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UK’s New Human Rights Sanctions Offer Tool to Curb Abuse

Consistent Approach to Rights Needed in UK Foreign Policy

The Union Flag flies near the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, June 7, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

This week’s launch of the United Kingdom’s human rights sanctions regime offers victims a chance to see a measure of justice for the harms they suffered. Yet to be effective, it’s vital they are used fairly and consistently.

The sanctions, which freeze assets of human rights abusers and ban them from entering the UK, will apply to government officials and private individuals engaged in serious abuses including killing, torture, and forced labor, and in some cases, rape and sexual violence.

The United States and Canada already have similar mechanisms and the European Union and Australia are developing them.

The first people named include individuals from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Myanmar, and entities in North Korea. The absence of any Chinese officials linked to abuses in Hong Kong or Xinjiang is a shocking omission.

Experience suggests that while individual human rights sanctions can be an important tool, they are not a magic bullet. The UK government’s own guidance indicates they are likely to be pursued when sharper tools like criminal justice are not possible.

Freezing assets and banning travel to the UK may not trouble some abusers, especially those with few ties to the UK. And individual sanctions may not deter abusive governments if they assess that the price to individual officials is worth paying to maintain their abusive policies.

Moreover, if used selectively – for example, only against individuals in less powerful countries or those with whom the UK is in dispute – they are likely to be seen as politicized. There is also a danger they serve as a substitute for a more comprehensive political or economic measures against human rights abusers.

Those shortcomings can be partly ameliorated by coordinating with other states, using them even when politically or diplomatically inconvenient, and ensuring they are part of a broader strategy to champion human rights in UK diplomacy.

So it was deeply disappointing that 24 hours after sanctioning Saudi officials for human rights abuses, the UK government lifted its ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, despite clear evidence of the Saudi-led coalition’s responsibility for war crimes in Yemen.

If the UK government is serious about being a force for good in the world, it needs to make sure that its new sanctions programme is part a broader strategy to consistently champion rights globally.

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