On Tuesday 1 May 2018 the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill was approved by the UK Parliament. The bill will create a new sanctions regime for the UK post-Brexit. Whereas at first glance the bill appears a rather dry, technical piece of legislation, it has the potential to make a real difference in the important work carried out by NGOs supporting people around the world, and often in the most challenging situations.

The current sanctions framework, along with anti-money laundering and terrorist financing laws, are valuable tools in the fight against terrorism and serious crime, and support public policy objectives. NGOs plainly should take great care to ensure that they do not unwittingly assist financial crime. However, on occasion these laws place serious obstacles on NGOs, and might unnecessarily dissuade or even prevent them from undertaking critical humanitarian work. The concern is particularly acute for NGOs operating in high-risk environments such as Syria and Afghanistan.

Tucked inside the new bill, Clause No.14 enables UK ministers to create exceptions to any (new) UK sanctions prohibition, and provides licenses so that valid actors, like NGOs, can carry out humanitarian activity in countries affected by sanctions. This could enable NGOs to continue their work more easily and without fear of breaching prohibitions, compared to the current EU regime. (Significantly, the bill also included a new provision that would allow the UK government to impose sanctions upon individuals who have committed gross human rights violations, a move inspired by the US Magnitsky Act, discussed here).

In a recent letter to Bond, the UK network for NGOs working in international development, the government indicated that it intends to furnish exceptions and general licenses for peace building, development, humanitarian and reconstruction activities.

Ultimately, this new sanctions regime could give the UK government greater flexibility to support humanitarian work, and NGOs more certainty, at least as far as sanctions are concerned. Of course, the proof will be in the implementation: creating the new framework could take months or years, and the sector will certainly be watching closely as matters develop. Even once implemented, the new regime will be no panacea; for example, many NGOs will need to continue working within the framework of EU sanctions, including where there may be liability for individual staff. Time will tell if this could be a positive change emerging from the Brexit quagmire.