Raab vs rights: What is going on with the UK’s new human rights sanctions?

On Monday, our beloved foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, dropped a bombshell of new human rights sanctions comprising of asset freezes and travel bans against human rights abusers in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea. 

According to Raab, the sanctions will target 25 Russians involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, 20 Saudis involved in the killing of Khashoggi, two high ranking generals implicated in the killing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, and two organisations relying upon North Korean forced labour camps. 

Potentially jeopardising a close ally found in Saudi Arabia – and the symbiotic relationship of oil and arms – the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 comes into effect immediately as the UK name and shame individuals accused of human rights abuses. 

Set to act as a deterrence and provide accountability for actions that would violate a person’s right to life, the right not to be subject to torture and the right to be free from slavery, is this a step forwards for transnational human right abuses, or is there a concealed motive? 

Raab vs rights 

“Those with blood on their hands won’t be free … to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or siphon dirty money through British banks,” Raab told parliament.

“You cannot set foot in this country, and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”

Interesting words from a man who has claimed not to believe in social and economic rights, and advocated for the reform of the Human Rights Act. 

Although, considering the likelihood of his adversity to the HRA stemming from his Euroscepticism, it is no surprise that his advocating for human rights, in this case, has a strong anti-immigration sentiment. 

“Raab is aware of the risk of retribution, but believes the structure of the sanctions, targeted at individuals rather than the country or its leadership, reduces the danger of countermeasures,” suggested The Guardian on the matter.

Triumph for international human rights? 

Described by the UK Government as a “powerful”, “global” and “ground-breaking” new regime, “the UK has new powers to stop those involved in serious human rights abuses and violations from entering the country, channelling money through UK banks, or profiting from our economy.”

Given the impossible, and stubborn nature of international human rights law, coupled with the challenges of geopolitical relations, this new targeting of individuals and organisations, in place of nations, could be a trail blazing step for the UK’s pursuit of human rights abuses. 

Although, there is an interesting smugness coupled with this advancement. With the UK becoming somewhat of a laughing-stock on the international front – with our caricatured, Trump-wannabe PM, the disaster of Brexit and our abysmal response to the COVID-19 outbreak – perhaps this is a bold move to regain our reputation; especially considering the regime allowing the UK to work independently with allies such as the US, Canada, Australia and the EU. 

Raab himself suggested that, “This is a demonstration of Global Britain’s commitment to acting as a force for good in the world,” with the Government reinforcing this in their assertion that it is “underlying the UK’s position as a global force for good, this new regime showcases our commitment to the rules-based international system and to standing up for victims of human rights violations and abuses around the world.”

Though, maybe this new independent regime is Raab’s first step in his pursuit of abandoning the UK’s Human Right Act, which is directly associated with the European Convention of Human Rights. 

A twisted tale 

New reports from the Independent, which emerged on Tuesday, noted the Government’s decision “to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite ‘possible’ war crimes in Yemen” – really throwing a spanner in the works for Raab’s claims of a righteous knuckling down on international human rights abuses. 

On Tuesday, a statement from international trade secretary, Liz Truss, suggested that the government had completed a review of arms export licences and decided that there are some “credible incidents of concern” relating to Saudi forces that had been classified as “possible” breaches of international humanitarian law. But in good nature, the government decided these were “isolated incidents”. 

“The incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons,” it read. 

It would appear that the government’s desire to defend human rights does not extend as far as providing arms to those using them to commit war crimes.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK Director, responded to Truss’s decision, suggesting it is “almost beyond comprehension” and that “this seems like an attempt to rewrite history and disregard international law.” 

“The UK is bypassing its obligations under the international arms control framework. Its approach to this decision has effectively rendered our own protections meaningless.” 

With new sanctions expected in the coming months, it is easy to speculate the motives behind these moves from the UK government. If an attempt to reinstate a tarnished international reputation, selling arms to those committing war crimes, whilst in the same breath introducing sanctions for human rights abusers, may not be the best way to go about it. 

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