With the US and the UK both already having implemented individual human rights sanctions, the EU is about to enact its own human rights sanctions regime: The European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, have recently presented a proposal for the introduction of EU human rights sanctions. This follows an announcement by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her September 2020 State of the Union Address on the Commission’s attention to bring forward such EU human rights sanctions framework.

The EU’s move towards human rights sanctions comes after the UK adopted a similar sanctions regime this summer and increasing pressure by different stakeholders on the implementation of EU human rights sanctions. The idea for a global human rights sanctions programme originates form the US Magnitsky Act which was adopted in response to the killing of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.

Broader legal basis for designation of individuals / entities

The new human rights sanctions regime provides the EU with greater flexibility to impose sanctions for gross human rights infringements. So far human rights violators can be sanctioned through the EU terrorism, chemical weapons and cyber sanctions regimes or certain country-specific sanctions programmes, such as certain human-rights based sanctions against Syria, Belarus and Venezuela. The proposed EU human rights sanctions framework would not replace any existing sanctions programmes but would provide an additional legal basis for adding persons and entities to the EU sanctions list. This would enable the EU to impose restrictive measures for certain human rights violations that would not have been covered by existing sanctions regimes, for example persons involved in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Imposition of asset freezes and travel bans 

While the draft is not available for the public yet, it is expected to include the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on individuals / entities responsible for serious human rights violations, including genocide, torture, crimes against humanity, slavery, human trafficking, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence. Other than with the current economic / cyber / chemical weapons sanctions, the proposal would provide the European Commission with oversight functions on the implementation of travel bans.

No designations for ABC violations

In contrast to earlier demands by Dutch and German MEPs addressed in a letter to the German government (which currently holds the EU Council Presidency) and unlike the US Magnitsky Act, the new EU sanctions regime does not allow for the imposition of any restrictive measures against individuals responsible for bribery or corruption.


With Germany trying to push this issue during its EU Presidency, it is expected that the EU human rights sanctions regime is finalised still this year and enters into force in Q1 / 2021.


With this growing momentum in the EU, we hope to see further sanctions related to human rights abuses rolled out in the near future. 

This first wave of sanctions is unlikely to materially impact existing compliance programmes as it seems likely that the majority of any newly designated persons are also already targeted by UK / US sanctions. However, the introduction of a new human rights sanctions regime is a significant milestone in the evolution of the EU sanctions framework and shows the increasing importance of considering human rights in compliance programmes.