EU One Step Closer to Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime

4 min read

The European Commission and the EU's Foreign Policy High Representative have put forward a proposal for a new, non-country-based sanctions programme to address human rights violations and abuses with asset freezes and travel bans. This proposal must be approved by all 27 Member States within the EU Council before it becomes law, and before any designations can be made under the programme.



For some time there has been a debate within the EU about the need for a new EU sanctions programme that specifically addresses serious human rights violations worldwide.1 To date, many of the EU's sanctions programmes targeting specific countries (e.g., Iran, Syria) designate alleged human rights violators on the EU asset freeze list, but there is no dedicated non-country EU sanctions programme for such listings yet.2

The new EU proposal follows a recent trend in various jurisdictions to adopt these types of sanctions programmes – often called "Magnitsky" sanctions to recognize the push for human rights-related designations of Russian officials following the death of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in Russian prison a little over a decade ago. The United States has applied a Magnitsky sanctions programme since 2012, and since 2016 has designated various parties considered responsible for serious human rights abuses and corruption globally. In Europe, the UK introduced Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations in July 2020, imposing UK-specific designations on various individuals (and in some cases government ministries) in relation to alleged human rights violations in Burma/Myanmar, North Korea, Belarus and to the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and Jamal Khashoggi.3


The Proposal

Not all details are known at this preliminary stage about the newly introduced EU sanctions programme proposal,4 but it is expected to address human rights violations worldwide under a new "EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime" umbrella. This new regime would not replace any existing country-based sanctions programmes, which often address human rights violations. It would, however, enable the EU to designate persons and entities in third countries associated with serious human rights abuses without expressly targeting that third country regime. The main impact on EU companies of this development, for example, would be that it becomes even more important to screen all counterparties across the world against the EU asset freeze list, i.e., even if they are not located in a country specifically targeted by EU sanctions.

If the proposal is adopted as EU law, the designated human rights offenders would likely be targeted by asset freeze restrictions and travel bans. It appears that, under the proposal, the European Commission would have oversight over the implementation of travel bans, which is not the case when such measures are imposed under existing EU sanctions programmes. It remains to be seen whether the Member States in the Council retain this proposal. 

Consistent with the EU structure for existing sanctions programmes, the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime would be introduced through a Council Decision (setting out key policy and principles binding on the EU Member States) and Council Regulation (setting out more detailed provisions that are directly binding on any person subject to EU jurisdiction). As part of the next steps, the proposed Council Decision and Regulation will be discussed by the EU Member States in the Council. It is unclear when the legal framework might enter into force, and at this stage no individuals or entities have been publicly identified for potential listing under the new sanctions programme.


1 See Press release of the Foreign Affairs Council of 9 December 2019, p. 9. In late 2018, the Dutch Government launched preliminary discussions among EU Member States for a specific EU sanctions regime, and the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for such an "autonomous, flexible and reactive EU-wide mechanism" in March 2019. 
2 Certain non-country EU sanctions programmes exist to address other issues, such as terrorist activities, computer hacking, and the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.
3 See the relevant UK sanctions list. See also the White & Case alert on this topic.
4 See Press release. Various EU Member States, including Denmark, Finland and Sweden, indicated they could enact their own Magnitsky-type legislation if no EU framework was created.


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