On December 7, 2020, the Council of the European Union adopted the framework establishing the global human rights sanctions regime.1 This framework provides for the possibility to impose travel ban and asset freeze measures against individuals, entities and bodies responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they occurred.

The framework targets serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide defined as covering genocides, crimes against humanity, other serious human rights violations or abuses (e.g., torture, slavery, arbitrary executions, arbitrary detentions, etc.) and violations of customary internationals and widely accepted instruments of international law. Sanctions can be imposed on both state and non-state actors, regardless of their location.

The European Union ("EU") has traditionally imposed sanctions against third countries in connection with human rights violations as part of country-based sanctions regimes.2 Until now, it had no specific mechanism to impose sanctions on individuals and entities accused of human rights violations outside of these country-specific regimes.3 By contrast, since the adoption in 2012 of the Magnitsky Act, and its expansion in 2016 with the adoption of the Global Magnitsky Act, the United States ("US") has imposed sanctions on individuals associated with human rights abuse and corruption worldwide. In July 2020, the United Kingdom ("UK") also started to impose its own Magnitsky-like sanctions regime, by targeting individuals and organizations located in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea.4

However, no similar mechanism existed in the EU, and a number of individuals and entities subject to US or UK Magnitsky sanctions are still not subject to similar sanctions in the EU.

Since 2010, the European Parliament had called for an EU-wide mechanism for imposing targeted sanctions against individuals involved in grave human rights violations. This position was repeated on numerous occasions, including in a March 2019 resolution, which followed from the Dutch government's initiative to discuss the opportunity of a targeted human rights sanctions regime at EU level in November 2018.5 At the Foreign Affairs Council meeting of December 9, 2019, High Representative Borrell announced the launch of preparatory work on a possible horizontal sanctions regime to address serious human rights violations.6 On October 19, 2020, High Representative Borrell confirmed that a draft proposal had been put forward for consideration by the Council of the European Union for adoption.7

The EU's global human rights sanctions regime, as set in Council Decision (CFSP) 2020/1999 and Council Regulation (EU) 2020/1998 concerning restrictive measures against serious human rights violations and abuses, was finally adopted on December 7, 2020, and entered into force on December 8, 2020.8

While the EU's global human rights sanctions regime does not depart from the requirement that designations be adopted unanimously by all member states in the Council, it should offer more flexibility and a possibility to react more swiftly against human rights violations. Indeed, designations can be adopted under that framework without the geopolitical tension associated with targeting a country—and possibly an economic ally—of being responsible for human rights abuses.

Nonetheless, to date the EU has not designated any specific individual or entity under this framework. It remains to be seen how and to what extent the EU will proactively make use of this new sanctions tool.

1 Council of the European Union, EU adopts a global human rights sanctions regime, December 7, 2020, available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/12/07/eu-adopts-a-global-human-rights-sanctions-regime/#.

2 For instance, the EU sanctions against Belarus, Iran or Venezuela were imposed as a result of reported human rights violations by the governments of these countries.

3 Prior to the adoption of the global human rights sanctions regimes, the EU's thematic frameworks for the imposition of sanctions were limited to terrorism, chemical weapons and cyber-attacks.

4 UK Government, UK announces first sanctions under new global human rights regime, July 6, 2020, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-announces-first-sanctions-under-new-global-human-rights-regime.

5 European Parliament, MEPs call for EU Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on human rights abusers, March 14, 2019, available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20190307IPR30748/meps-call-for-eu-magnitsky-act-to-impose-sanctions-on-human-rights-abusers.
The resolution is available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2019-0215_EN.html?redirect.

6 Outcome of the Council Meeting, 3738th Council meeting Foreign Affairs, December 9, 2019, available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/41687/st14949-en19.pdf.

7 European Commission, Sanctions and Human Rights: towards a European framework to address human rights violations and abuses worldwide, October 19, 2020, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_1939.
See also the blog from High Representative Borrell, The long and complex road towards an EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, October 31, 2020, available at: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/87884/long-and-complex-road-towards-eu-global-human-rights-sanctions-regime_en

8 Council Decision (CFSP) 2020/1999 of 7 December 2020 concerning restrictive measures against serious human rights violations and abuses (OJ L 410, December 7, 2020, p. 13) and Council Regulation (EU) 2020/1998 of 7 December 2020 concerning restrictive measures against serious human rights violations and abuses (OJ L 410, December 7, 2020, p. 1).