On December 7, 2020 the Council of the EU adopted a Decision and a Regulation establishing a EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. Similar to the US Magnitsky Act, the framework will enable the EU to target individuals, entities and bodies responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, regardless of where they occurred.

The new sanctions regime makes it possible to act against human rights violations through the freezing of funds and economic resources of sanctioned persons, entities and organizations. Additionally, it will be prohibited to make funds and economic resources available to those listed. Sanctioned individuals will also be prohibited from traveling to the EU.

The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime covers a wide range of human rights violations including, genocide; crimes against humanity; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; slavery; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings; enforced disappearance of persons; as well as arbitrary arrests or detentions. It also covers other violations or abuses, if they are widespread, systematic or otherwise of serious concern when measured against the objectives of the EU common foreign and security policy. Such other violations or abuses include, trafficking in human beings, as well as abuses of human rights by migrant smugglers; sexual and gender-based violence; violations or abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and violations or abuses of freedom of opinion and expression or religion or belief.

The adoption of the new sanctions framework emphasizes the EU’s determination to promote and protect human rights and to address serious human rights violations and abuses. The Council, acting upon a proposal from an EU Member State or from the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is responsible for establishing, reviewing and amending the sanctions list. Unanimity among the EU Member States will be required to approve each proposal to sanction specific persons, entities or organizations. So far, no names have been added to the sanctions list. The application and enforcement of the sanctions is entrusted to the competent authorities of the EU Member States, which may grant authorizations in the cases foreseen by the EU framework and may sanction infringements by imposing penalties under national law. Those listed may challenge their listings before the EU courts using the same remedies as against listings under other EU sanctions frameworks.

According to EU representatives, the new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime has the benefit of offering greater flexibility to target those involved in serious human rights violations or abuses worldwide, regardless of their nationality, place of residence or place of establishment. The framework could become particularly relevant in cases where the EU is not able to impose sanctions against one specific country for lack of unanimity among the Member States. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen previously explained that there is a need for this framework in view of the EU’s recent difficulties to impose sanctions on Belarus, Turkey or Russia. Since the framework does not target a specific country but only those persons, entities or organizations listed, the political implications of listings will typically be less severe and therefore, it might be easier to reach consensus for the adoption of measures.

The introduction of the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime is a positive development in favor of the enforcement of human rights world-wide. Companies with international operations would be well-advised to adapt their internal compliance systems accordingly and give due regard to human rights considerations when making strategic choices with regard to the design of their supply chains.