On March 21, 2024, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) issued a final rule under the U.S. Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”) that imposes new export controls on certain individuals and entities identified on the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (“OFAC’s”) List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (“SDN List”).  More specifically, the final rule imposes a BIS licensing requirement on exports, reexports, or transfers (in-country) of all items “subject to the EAR” when certain categories of SDNs are parties to the transaction.  The covered types of SDNs are designated under 11 OFAC-administered sanctions programs (as noted by BIS), including those relating to Russia, Belarus, transnational criminal organizations, and narcotics traffickers (as well as making slight changes to similar preexisting controls on SDNs designated for activities related to terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction).

The U.S. government has described these broader EAR restrictions as a “force multiplier” to complement OFAC’s jurisdiction, by allowing these controls in Part 744 of the EAR to “act as a backstop for activities over which OFAC does not exercise jurisdiction.”  OFAC’s sanctions regulations generally prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions or dealings involving SDNs and blocked parties (i.e., entities owned 50 percent or more by one or more SDNs or blocked parties), and the property or interest in property of such parties in the United States or within the possession or control of a U.S. person must be blocked (i.e., frozen) and reported to OFAC.  Non-U.S. persons can violate U.S. sanctions programs by, among other things, “causing” a U.S. person to violate U.S. sanctions.  With limited exceptions such as under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, OFAC’s sanctions regulations generally do not specify whether they apply to transactions taking place entirely outside the United States that do not involve U.S. persons simply because the transactions involve items subject to the EAR.  This new rule aims to close this gap by providing BIS with clear authority to take export controls enforcement action in such cases where U.S. products or technologies, but not U.S. persons, are involved.   

As a result of BIS’s rule, non-U.S. persons outside the United States, who may not clearly be prohibited (absent the involvement of U.S. persons) by U.S. sanctions regulations from dealing in the property or interests in property of an SDN or blocked party, will now generally be subject to licensing requirements under the EAR if reexporting or transferring (in-country) any item “subject to the EAR” when an SDN designated under at least one of these sanctions programs is a “party to the transaction,” including as purchaser, intermediate consignee, ultimate consignee, or end user.  This underscores the guidance in the Tri-Seal Compliance Note of March 6, 2024 that non-U.S. persons have export controls (and sanctions) licensing obligations under U.S. law, even if operating wholly offshore, and therefore, they should consider enhancing compliance screening protocols and controls to prevent violations of U.S. export controls and sanctions.Continue Reading Export Controls and Sanctions Converge: New BIS Restrictions on SDNs

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) has published major revisions to its humanitarian authorizations and other general licenses under the North Korean Sanctions Regulations (“NKSR”), which took effect on February 16, 2024.  These regulatory changes expand the scope of authorized activity in North Korea, which should lead to fewer specific license applications for NGOs engaged in humanitarian work relating to the DPRK.  In this regard, OFAC has narrowed the restriction on authorized activity arising from “partnerships” with the DPRK government.  OFAC has also established a new authorization for journalistic activities in North Korea.  These revisions to the NKSR, along with some improved guidance from OFAC regarding banks’ due diligence expectations, may result in less de-risking by financial institutions when it comes to customer activity involving North Korea.

At the same time, there remain important limitations and conditions to these authorizations that must be observed.  Moreover, OFAC has implemented a new advance reporting requirement if one intends to use the revised humanitarian general license, which may increase the compliance burden on NGOs as well as provide the State Department an opportunity to object to the use of the general license on a case-by-case basis. Continue Reading OFAC Issues Significantly Revised NGO Authorizations for North Korea

On December 20, 2022, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued or amended general licenses (GLs) and FAQs to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2664, which establishes humanitarian carveouts across UN sanctions regimes. The development of UNSCR 2664 was co-led by the United States and Ireland, and the Security Council adopted the Resolution on December 9, 2022. The amendments to OFAC’s regulations are set forth in OFAC’s Final Rule published in the Federal Register (see here and here).Continue Reading US Treasury Implements Humanitarian Authorizations Across Sanctions Programs to Comply with UN Resolution

On January 5, 2023, President Biden signed into law the Protecting American Intellectual Property Act of 2022 (the Act). The Act requires periodic reports to Congress identifying any “foreign persons” who are found to have engaged in significant theft of trade secrets of U.S. persons. The Act also requires menu-based sanctions against such persons, which may include blocking sanctions.

Although the Act does not specifically target any country, the press statement from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the sponsor of the Act, clearly indicates that China is a primary intended target of the legislation.[1]Continue Reading New Sanctions Authority for Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets by Foreign Persons

On October 11, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced enforcement actions against Bittrex, Inc. (Bittrex), a privately-owned digital asset trading platform based in Bellevue, Washington, for apparent violations of anti-money laundering (AML) laws and of multiple sanctions programs. A settlement of over $24 million was announced by OFAC and a $29 million fine was announced by FinCEN. FinCEN will credit payment of the OFAC settlement amount toward Bittrex’s potential liability with FinCEN, meaning Bittrex will pay just over $29 million in total. Joint enforcement action between OFAC and FinCEN is uncommon—the settlements mark the first instance of parallel enforcement actions by OFAC and FinCEN in the digital asset sector.
Continue Reading OFAC and FinCEN Announce Enforcement Actions Against Bittrex

This year, we have witnessed an extraordinary set of coordinated economic sanctions and export control regulatory actions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to the fast and furious pace of regulatory action, enforcement actions did not keep pace.

