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IranSource January 4, 2024

Iran targeted human rights sanctions series: Why are people and entities sanctioned for human rights abuses?

By Celeste Kmiotek and Lisandra Novo

Targeted human rights sanctions are, in short, a tool governments use to freeze the assets of and deny visas to those complicit in human rights violations. While they are generally intended to prompt offenders to change their behavior, they have additional effects. For example, preventing perpetrators from obtaining the tools needed to continue abuses and showing support for victims. However, the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project (SLP) has heard from multiple sources that many people in affected communities—including the Iranian community—do not have sufficient information, especially in their native language, about these measures and what they mean.

Based on this feedback, this blog series was started to highlight important information about targeted human rights sanctions as they relate to the Islamic Republic of Iran; major updates on Iranian perpetrators who have been sanctioned for human rights abuses and why; and any other information that may be relevant to affected communities. Input is welcomed from readers, particularly in Iranian civil society, for questions and topics that should be addressed.

This page will be subsequently updated with a Persian translation of the post. 

Every perpetrator designated by a jurisdiction for targeted sanctions generally faces the same consequences: the freezing of any assets in that jurisdiction, a ban on future financial transactions with persons in that jurisdiction, and, for individuals—as opposed to entities—a ban on entering that jurisdiction. However, the exact reasons governments can designate perpetrators differ by jurisdiction.  

Sanctions programs are developed through legal authorities—meaning legislation, implementing regulations, executive orders, and other legal documents that allow the relevant government to take action. Within these authorities, certain provisions outline violations that can lead to a designation. These provisions are often grouped thematically or geographically to create “regimes” such as “the global human rights sanctions regime.”

Why the targeted sanctions regimes matter

The United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU), Australia, and Canada (hereinafter referred to as “the leading jurisdictions”) all have Global Magnitsky-style regimes that cover human rights violations and, sometimes, corruption. These sanctions can be used for acts committed in any country by a perpetrator of any nationality—except for the country of and the nationality of the jurisdiction issuing the designation. The violations covered by these regimes are mostly parallel across the five jurisdictions. For example, most include violations of the rights to life, to be free from torture, and to be free from slavery. However, some include additional violations, such as violations of the right to be free from arbitrary detention or add restrictions, such as requiring that the victims be whistleblowers or human rights defenders.

The leading jurisdictions also have country-specific regimes, including those focused on Iran. They also all have regimes dedicated to or including human rights violations committed against Iranian citizens in Iran. These regimes tend to include more, and more precise, violations than do Global Magnitsky-style regimes. In the UK, for instance, the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations only cover violations of three rights: the rights to life; to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (CIDTP); or to be free from slavery or servitude. In contrast, the Iran (Sanctions) Regulations 2023, which apply to the Islamic Republic and its associates, cover violations such as those of the rights to liberty and security; to a fair trial; to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; and to enjoy human rights without discrimination.

For those looking to investigate, document, and submit evidence related to any given perpetrator, understanding which authority to reference—and the specific abuses covered—can help tailor the information gathered and submitted to better support a request that someone be designated. For example, violations such as state-sponsored hostage-taking could fall under the violation of the right to be free from torture. However, while there may be policy and advocacy reasons for making that argument, it is far simpler to prove that it constitutes violations of the rights to liberty and security and a fair trial. Further, jurisdictions will often default to using country-specific regimes where they are available, though civil society actors can request sanctions under more than one regime.

The following list details the leading jurisdictions’ regimes that apply to human rights abuses committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) authorities. It is not an exhaustive list because human rights abuses could be considered applicable to other regimes—for example, nuclear proliferation and cyber activities—but it encapsulates the regimes most likely to be applicable. Of course, in order to sanction a person or entity for these acts, the relevant government must have enough evidence to meet the legal threshold for designation within that jurisdiction. Governments also maintain significant discretion and may decline to make a designation even when that threshold is met.

United Kingdom

The UK has the power to levy targeted sanctions under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Based on that, it has developed regimes specific to thematic and geographic scopes.

