EU foreign ministers on Monday (9 December) cleared the way to start work on a European ‘Magnitsky Act’, modelled along the lines of a similar-named US sanctions framework targeting individuals involved in human rights abuses worldwide who could face EU asset freezes and travel bans.
“We have agreed to launch the preparatory work for a global sanctions regime to address serious human rights violations, which will be the European Union equivalent of the so-called Magnitsky Act of the United States,” the EU’s new chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.
Borell, former Spanish foreign minister who took over the top job from Italian diplomat Federica Mogherini earlier this month, added that the move would give the EU “much more strength and much more capacity to act.”
“This will be a tangible step reaffirming the EU’s global lead on human rights,” he added.
The proposal of a European ‘Magnitsky Act’ come only a week after Borrell’s diplomatic blunder in front of MEPs in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET), when he said he had never heard of Magnitsky or legislation named after him, causing an EU spokesperson to play down his faux pas.
Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian attorney working for a UK firm, accused of tax evasion and tax fraud. He died in police custody in 2009 after being repeatedly denied medical care and in effect subjected to what in most civilised countries would be considered torture.
According to the plan of EU ministers, the new framework would give the EU the power to identify human rights abusers and punish them with the freeze their assets in Europe and ban them from travelling to the bloc.
The original Magnitsky Act was passed in the United States in 2012 to penalise Russian individuals accused of human rights violations. The measure was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama after receiving a broad bipartisan majority, followed by the US Congress passing the Global Magnitsky Act in 2017, which enabled the US to impose sanctions against Russia for human rights violations worldwide.
Similar legislation involving tough sanctions on dozens of Russian officials, blocking them from visiting the countries in question or affecting their financial assets, have been passed in the UK, Canada and the three Baltic states.
In a recent October proposal, the eight members of the Nordic Council, which includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland, are preparing to follow suit “in the event that Magnitsky legislation is not implemented in the EU”.
Magnitsky worked for an investment fund founded by an American-born British hedge fund manager Bill Browder. “This is a gigantic development. If human rights violators cannot travel to Europe, it will be devastating for them,” Browder, who refers to himself as “Putin’s No. 1 Enemy”, tweeted shortly after the EU decision was announced.
BREAKING: EU Foreign Ministers approve EU Magnitsky Act after Hungary drops its objections. This is a gigantic development. If human rights violators cannot travel to Europe (and they’re already banned from the US and Canada) it will be devastating for them. Thanks @swsjoerdsma https://t.co/6k0V6TaSqQ
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) December 9, 2019
Although no timeframe has been set, EU diplomats told reporters the new framework could be ready to be presented for ministers’ final approval as soon as next year. It is, however, unclear whether Magnitsky’s name will be attached to the new legislation.
The Netherlands, who were first to push for the new measures a year ago, have so far lobbied for the name to be kept off the future EU framework to avoid the impression it was primarily targeted at Russia and arguing that it would involve Saudi Arabia, Africa, and the Asia as potential targets, too.
In March, the European Parliament had passed a resolution with 447 in favor and 70 against, calling for an EU-wide ‘Magnitsky Act’ to include state and non-state actors who have contributed, physically, financially or through acts of systemic corruption, to such abuse and crimes, worldwide, with Sergei Magnitsky’s name on it.
However, Magnitsky’s name in the EU sanctions proposal had been a point of contention after Browder accused some EU lawmakers of appeasing the Kremlin.
In the end, unanimous approval by member states will be needed for the new sanctions framework to take effect and some countries, including Greece, Cyprus and Italy as well as Hungary, whose government has close ties to Russia, have voiced reservations and were holding up the draft plan since it’s been proposed.
“Some member states who were opposing have abandoned the opposition and joined the broader consensus,” Borrell told reporters on Monday after the EU foreign ministers meeting, saying there was enough consensus to start the process.
“Others still have collateral questions and some concerns but as chair of the council I think I could consider there is enough consensus in order to launch the technical process.”
Sanctions have become an part of the EU’s external relations toolbox in the past two decades, with over 40 different restrictive measures currently in place against individuals in 34 countries.