So what is the significance of the new Global Human Rights Sanctions regime?
The idea of responding to human rights violations with sanctions is well-established. Indeed, the Magnitsky affair has given rise to new legislation on this front in several countries over the past decade, including the United States (2012 & 2016), Estonia (2016), Canada (2017) and Latvia (2018).
There is also precedent for using sanctions to respond to human rights violations in the UK. For years, the British government has implemented human rights related sanctions against countries such as Iran and Syria as part of country-specific regimes imposed by the EU.
Since 2017, the British government has also had powers to address human rights abuses under the Criminal Finance Act 2017, which has its own ‘Magnitsky amendment’. So in this sense, the new Global Human Rights Sanctions regime builds on a considerable amount of past activity in this space.
But the new regime is a major development in that it is the first sanctions regime launched under the Sanctions and Money Laundering Act (SAMLA) of 2018, the legislative architecture supporting the Brexit-driven shift to an entirely new system of autonomous UK sanctions.
Prior to Brexit, the UK pursued its sanctions policy through multilateral fora and had very little scope to impose sanctions independently.
The EU, in particular, offered a valuable means of pursuing sanctions when the United Nations Security Council was deadlocked, or, indeed, if UN sanctions were deemed not to be sufficiently robust. And within the EU, the UK played a leading role with regard to sanctions, contributing significantly to the shape and direction of the bloc’s policies and regimes.
For example, the UK played an important role in the development of EU sanctions on Russia and in driving forward the EU chemical weapons sanctions regime.
This is significant because sanctions are an important tool of coercive power for the UK.
A recent report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee emphasized that, ‘[t]he centrality of sanctions to UK foreign policy, national security and the functioning of the rules-based international system cannot be overstated’.
Sanctions are also generally held to be more impactful when deployed by a coalition of actors. So sanctions leadership within the EU served as an important force multiplier for UK national interests.
But Brexit means that this particular formulation of sanctions power and influence will now end. The UK will no longer be obliged to implement EU sanctions, but neither will it have the same opportunity to shape and benefit from the bloc’s policies.
All of this raises a lot of questions: What will the UK make of its newly acquired autonomy? How will it position itself in relation to other sanctions actors? What course will London take if, for example, the EU and the US find their sanctions policies at odds (as is the case over Iran’s nuclear programme)? How will the UK ensure that its sanctions have force and impact as tools of coercive diplomacy?
The answers to these questions have important implications for the future of UK foreign policy after Brexit, but there are no easy answers.
While the UK has much in its favour – a strong base of sanctions knowledge and expertise, the financial weight of the City of London, world-class intelligence capabilities that can support aspects of sanctions implementation and enforcement – it cannot be compared to the US, where sanctions policies are given enormous weight by the dollar’s dominance in global trade.
While British policymakers develop a new strategy, the human rights regime represents a relatively safe first step into the UK’s sanctions future. Measures taken under the regime will not match the reach and vigour of those applied under similar legislation in the US, and so will not prove controversial on that front.
And while the EU has begun preparatory work on its own global human rights regime, the fact that the UK got there first feeds into the idea of the UK as a sanctions leader – a key consideration as the government seeks to advance its post-Brexit vision of the UK and its place in the world.
Clearly, the new regime will bring its own challenges, not least the question of who or what should be sanctioned. While the 49 listings respond to notorious human rights abuses in Myanmar, North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia, there is potential to add many more.
Indeed, no sooner had Mr Raab introduced the regime than MPs began to call for Chinese designations. This, of course, must be considered alongside issues of trade and alliances. Nothing here happens in a vacuum.
There is also a question with regard to the purpose of these sanctions. From a UK perspective, sanctions support foreign policy objectives in one (or more) of three ways: coercing targets, constraining behaviour, and signalling disapproval.
In theory at least, the UK does not seek to impose sanctions for purely punitive purposes. The goal is behavioural change.
In his seminal work, Thomas Schelling argued that effective coercion, whether it be of the deterrent or compellent variety, requires a measure of assurance.
In other words, if the purpose of imposing sanctions is to change behaviour, there must be an assurance that the desired behavioural change will result in sanctions being removed.
So how will this work with this regime where sanctions are imposed on individuals in response to human rights sanctions? Or should sanctions here be regarded as purely punitive?
These are significant issues that need careful consideration. For now, however, the new regime allows the UK to cast itself as a leading defender of human rights and fits neatly into the government narrative of a dynamic and outward-looking ‘Global Britain’, striking a brave new path on the international stage.
Dr Matthew Moran is a Reader in International Security in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He also serves as Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies.
This piece was originally published for The UK in a changing Europe.