  • The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 cover violations of the rights to life; to not be subjected to torture or CIDTP; and to “be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour, whether or not the activity is carried out by or on behalf of a State.”
  • The Iran (Sanctions) Regulations 2023 replaced the Iran Human Rights (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 in December 2023. They cover:
    • Respect for the life of persons in Iran, “for example by refraining from the execution of juvenile offenders in all circumstances.”
    • Respect for the right to not be subjected to torture or CIDTP in Iran, which includes torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment “with a view to extracting information from detained persons”; “inhuman and degrading conditions in prisons”; and “forms of punishment such as flogging and amputation.”
    • Respect for the right to liberty and security including “refraining from the arbitrary arrest and detention of persons in Iran.”
    • Provision of the right to a fair trial to persons in Iran charged with criminal offenses.
    • Provision of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to journalists, human rights defenders, and other persons in Iran.
    • Security of “the human rights of persons in Iran without discrimination, including on the basis of a person’s sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

The European Union

The EU may issue targeted sanctions under its autonomous sanctions regimes, both thematic and country-specific.

  • Under Council Decision (CFSP) 2020/1999 (December 7, 2020) and Regulation (EU) 2020/1998 (December 7, 2020), the EU can designate individuals for “serious human rights violations and abuses.” This “applies to”:
    • Genocide and crimes against humanity.
    • The “serious human rights violations or abuses” of torture and CIDTP; slavery; “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”; enforced disappearances; and arbitrary arrests or detentions.
    • “[O]ther human rights violations or abuses,” when they are “widespread, systematic, or are otherwise of serious concerns as regards the objectives of the common foreign and security policy” as laid out in Article 21 of the Treaty of the European Union. These may include, but are not limited to, “trafficking in human beings” and “abuses of human rights by migrant smugglers”; sexual and gender-based violence; and violations or abuses of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, opinion and expression, and religion or belief.
  • Under Council Decision 2011/235/CFSP (April 12, 2011) and Regulation (EU) 359/2011 (April 12, 2011), the EU can designate individuals for “serious human rights violations in Iran.” These are not enumerated, nor are there examples. However, “Implementing Regulations”—which add individuals and entities to the EU’s list of designated perpetrators—include reasons each perpetrator has been designated and offer some guidance.


Canada’s regimes are predominantly geographic-based but it has two authorities to designate individuals for human rights violations.

  • Under the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (JVCFOA), Canada can designate foreign officials but not entities for “extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” when they are committed against individuals seeking “to expose illegal activity carried out by foreign officials” or “to obtain, exercise, defend or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” These human rights and freedoms may include “freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the right to a fair trial and democratic elections.”
  • Under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA), Canada can designate individuals or entities when, inter alia, “a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred that has resulted in or is likely to result in a serious international crisis” or “gross and systematic human rights violations have been committed in a foreign state.” Canada enacted the Special Economic Measures (Iran) Regulations under SEMA. Under these regulations, Canada can designate perpetrators for nuclear proliferation but can also designate them for “gross and systematic human rights violations in Iran” or for being a “former or current senior official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” (IRGC).


Under its Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011, Australia passed its Autonomous Sanctions Regulations 2011, which allow it to designate individuals and entities under geographic or thematic regimes.

  • The human rights regime covers acts that constitute “a serious violation or serious abuse” of the rights to life; to not be subjected to torture or CIDTP; or “to be held in slavery or servitude” or “not to be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”
  • The Iran-specific regime covers “the oppression of women and girls in Iran”; “the general oppression of people in Iran”; and “undermining good governance or the rule of law in Iran.”

United States

Like its counterparts, the United States has many different thematic and geographic targeted sanctions regimes, though they are usually referred to as programs instead. These include a number of country-specific sanctions programs related to Iran. However, whereas targeted sanctions regimes in the other leading jurisdictions are narrowly defined, with the relevant provisions contained mainly within one or two legal authorities, the US has many authorities related to Iran—with ninety domestic authorities related to Iran sanctions broadly including targeted, comprehensive, and other sanctions. These all address different violations—and often include violations beyond those related to human rights, such as corruption. Especially as there is overlap among the authorities, they are not easily grouped into clearly defined sub-programs. While the number of options and variety among the authorities make finding provisions relevant to specific actions easier, they also create a more complicated system. Additionally, many authorities—including those related to human rights in Iran—allow for secondary sanctions, which target non-US people and entities who do business with certain designated individuals and entities.

