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.
Since Mahsa Jina Amini’s death in September 2022, and the resulting protests and brutal repression by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), different national and regional authorities have issued hundreds of targeted sanctions designations against IRI officials. Despite their recent prevalence, reports announcing these designations often fail to mention what they are, how they work, and whether they are effective.
What are targeted sanctions?
Targeted sanctions are one type of economic sanctions, which restrict travel, trade, and financial relations. They are imposed by a country or multilateral organization, like the United Nations, on another country, entity, or individual. While there are many variations of economic sanctions, there are two main categories: those imposed on countries (“broad-based” or “comprehensive” sanctions) and those imposed on individuals or entities (“targeted” sanctions).
Broad-based sanctions, such as the United States (US) embargo on Cuba, are routinely criticized for their negative humanitarian impact and harm on the civilian population in the sanctioned country. In the last two decades, there has been a marked shift to instead use targeted sanctions, also called “smart” sanctions, which apply only to specific individuals or entities (such as companies, governmental departments, or military units).
The US, United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU), Canada, and Australia, as well as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), have built robust, targeted sanctions programs. Countries such as Norway, Japan, and Switzerland have followed suit. These programs are generally divided into “regimes” that focus on violations related to specific thematic or geographic areas. For example, “Global Magnitsky-style” targeted sanctions regimes address human rights violations and corruption.
This series focuses on targeted sanctions regimes that can be applied to human rights violations committed in Iran. This series will primarily focus on the US, UK, EU, Canada, and Australia, hereafter referred to as the leading jurisdictions, because they have relevant regimes—unlike the UNSC—and are very active in sanctioning perpetrators for human rights violations in Iran. An upcoming post will detail the relevant regimes in each leading jurisdiction.
What is the process for designating perpetrators?
Every jurisdiction has a unique process for designating perpetrators under targeted sanctions, but the general principles remain broadly the same for the leading jurisdictions. Government officials gather information on potential perpetrators and conduct a legal analysis to see if the evidence meets the standard of proof necessary to show that the perpetrator was complicit in the relevant violations. The EU, as an intergovernmental agency, has a slightly different process.
Either the High Representation of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (the EU’s chief coordinator of diplomacy and security matters) or a member state representative presents a proposed designation to the European Council, an executive body of the EU representing the highest level of political cooperation and composed of heads of state or government of the member states. The European Council must then unanimously vote in favor of the designation for it to be adopted.
Notably, these processes do not include a criminal or civil trial. Without jail time or (usually) permanent asset seizure, fewer due process guarantees exist. However, there are still safeguards to ensure that the process is fair. Defendants must be granted certain rights, including to be informed, such as through notices, and to be heard, such as through appealing a designation.
There are additional safeguards in the EU and UK to ensure that sanctions do not violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For example, the UK requires that sanctions be “appropriate,” which involves analyzing the effects the targeted sanctions would have on the perpetrator’s rights under the ECHR.
What is civil society’s role in this process?
While Australia has not yet announced an official pathway for civil society to submit evidence, each of the other leading jurisdictions have developed one. A later post will include more information on the best practices for submission in different jurisdictions, but resources are available for those hoping to submit information. The EU released a guidance note on the implementation of its sanctions regime and the UK published an informational note for civil society. Human Rights First (HRF), a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in the US, has partnered with other organizations in the leading jurisdictions to create a coalition of NGOs interested in targeted sanctions submissions. HRF and its partners developed resources and provide pro bono support to civil society members in developing and submitting dossiers on sanctions for human rights violations under the US Global Magnitsky regime or US country-specific regimes that have human rights bases for issuing sanctions, like the Iran-specific regime.
What are the consequences and limits of targeted sanctions?
For targeted sanctions, the immediate effects generally include financial and immigration restrictions. The former include asset freezes, which make any bank accounts, properties, et cetera inaccessible in the jurisdiction issuing the sanction. While the Canadian government can then seize those assets in certain circumstances, no other government can seize assets based solely on targeted sanctions designations. However, the US has started, and the EU is exploring using sanctions violations penalties to confiscate and repurpose funds. While these efforts are currently focused on providing compensation to Ukraine, they create tools and set precedent that could lead to more global applications, including against Iranian perpetrators.
Additionally, financial restrictions generally prohibit nationals of the jurisdiction issuing the sanction from making funds available to or engaging in transactions with the designated individual or entity. The US has additionally interpreted this to mean that designated perpetrators cannot conduct transactions involving US currency at any time. Because of the comparatively wide use of the US dollar, many inter-currency exchanges use the US dollar as an intermediary—for example, if an Iranian company pays a British company in rials, it may first be converted to US dollars before then being converted to British pounds. If the US had sanctioned that Iranian company, this deal would be prohibited regardless of whether the UK had sanctioned it.
For immigration restrictions, any visas already offered to the perpetrator by the jurisdiction that designated them are revoked, and no new visas can be granted.
When an entity is sanctioned, individuals who are members of that entity are not themselves sanctioned. Any assets the entity owns in the jurisdiction would be frozen, but the members’ personal assets would not be, and members would still be able to keep or obtain a visa. However, legislation is often worded in ways that make it easier to designate leaders and members of an entity once that entity has been sanctioned.
There are, however, limits to the impact of these effects. While jurisdictions are often aligned and will, at times, coordinate their designations, a designation by any given jurisdiction exclusively applies to that jurisdiction—perpetrators are free to take their business elsewhere. Further, while sanctions evasion is illegal, enforcement is resource-intensive and often difficult, especially for wealthy perpetrators who can hide funds in shell companies and other schemes. In the EU, each member state is primarily responsible for its own enforcement, adding to circumvention difficulties. Finally, even when designations are made multilaterally and are enforced, they can have adverse side effects, such as preventing perpetrators from entering jurisdictions that may have otherwise been able to bring prosecutions for crimes committed in Iran under universal jurisdiction provisions.
Do targeted sanctions achieve their goals?
Jurisdictions implementing targeted sanctions usually cite behavior change as the intended goal. However, civil society, academics, and others have also highlighted additional goals, such as constraining (denying access to resources needed to carry out violations) and signaling (giving notice of international attention on perpetrators and, stigmatizing them, and providing international solidarity and recognition to victims). In short, results are mixed and depend on the situation studied, the goal measured, the information available, and other relevant factors.
A future post will discuss the success of these goals in more detail.
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.
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