Blog / / 07.09.20

We’ve Got the Tool, Let’s Use It: The UK Launches its Human Rights Sanctions Program

By Oliver Windridge, Senior Advisor at The Sentry for the UK.


The United Kingdom this week launched its human rights sanctions program. Under this new program—something of a passion project for current UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab—the UK government will now be able to issue sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities, in response to serious violations of human rights anywhere in the world. This program continues a global trend of sanctions being used to address human rights abuses, and it aligns the UK with similar programs in the United States and Canada and proposed programs in Australia and the European Union, among others.

The launch of this program is a significant moment for the UK and for the global human rights community. In an international landscape of diminishing human rights compliance and deeply concerning anti-human rights rhetoric from governments across the world, this is a positive moment. These sanctions have a chance to be truly effective in changing behavior: they target individuals rather than entire nations. The potential is clear: this program could allow the UK to move quickly and decisively to impose targeted sanctions against individuals who have for years been connected to serious human rights violations and who have property and investments in the UK or who travel to the UK. However, despite the obvious opportunities this program brings, it should not be seen as a silver bullet for accountability for human rights abusers or the prevention of human rights abuses. Instead, it should be seen as an important tool that must be implemented properly alongside other financial tools of pressure and accountability mechanisms.

Unfortunately, one element is missing from this new program, and that element is corruption. Under the United States’ Global Magnitsky sanctions authority, the US can impose sanctions not only for serious human rights abuses but also for corruption. The US has used this corruption prong on a number of occasions to sanction individuals who have destabilized or threatened to destabilize governments through their corrupt acts, but whose actions do not fit within a quantifiable human rights abuse per se. For example, the US sanctioned members of the Gupta family in South Africa. The UK’s new program does not include corruption as a sanctionable act, although financially profiting from human rights abuses is covered. This is not the same as corruption, but it is a notable addition. Still, the omission of corruption should be looked at carefully and resolved in due course.

Despite the corruption omission, this program should stir excitement amongst sanctions and human rights experts. The UK has announced an initial wave of 49 sanctions targeting North Korean companies allegedly connected to forced labor camps and individuals from Saudi Arabia allegedly connected to the murder of Jamaal Khashoggi, from Russia in relation to the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, and from Myanmar in relation to alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya community. This is a positive first step, but the true value of this program will be in its ongoing application. Will the UK use this program sparingly, issuing the occasional sanction only in the most egregious cases, but otherwise leaving it in the toolbox? Or will the UK use the tool actively, addressing not just serious human rights abuses around the world, but also the often-clear links between those who abuse human rights and those who enjoy the largesse of the UK?

As research by The Sentry has shown, any sanctions program is most effective when it is coupled with strong messaging, both in the country issuing the sanction and in the country where the individual or company originates. Without intentional messaging accompanying each designation setting out who, why, and how an individual is being sanctioned, sanctions risk being used as badges of honor or being referred to as international meddling, rather than being treated as a serious indictment. Sanctions should also be consistently applied and regularly monitored, with flexibility  to change when needed, and they must contain clear indicators to the sanctioned individuals on how sanctions can be removed. In short, the efforts do not end when the sanctions are issued; rather, this is when the hard work begins if those sanctions are to be effective.

Let’s pause to recognize the significant achievement of getting this important program up and running. Then, let’s redouble our efforts to ensure that the UK continues to use these powers in a consistent and effective manner to target those most responsible for human right abuses around the world.