The Russia report shows that sanctions aren’t working

Joseph Denton

July 26, 2020

On 6 July, Dominic Raab announced the UK’s new autonomous sanction regime. It uses fresh powers with a sanction list that targets individuals from Saudi Arabia, Russia, North Korea and Myanmar. These sanctions had been in development for well over a year now, and according to Raab, “this is a demonstration of global Britain’s commitment to acting as a force for good in the world.”

While it might look this way at face value, the UK’s choice to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia only a day later doesn’t seem to align with the foreign secretary’s “commitment to acting as a force for good in the world”. The Saudi-led coalition is estimated to have killed over 12,600 civilians in targeted attacks. Sales to the Kingdom were put on hold after legal action was brought forward by Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Speaking on behalf of the government concerning the resuming of sale Liz Truss, international trade secretary, said: “I have concluded that, notwithstanding the isolated incidents, Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with [international law].”

This contradiction in such a brief period of time portrays a big difference between what the Johnson government is telling us they are doing and what it is actually doing. The sanction list has been widely criticised by many experts thanks to the limited scope of the law compared to similar measures around the world, especially in the US.

The main issues with this approach to sanctions stem from the fact that it targets individuals, usually ex-officials, for human rights abuses while failing to adequately tackle the involvement of state institutions. This was the case in the response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with The New York Times reporting that “the CIA’s assessment [is] that the crown prince ordered the killing of Mr Khashoggi.”

This was backed up by the UN and other state agencies around the world. It therefore begs the question as to why the UK failed to address this in its recent measures, limiting the designation to 19 Saudi nationals and ex-officials linked to the murder, especially when the majority, if not all, of those who were designated are presently on trial in Turkey for the crime.

Secretary of defence Ben Wallace is even reported to have had a phone call the day after the announcement of the sanctions in which he praised the Kingdom, expressing “his country’s appreciation for [Saudi Arabia’s] role in addressing threats to stability in the region.” The UK appears to conduct a “business as usual” attitude with Saudi Arabia while sanctioning many ex-high level advisors.

This kind of thing has happened before. In 2018, in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings, the government appeared to go on the offensive against Russian corruption taking place in the UK. Yet within the Russia report published on 21 July, we see how little effect that offensive has had.

The report states that “the NCA lacks the resources required in terms of financial investigators, technical experts and legal expertise” to counter illicit financial activity by Russians in the UK. Considering the UK’s limited ability to maintain such financial sanctions, you can’t help but query the effectiveness of sanctions as a course of action at all.

With China now thrust into the spotlight thanks to its treatment of both the Uighurs and Hong Kong, calls for tougher action against China have grown louder. Many have called for Raab to expand the sanction list to include Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam. Without enough external pressure from the US, it is unclear whether we will see the UK go after active state officials at such a senior level.

The newly formed China Research Group appears to be pushing for more active measures against Beijing, building on the removal of Huawei from the 5G network, potentially looking at stripping back their involvement in nuclear power and other investments. This active engagement in sanctioning national investment as a whole is something we rarely see elsewhere, especially when we notice that Russian investment is still pouring in and Saudi Arabia seems set to go ahead with its purchase of Newcastle United football club.

Britain’s new global stance on engaging against human rights abusers often feels like posturing. Financial interests can sometimes be prioritised ahead of the interests of those suffering from abuse. Combined with the fact the relevant agencies appear to be lacking the resources they need to actually carry out the sanctions, along with a poor history in dealing with financial crimes such as money laundering at the highest levels, this new stance risks being just as hollow as the old one.


Written by Joseph Denton

Joseph Denton is a political commentator.


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