On 6 July 2020, the UK Government implemented the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, the country’s first post-Brexit autonomous sanctions regime. Under the new regime, the UK government has the power to impose sanctions on persons who are “perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses.”1 47 individuals and two entities were added to the UK sanctions list and are subject to an asset freeze with immediate effect.

A watershed moment

This is a long-anticipated, but nonetheless momentous, moment for the post-Brexit UK sanctions regime, for a number of reasons.

First, this is another indication of how the emergent UK sanctions framework is shaping up to be a unique regime, a true “third thing”, dissimilar in important ways from those of the US or EU. Those differences are increasingly apparent in terms of policy, interpretation and enforcement. And the new regulations could be a sign of more to come: in announcing the new Magnitsky-style regulations, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated “…we will continue to explore expanding this regime to include other human rights, and I can tell the House that we are already considering how a corruption regime could be added to the armoury of legal weapons we have.”2

Second, these new measures indicate that the UK Government – like that of the United States, Canada and other countries – will use its financial sanctions toolkit in the fight against corruption and human rights abuses. The individuals and entities sanctioned under the new regulations have been implicated in various human rights abuses, including the deaths of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lawyer Sergei Magnistky, violence against the Rohingya people, and forced labour in North Korea.3

Third, these sanctions open another chapter in the complex relationship between Russia and the West. The majority of the new designations (25) relate to individuals involved in the torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky. In response, the Russian embassy in London declared that this “will not improve Russian-British relations” and that “Russia reserves the right to respond to today’s unfriendly decision by the UK on the basis of reciprocity.4 On 7 July 2020, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov foreshadowed the possibility of “some kind of retaliatory response… to the extent that it suits the interests of the Russian Federation.”5 It remains to be seen whether Russia will retaliate with reciprocal measures, but the new sanctions may put the United Kingdom on a new diplomatic collision course with Russia. In contrast, the US Secretary of State welcomed the announcement of the new sanctions.6

Key takeaways

  1. The new UK Global Human Rights sanctions regime represents a further step in the UK sanctions framework developing into a unique sanctions regime. Companies that operate in or do business with the UK should ensure that their sanctions compliance programmes take into account UK sanctions, particularly as they diverge from those of the EU.
  2. This development may have an effect on Russia’s fraught relationship with the West. It remains to be seen whether Russia will deliver on its threat of retaliatory measures against the United Kingdom, but tensions between the two countries remain high.
  3. In the past, certain EU member states have championed a Magnitsky-style sanctions regime, but thus far without success. Post-Brexit, the United Kingdom is able to more freely develop its own sanctions, and the new regulations demonstrate that the UK plans to use that flexibility going forward.