This year’s enforcement actions by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) are notable for their jurisdictional reach and expansion of liability theories that aren’t necessarily supported by the plain language of their regulatory authority. The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry & Security (BIS) enforcement actions have targeted the aerospace industry, especially in relation to Russia and Belarus. The Department of Justice (DOJ) expended much of its resources on seizing and forfeiting assets linked to Russian oligarchs, galvanizing its multilateral networks.

Interestingly, OFAC continued to target the Iranian petroleum and petrochemical sector despite news reports of intensive negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Below we discuss some representative enforcement actions to date.Continue Reading What to Expect Next? US Economic Sanctions and Export Controls Enforcement Actions Thus Far in 2022

On August 8, 2022, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced the imposition of sanctions on the decentralized digital asset mixer Tornado Cash.  The action marks the first time OFAC has targeted an on-chain decentralized protocol.  To date, OFAC has not issued any guidance specific to decentralized finance (DeFi) as part of its broader sanctions guidance for the “virtual currency” industry, but the Tornado Cash action lays down an important marker and makes clear that OFAC will target projects or protocols engaged in illicit activity regardless of their centralized or decentralized status.  (Our prior blog post on OFAC’s general virtual currency guidance is available here).
Continue Reading OFAC Designates Tornado Cash in First Action Against a Decentralized Platform

The National Economic Crime Centre (NECC), a multi-agency unit in the National Crime Agency (NCA), and HM Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) have published a “red alert” on financial sanctions evasion typologies by Russian elites and enablers (Red Alert) that synthesizes information from a range of UK law enforcement agencies as well as industry to identify common techniques designated persons and their enablers are suspected to be using to evade financial sanctions.

The Red Alert provides a series of sanctions evasion indicators identified from real world case studies.  It also sets out recommendations as to the level and type of due diligence that companies should perform on higher risk transactions and counterparties.  The stated purpose of the Red Alert is to combat and disrupt financial sanctions evasion by complementing the private sector’s existing knowledge of these issues and facilitating preventative action in the form of enhanced business processes and procedures to identify and mitigate the significant exposure that many sectors of industry have to sanctions evasion following the unparalleled volume of sanctions designations introduced since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In practical terms, the Red Alert offers a timely reminder of the challenges companies can face in effectively identifying and mitigating the sanctions risks posed by higher risk transactions and counterparties and underscores the importance of companies undertaking robust due diligence that is calibrated to address appropriately the sanctions risks, including sanctions evasion risks, posed by such transactions and business relationships.  In particular, companies should carefully consider whether their existing sanctions compliance processes take into consideration the sanctions evasion warning flags and due diligence recommendations outlined in the Red Alert.Continue Reading UK “Red Alert” on Russian Financial Sanctions Evasion Offers a Timely Reminder of the Importance of Risk-Based Due Diligence

On June 15, 2022, the United Kingdom will introduce a strict civil liability standard for violations of UK financial sanctions committed after that date.  In anticipation of this important change to the enforcement powers of HM Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI), the OFSI enforcement and monetary penalties for breaches of financial sanctions guidance (Monetary Penalties Guidance) has been updated and will take effect from June 15.  OFSI Director, Giles Thomson, also has outlined OFSI’s enforcement approach in light of these imminent changes in a blog post.

For more information on how these developments could impact your organization, contact the author of this post, Alexandra Melia, in Steptoe’s Economic Sanctions team in London.Continue Reading UK Updates Sanctions Enforcement Guidance in Readiness for Imminent Introduction of Strict Civil Liability for Financial Sanctions Breaches

Between April 18 and May 2, 2022, the US government continued to ratchet up economic sanctions, export controls, and other restrictive trade measures targeting Russia.  Most significantly, on April 21, President Biden issued a Proclamation prohibiting “Russian-affiliated vessels” from entering US ports.  Otherwise, the US government has focused on utilizing its existing authorities to impose further costs on Russia.

Over the last two weeks of April, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated over 40 individuals and entities including Transkapitalbank (TKB), re-issued an expanded set of Ukraine- / Russia- Sanctions Regulations (URSR), and issued several new or revised general licenses, including one relating to the provision of assistance by nongovernmental organizations, and 8 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

Separately, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) continues to be focused on restricting the Russian aviation sector, issuing a temporary denial order (TDO) on the Russian cargo aircraft carrier, Aviastar, for operating aircraft on flights into and out of Russia without the BIS authorization required under the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), and providing weekly updates to its list of commercial and private aircraft operated in potential violation of the EAR.Continue Reading April 18 – May 2, 2022 Russian Sanctions Update