Source: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA
Author: Elia Duran-Smith
The European Union (EU) has, since its inception, seen itself as a major promoter and defender of human rights both within its borders and around the world. Its aim to promote respect for human rights in its common foreign and security policy was enshrined in the EU’s foundational Treaty on European Union, known as the Maastricht Treaty, and subsequent iterations like the Treaty of Lisbon (Treaty of European Union, 1992, Article J.1.2; Treaty of Lisbon, 2007, Article 21.1). A major tool used by states and intergovernmental organisations to attempt to impel those who violate fundamental human rights to reform their actions is what the EU calls restrictive measures, more often known as sanctions (‘Restrictive measures (sanctions)’, n.d.). The EU has long placed sanctions on foreign actors accused of committing abuses against human rights. However, in late 2020, the EU adopted a new kind of sanctions regime, shifting from a geographical focus to a thematic focus. This article explains the new regime that came into force in 2021 and its first targets.
The EU’s sanctions approach prior to 2020 was to individually target state or non-state individuals, entities and/or entities in a particular country on a case by case basis. Because this was seen as such a pointed action, it meant the EU would not target as many human rights abusers as under the new sanctions regime, as this may have threatened the EU’s external relations-particularly with its allies.
Adopted on December 7th 2020, the new regime, officially called the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime (GHRSR), issues sanctions to numerous actors from different countries based on a common violation of human rights, therefore not targeting any country in particular, but signalling the EU’s general condemnation of the abuse of a specific human right (Russell, 2020, p. 1).
The GHRSR applies sanctions to human rights offenders involved in the following major crimes: genocide; crimes against humanity; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; slavery; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings; enforced disappearance of persons; and arbitrary arrests or detentions. Sanctions are also levied for other human rights violations that are “widespread, systematic or otherwise of serious concern”, including human trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence and violations of freedom of peaceful assembly, association, opinion and expression, religion and belief (Russell, 2020, p. 6). The types of sanctions the EU employs include prohibitions on the export of arms and related equipment, “restrictions on admission (visa/travel bans)”, “economic measures such as restrictions on imports and exports”, and “freezing of funds and economic resources owned by targeted individuals or entities” (Publications Office of the European Union, 2021).
This new sanctions regime also allows much more swift action to be taken against human rights abusers in coordination with the EU’s key partners in this area-namely the UK, US and Canada-which could have a much more significant impact (Russell, 2020, p. 3).
The new regime is not without controversy, however, as civil society, MEPs and Dutch and German parliamentarians have criticised the process of selecting sanctions targets for being exclusive. They point out the fact that these decisions are made by the European Council (made up of the heads of government of EU member states) without consultation from civil society. Calls have been made to allow NGOs the possibility of nominating human rights offenders to be examined by a panel of experts which would pass on what it considers the most prominent cases to the European Council for sanctions designation (Russell, 2020, p. 6). Furthermore, the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Chair David McAllister and Subcommittee on Human Rights Chair Maria Arena- have argued that corruption connected to human rights violations, the abuse of state emergency powers and violence against human rights proponents should be sanctionable offences. They have also called for European parliamentary oversight in the sanctions designation process (Arena and McAllister, 2021).
Arena, M. and McAllister, D. (2021, July 19). ‘European Commission must take measures to strengthen EU Magnitsky Act, say senior MEPs’. The Parliament Magazine.
Publications Office of the European Union. (2021, October 13). ‘Restrictive measures (sanctions)’. https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/0738dbdf-2a80-11ec-bd8e-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-HTML/source-244350715
‘Restrictive measures (sanctions)’. (n.d.) European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/business-economy-euro/banking-and-finance/international-relations/restrictive-measures-sanctions_en
Russell, M. (2020, October). ‘EU Human Rights Sanctions: Towards a European Magnitsky Act’. European Parliamentary Research Service. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/659402/EPRS_BRI(2020)659402_EN.pdf
Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community. (2007, December 13). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:12007L/TXT
Treaty on European Union. (1992, July 29). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:11992M/TXT