The government seeks closer co-operation with abusive regimes when it suits it, Ben Keith & Rhys Davies write

This article is published in The Times, 23 March 2023, full article here (subscription required).

The UK sanctions regime is not working because there is no clear policy on which human rights abusers to put on the list. On international women’s day this month, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, announced sanctions against four human rights abusers for gender-based violence in Iran, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Undeniably these individuals deserve to be sanctioned. What is less obvious is how a UK travel ban and asset freeze on those with little if any ties to the UK will prevent further human rights abuses.

Magnitsky sanctions are intended to apply pressure on regimes to stamp out corruption and human rights abuses while maintaining diplomatic channels of communication by targeting individuals. Without a coherent policy, Cleverly’s announcement is little more than a PR stunt.

The UK sanction regime needs to get a grip. It is currently patchy, with the government maintaining strong ties with some human rights abusers while being seen to stand up only to those who have no bearing on our economy. It seems the UK cannot afford to stand up to human rights abusers with attractive investment portfolios.

For instance, the United Arab Emirates has notably failed to align itself with its western allies on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UAE is the destination of choice for sanctioned supporters of Putin. Countries attempting to starve Russia of military components are concerned that the UAE has massively increased its exports of drones and microchips to Russia and have requested transparency of what exactly the UAE are exporting.

But there has been no hint of the UK stepping up to sanction UAE human rights abusers or those assisting Russians evade sanctions.

Sanctioning Russia and Belarus is important to starve the aggressors of finance and supplies, but outside that sphere the UK is too afraid to stand up for human rights where it might clash with domestic interests. With UAE, China and Saudi Arabia, the UK’s sanctions regime has no proper focus because the government is concerned about offending trading partners who routinely use torture and arbitrary detention.

Then there is Rwanda. For current political reasons over migration, ministers are obsessed with promoting Rwanda’s human rights record, which in reality is poor. The extraterritorial rendition of Paul Rusesabagina, a human rights activist, in 2020 was last year confirmed as a state abduction by the UN working group on arbitrary detention. Last week, there were hints that he might be released.

That egregious action should have resulted in Magnitsky sanctions. Instead, the UK seeks closer co-operation with proven human rights abusers. The government’s wilful lack of a coherent sanctions regime is clear and the repercussions are horrendous.

Ben Keith is a leading barrister specialising in cross-border and international cases. He deals with all aspects of Extradition, Human Rights, Mutual Legal Assistance, Interpol, Financial crime and International Law including sanctions. He represents governments, political and military leaders, High Net Worth individuals, human rights defenders and business leaders in the most sensitive cases.

A specialist in political cases and those arising from corporate raiding (see recent seminar at Chatham House here). A leading authority on the removal of INTERPOL Red Notices for worldwide clients, he edits the Red Notice Monitor blog. Dealing with politically motivated allegations and the use of transnational repression by foreign governments. Recognised in Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500.

Ben Keith and Rhys Davies are barristers who co-founded IHR Advisors, an international human rights service.