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Europe's 'Magnitsky Act' — 5 things to know

James Franey
December 3, 2020

Individuals and organizations involved in human rights abuses could be subject to EU sanctions. Proposals to close borders and access bank accounts more easily are set to be officially approved on Monday.

Pins bearing portraits of Sergei Magnitsky
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The EU is planning a new sanctions regime to give the bloc fresh powers to enforce sanctions on individuals involved in human rights abuses. Until now, that has been uniquely reserved for national governments.

The new legislation has been dubbed Europe's Magnitsky Act, although it does not officially carry the name of the Russian whistleblower after some EU governments were worried about angering Moscow.

It aims to establish "a framework for targeted restrictive measures to address serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide."

Who will the new sanctions target?

They will target individuals and entities deemed responsible for:

  • acts of genocide;
  • crimes against humanity,;
  • torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • slavery, extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions and killings, enforced disappearance of persons;
  • and arbitrary arrests or detentions.

Measures can also be imposed on those involved in human trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence, violations or abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly, association, opinion, and religion — if the abuses are considered “widespread and systematic."

Individuals could be targeted under this new regime from early next year.

How will the sanctions work?

The sanctions will consist of asset freezes and visa bans and can be applied to both state and non-state actors.

The new system will not replace existing sanctions programs, some of which already address human rights violations and abuses in Syria, Belarus, and Venezuela.

Instead, they are aimed at giving the European Union a way to coordinate any punitive measures on rights with Washington.

Why are they being introduced?

The EU's existing sanction powers are geographically targeted. Until now, punishments could only be set in connection with
nationwide sanctions or under special sanctions regimes, such as initiatives against cyberattacks.

That made it difficult for the EU to respond with targeted sanctions, for example, in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

What do other countries do?

The UK has passed new legislation since leaving the European Union to sanction those who commit serious rights violations.

The British government used the powers for the first time in July against 49 Russian officials and organizations.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which border Russia, already have similar laws.

The original US act was signed by Barack Obama in 2012 and looked to target Russian officials deemed responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky Act allows the US to sanction human rights offenders globally.

Magnitsky died in November 2009, after nearly a year in jail during which he said he was denied medical treatment
Magnitsky died in November 2009, after nearly a year in jail during which he said he was denied medical treatmentImage: Reuters

Who was Magnitsky

Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer and tax auditor hired to investigate a case of corruption; a group of interior ministry officials managed to obtain $230 million (€189 million) from the Russian state by fraudulently taking over three companies belonging to Hermitage Capital, an asset management firm.

The officials he accused had him arrested and thrown in jail, where he was beaten by prison guards.

He died in custody in 2009 at the age of 37 after being refused medical treatment or family visits.