the administrations that are guilty of human rights abuses, they create more hardship for the poorest in those nations. The UN Secretary General has called for blanket sanctions to be lifted because they are exacerbating humanitarian disasters, especially during COVID-19. In a time where human rights sanctions are essential, the Magnitsky Laws provide a fairer alternative that only punish those responsible for abuses and, as these sanctions target the personal wealth of the abusers, they are likely to be a far greater deterrent.  

Whilst the initial steps taken by the UK government are positive, it is too early to judge whether their use of the Magnitsky Laws will be an effective tool against human rights abusers. There will be much scrutiny on who they choose to impose sanction on in the future, but also more importantly, who they choose not to impose sanctions on. To be an effective tool in the fight for human rights globally, sanctions need to be imposed on human rights abusers from countries that are both allies and adversaries. If we are only to impose sanctions on countries less favoured, the Magnitsky Laws will fast become a political tool rather than a serious response to human rights abuses. Unfortunately, the Magnitsky Laws provide clear scope for this abuse because there appears to be little oversight on the decision making process for who should be sanctioned. We are reliant on the Foreign Office’s equitable use of these powers and with the UK still attempting to make several post-Brexit trade deals, it is foreseeable that they may not want to impose human rights sanctions on some individuals for fear of harming negotiations. 

When considering the list of those already sanctioned, there are certainly some glaring omissions. Hong Kong with their new National Security Law is a clear first example. This law is just the latest act in a series of moves by Hong Kong which aims to limit free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association. The National Security Law hands over large amounts of power to China and introduces a number of disproportionate measures, such as deeming several seemingly minor offences as terrorism, a crime which can carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. Even the simple act of publicly supporting independence in Hong Kong could now lead to arrest. One can only imagine the uproar if this was the case in the UK and those calling for Scottish independence were in the same position. This comparison with the UK highlights just how oppressive the regime of Hong Kong has become and there is a very strong case for imposing Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible. There is an equally strong case for imposing sanctions on those in China responsible for the apparent and ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. There is a growing amount of evidence that the Uighur population is being subject to mass incarceration, forced labour, forced sterilisation, and even the forced removal of Uighur children from their families. The seriousness of the situation was demonstrated most recently through the verified video of Uighur Muslims being taken off trains while bound and blindfolded. Dominic Raab has already noted that these actions amount to “gross, egregious human rights abuses”, seemingly confirming that they reach the threshold where Magnitsky sanctions could be imposed. It is too early to say whether the UK government is now preparing to impose sanctions for these abuses or if they will be omitted altogether, but it is certain that the next announcement of sanctions is eagerly awaited. 

There are two final points of note when discussing the Magnitsky sanctions. The first was the astounding news that Defence Minister, Ben Wallace, called the Saudi regime only a few days after the announced sanctions to apologise. If true, this seriously undermines the position of the UK government as being tough on human rights abusers and clearly points towards the sanctions being politically motivated. There is clearly no room for apologies when taking strong action against those guilty of human rights abuses and this is the case whether they are nationals of our allies or not. The second, and perhaps a more clear example of how the sanctions are simply posturing, was the announcement by the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, that the UK would resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We have written on this extensively so it only suffices to say that this decision was made despite the findings that arms provided by the UK may have been used in the past to commit violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. This is a clear cut case of the UK government wanting to have their cake and eat it too. 

Fighting human rights abuses will never be a part-time affair and the government must decide whether they are willing to risk losing revenue from arms exports in the interest of humanity. Until this is done, a question mark will always be over the UK’s Magnitsky Laws and the motivation for using them. 

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