The following programs address—but are not always limited to—human rights abuses.

  • The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, as implemented through Executive Order 13818, covers serious human rights abuses and corruption. Notably, the violations listed differ between the act and the executive order, and the latter is considered to have broadened the scope of what violations may be sanctioned. Executive Order 13818, therefore, covers “serious human rights abuse.” This is not explicitly defined but generally refers to crimes that “entail corporeal violence against victims” and certain deprivations of liberty.
  • § 7031(c) of the Annual Department of State Appropriations Act (“§ 7031(c)”) covers “gross violation[s] of human rights.” However, it exclusively applies to officials of foreign governments and their immediate family members and only results in a visa ban (and so does not freeze their assets). “Gross violations” of human rights is a narrower category than “serious abuses.” The term is defined elsewhere in US law and includes torture or CIDTP; “prolonged detention without charges and trial”; “causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons”; and “other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of the person.”
  • The (Jamal) Khashoggi Ban, implemented pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act § 212(a)(3)(c), covers “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work,” or the families or close associates of those persons. As with § 7031(c), it only includes a visa ban and can extend to perpetrators’ family members. However, unlike § 7031(c), those designated under the Khashoggi Ban cannot be publicly named.
  • The Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act, known as the Levinson Act, as implemented through Executive Order 14078, covers “the hostage-taking of a United States national or the wrongful detention of a United States national abroad.” The Levinson Act defines “United States national” as it is defined in 8 US Code § 1101(a)(22) and 8 US Code § 1408 or as “a lawful permanent resident alien with significant ties to the United States.”
  • Executive Order 13553 covers “serious human rights abuses against persons in Iran or Iranian citizens or residents, or the family members of the foregoing, on or after June 12, 2009, regardless of whether such abuses occurred in Iran.”
  • Executive Order 13846 covers “censorship or other activities with respect to Iran on or after June 12, 2009, that prohibit, limit, or penalize the exercise of freedom of expression or assembly by citizens of Iran, or that limit access to print or broadcast media, including the facilitation or support of intentional frequency manipulation by the Government of Iran or an entity owned or controlled by the Government of Iran that would jam or restrict an international signal.” It also covers certain acts of corruption.
  • Executive Order 13606 covers the operation of, or the direction to operate, “information and communications technology that facilitates computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human rights abuses by or on behalf of the Government of Iran or the Government of Syria.” It also covers the sale, lease, or other provision, directly or indirectly, of “goods, services, or technology to Iran or Syria likely to be used to facilitate” such disruption, monitoring, or tracking.
  • Executive Order 13876 covers the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and the Office of the Supreme Leader (SLO), as well as those appointed by the Supreme Leader, the SLO, or any person appointed by the Supreme Leader or the SLO to “a position as a state official of Iran, or as the head of any entity located in Iran or any entity located outside of Iran that is owned or controlled by one or more entities in Iran.”
  • Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) § 106 covers “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in Iran” seeking to expose the illegal activity of Iranian officials or “to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.”

Civil society’s role

First and foremost, civil society is welcome to submit packages to the leading jurisdictions to request designations, with the exception that Australia has not yet announced an official process for this. The US also accepts tips through its Rewards for Justice program, particularly information regarding the IRGC on the basis of counterterrorism-related sanctions programs. The process of submitting information will be addressed in a later post.

However, familiarity with the regimes can also offer some insight into a government’s priorities and where additional advocacy is needed. The abuses covered are often broad enough to encompass emerging tactics—for example, blinding protesters and internet shutdowns could be considered violations of peaceful assembly—but civil society can push governments to amend their country-specific regimes to better address the specific ongoing practices. Iranian civil society is best placed to inform governments of the exact abuses that should be covered and trends to be monitored. When governments then incorporate these abuses into the regimes, it makes it easier for lawyers and activists to submit information requesting designations and serves to officially condemn the practice at hand.

Celeste Kmiotek is a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.

Lisandra Novo is a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Image: An Iranian man adjusts an Iranian flag next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before Lebanon's Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah giving a speech, in Tehran on November 3, 2023. Hassan Nasrallah spoke in Beirut about the Israeli army's attack on Gaza and warned Israel about a possible attack on Lebanon. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)