The Conservative Party’s successful campaign to form the UK government was based on, among other things, promises for law reform including more police on the streets and changes to the sentencing guidelines. In addition to this, the newly elected government’s manifesto and the 19 December Queen’s speech committed to passing a UK version of the Magnitsky Act to toughen the UK’s stance on human rights after Brexit.
The law takes its name from Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer who uncovered large scale tax fraud and embezzlement by Kremlin linked Russian officials. As a result of his findings Magnitsky was arrested by the Russian authorities on charges of fraud and the thirty-seven year old spent 358 days in prison before he was beaten to death in his cell in 2009.
Since those events, governments around the world have introduced legislation to sanction corrupt officials who perpetrate human rights abuses such as those that lead to the death of Sergei Magnitsky. Originally Magnitsky’s law has taken aim at Russian officials but in the wake of the Khashoggi case and others there is potential for the law to have a wider application and a significant impact on international relations.
Magnitsky style laws already exist in other countries such as the US and Canada where officials have the power to impose targeted sanctions including visa bans on a foreign government official who has committed serious human rights violations or acts of serious corruption. On 9 December 2019 EU foreign ministers announced a plan to create a new EU framework which would give the EU the power to identify human rights abusers and punish them through a Magnitsky style law.
The UK has taken some steps to introduce Magnitsky powers but has faced criticism for taking a more cautious approach than other developed nations. In 2017, the UK passed an amendment to the Criminal Finances Act, to enable the freezing of assets of individuals responsible for gross human rights abuses, however this legislation stops short of the bold powers available to US officials but various political parties have continued to call for stronger UK powers to deal with human rights abusers through a Magnitsky’s law.
This new UK regime is likely to mirror the planned EU law. While, the EU already has the power to impose sanctions and travel bans and has previously targeted these powers at specific states such as Iran, Burma, Venezuela, the adoption of the new regime will enable the EU to be more targeted in its approach to human rights violators and take action against them whenever necessary.
The Conservative Party’s proposal is to amend the Sanctions and Money Laundering Act 2018, a piece of legislation introduced to bridge the gap between UK and EU law after Brexit. While the Conservative manifesto promises that the new law would “go further than existing legislation”, the party has not specified how broad the new Magnitsky Act would be. The briefing note which accompanied the Queen’s speech reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to promoting and defending human rights and in particular to developing an independent sanctions regime after Brexit.
Dominic Raab, the incumbent Secretary of State is quoted as saying “If someone is responsible for gross human rights abuses, I don’t think they should be able to syphon their money through British banks. If they have asset freezes on them I don’t think they should come and do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge. I think that’s a good way of morally anchoring this concept of global Britain, showing we can be a force for good in the world.” Despite Raab’s enthusiasm for a bold law, the Home Office has previously been cautious about extending Magnitsky powers too far amidst fears that this may encourage vexatious claims.
Supporters of a bolder Magnitsky’s law in the UK will eagerly await the enactment of this manifesto pledge… albeit a pledge contingent on another long awaited decision by the British government.