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Time for the EU to sanction corrupt actors 

Friday, 11 December 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of International Human Rights Day this December 10th, the EU unveiled the adoption of its new Human Rights Sanctions Regime, targeting human rights abusers around the globe. While a huge accomplishment, the regime fails to include corruption risks in the global fight against impunity.

What is the new EU sanctions regime?

This new regime will target individuals and entities who have committed serious human rights violations by imposing visa bans and asset freezes on them. The regime will target those guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide. It will also address serious human rights violation such as torture, slavery, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.

The measures will be targeted, minimising the adverse effect that sanctions can have on ordinary citizens who are not responsible for the policies or actions leading to the adoption of sanctions. The regime accelerates the sanctions process and allows EU institutions to impose restrictions promptly on those guilty of such violations, in order to deter and discourage such behaviour.

These are all positive steps towards tackling the impunity of human rights abusers. However, while the new regime draws heavily from a similar programme in the US known as ‘Global Magnitsky‘, it is somewhat overshadowed by its glaring omission: corruption. In fact, the case of Sergei Magnitsky, who gave his name to the US sanctions regimes, is a powerful example of why corruption and human rights are often so intertwined.

The interconnection between corruption and human rights 

When the young Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky discovered that senior Russian officials had fraudulently taken over three companies belonging to his client’s company and allegedly robbed the Russian Treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars, he decided to testify against these officials in court. Shortly after testifying, Magnitsky was arrested and tortured in prison.

Eventually, Magnitsky died in prison after being kept there for just under a year, in inhumane conditions. His death sparked widespread outrage, and resulted in the US Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned a number of Russian officials who were deemed responsible for Magnitsky’s death and was then expanded to sanction other corrupt actors and human rights abusers.

Sanctions are a foreign policy tool design to, among other purposes, deter wrongdoing. The Magnitsky Act does not require individuals to be convicted to fall under sanctions but cases must be supported by “reasonable belief based on credible information.”

This is also due to the fact that, in many of these cases, the individuals and entities in questions could be close to the political power of the country they operate in, and therefor unlikely to be prosecuted in that country. Magnitsky’s case highlights the connection between corrupt practices and human rights abuses, and the risks to those who choose to expose powerful interests.

Countries where corruption is prevalent and the rule of law is undermined can foster an environment where governments fail to promote and protect human rights. It compromises government’s ability to uphold democratic values and ultimately, erodes civic space.

As a result, countries with high levels of corruption, such as Venezuela, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Angola, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Libya have some of the worst records in terms of human rights violation.

Such environments also make it harder to confront abuses of power, and blow the whistle on questionable practices, placing people and planet at risk. At Global Witness, many of our investigations rely on important information disclosed by whistle-blowers, who can face grave risks to their lives for denouncing corruption and wrongdoing.

Corruption also helps facilitate and cover up environmental abuses and infringes on people’s right to defend their livelihoods. Many human rights and environmental defenders are killed each year for defending their land against corrupt governments or powerful corporate interests. 2019 was recorded as the most deadly year for such rights defenders, with 212 killed for standing up against mining, gas or coal projects around the world.

Moreover, corruption can also undermine government’s ability to promote social, economic and cultural rights. According to the World Economic Forum, corruption, bribery, theft, tax evasion and other illicit financial flows cost developing countries about $1.26 trillion annually. This loss and diversion of public funds leaves governments with fewer resources to fulfil their human rights obligations, but also to deliver basic services and to improve the standard of living of their citizens.

In light of this, if the EU is to use its new sanctions regime as a deterrent tool, it should consider how corruption tends to erode governance and institutions, and can contribute to creating an environment where human rights are not protected.

The EU, behind the curve on corruption?

The EU risks lagging behind other major sanctions regimes and global standard-setters if it fails to sanction corrupt actors. In the UK, work is underway on a new corruption sanctions regime, while the US and Canada already have world-leading sanctions regimes in place against corruption.

By their very nature, sanctions are most effective when coordinated and multilateral. If the EU does not act to sanction corrupt actors it risks allowing the EU to remain a safe haven for dirty money, and could unknowingly help regimes, individuals and businesses that perpetuate cycles of violence and kleptocracy continue operating with impunity.

As the world celebrates the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the EU must take a strong stance against corruption, an issue that underpins impunity and so many human rights violations around the world. It could envisage creating a complimentary sanctions regime targeting corrupt actors.

By Margot Mollat du Jourdin