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UK flexes its post EU membership muscles - imposes sanctions on individuals and entitles

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

The UK's first foray into independent sanctions is a fascinating mix of politics with messages hidden in each one.

It's old news but it's making a point, albeit one that there is no doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin will brush off. In 2009, whilst in custody, Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow accountant, died. He had been held in custody following his revelation of a multi-million fraud by government officials. In 2012, the USA passed a bi-partisan Bill eventually known as the Magnitsky Act which sought to punish certain Russian officials alleged to have been directly involved with, or complicit in, Magnitsky's death.

It seems strange that, out of all the human rights abuses around the world the British Foreign Office should elect to put this case front and centre in its new sanctions regime.

But in fact, the UK is making a point - not to Russia (Putin's response to the US Act was typically forthright "“Nobody tortured him, he died of a heart attack,” said President Vladimir Putin in December 2012. “Do you think that no one ever dies in American jails, or what? Of course they do. And so what? Must we make a story of each and every case?” (Washington Post). The UK's point is made to Europe and the wider world. To the EU it's saying "The European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian story wasn't credible and found for the family. What did you do about it? Nothing."

There is little or no chance that the EU will do anything - Germany has too big a say and Germany is in Russia's pocket, at least economically speaking, and many of its decisions over the past decade or so have been determined by the effect on that relationship. The sanctions are a statement of independence by Britain.

The sanctions are, in most cases, an asset freeze and travel ban. Now outside the EU, that ban extends only to Britain and its airspace and waters - but a foreign airliner in British Airspace remains the sovereign territory of its country of registration and the same is true (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) of a vessel in British waters. The subjects are untouchable if they fly by Lufthansa and buy property in Frankfurt, for example.

The second set of sanctions are politically charged for the UK: traditionally, it has not wanted to cause friction with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a long time ally in the Middle East and a purchaser of British-built warplanes and other arms. It is notable that the UK's action is in support of Turkey, a country which the EU has strung along over membership for years without ever saying "close enough, welcome" as it has done with so many other countries. The UK's action is, to a degree, an olive branch to Turkey which the EU has threatened with sanctions over action on its border with Syria where the EU wants Turkey to be hard but then complains about the "how" rather than the "why." But the UK's action is also a warning to Turkey - "look, we're supporting you on this one but if you commit human rights offences, you'll be in our view, too."

The action names multiple Saudi Arabians who are also charged in a court in Turkey in a hearing that started last week. The subject is the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. First, there's the hurdle that it took place in the Saudi consulate, which is sovereign territory. The sanctions relate, mainly, to the planning and carrying out of the murder and disposal of the body, all of which are outside the scope of normal diplomatic activity so the persons can't claim immunity and took place off premises, so far as the territorial argument is concerned. Asset freezes and travel bans are the sanctions applied. While the Crown Prince is not named, those who are named are (or were) his inner circle.

In the case of Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya is the cause for sanctions. The sanctions target the military (which in effect runs the government despite notional democracy) for "human rights violations against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State in 2017 and 2019 including unlawful killings, torture, forced labour, systematic rape and other forms of targeted sexual violence." Again, asset freezes and travel bans are in place. But the hidden message here is that the military exploits minerals and while only individuals are named, the next phase would be against the regime's money-making schemes. "As Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Soe Win also has responsibility for the serious human rights violations by the Tatmadaw in connection with its business interests in the extractive industries in Myanmar."

Finally, two "entities" are named: they are connected with North Korea's infamous MSS (Ministry of State) Bureau 7. It runs the detention camps where "re-education" takes place. It is noticeable that the UK has not followed the USA into wider sanctions against NoKo and its officers. That's probably because the UK sees no point in duplicating the UN's sanctions that are already in place. It's also a message to the USA that it should not assume that the UK will automatically adopt sanctions that the USA sees fit to impose.

Footnote: the UK can now make its own sanctions as a result of its withdrawal from the EU. This is another message, this time to the EU negotiators who have spent much of the Pandemic months saying they are going to be difficult over the UK's exit terms and even try to delay final departure: "we are going it alone. Get used to it."