Chris Whitehouse heads The Whitehouse Consultancy.

There has been much support for the introduction and imposition of Magnitsky-style sanctions against human rights abusers, including from Benedict Rogers in his recent article on this site which called for a new approach to China and its egregious flaunting of international human rights legislation, its behaviour in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the security threat that Huawei poses to our nation’s critical communication infrastructure. The U.S Magnitsky Act was signed by Barack Obama in December 2012 to target Russian officials deemed responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Real questions remain about when a regime for such sanctions, a commitment of the Conservative General Election Manifesto, will be introduced; what the scope of such sanctions will be; whether the political will exists actually to impose such sanctions; and whether they would be introduced unilaterally by the United Kingdom, or as part of a coordinated, multilateral initiative.

The answers to some of these questions start to emerge from a very recent letter from Dominic Rabb, the Foreign Secretary, to a group of 44 parliamentarians, led by Lord Alton of Liverpool, who had pressed him for clarification on these points.

First, on timing, Raab is quite clear that it is hoped that the necessary secondary legislation to introduce a sanctions regime will be ready to be laid before parliament in the “coming months”.

Secondly, on political will to introduce sanctions, he is clear that he is a “passionate advocate” of such sanctions which are “powerful tools, capable of having an enormous impact on individuals, commercial activity and even entire countries”. So, for as long as Raab remains Foreign Secretary, we can expect that the use of such sanctions against human rights abusers, and also against those involved in corruption, will be under continuing active consideration.

Thirdly, Raab wants to see continued collaboration with other countries to ensure that sanctions have their greatest potential impact, arguing that “sanctions are most effective when implemented collectively”; and he indicates his preference for continuing to work, in particular, with the USA, Canada and even the European Union.

But, as Bill Browder, the man behind the global Magnitsky sanctions campaign has warned, a concern emerges from his letter, and from linked comment from officials. Urgent clarification is needed if the regime being developed is to be considered genuinely to deliver “Magnitsky-style” sanctions. If that is to be the character of the final regime, which most observers hope will be the case, the regime needs to capture two distinct groups of targets, or it risks not encompassing many of those who are being targeted by other countries.

The Government needs to give itself the room to impose sanctions on those who directly perpetrate or cause to happen human rights abuses, regardless of whether those persons derive any demonstrable benefit from the sanctions; whilst also being able to target those who benefit from human rights abuses, regardless of whether those persons can be proved to have been involved directly in perpetrating those abuses or in causing them to happen.

If the sanctions regime doesn’t provide for action in all these situations, then there is a high likelihood that the kind of sanctions on the range of targets imposed by the USA in connection with Magnitsky’s death would fall outside its scope, allowing many to escape the imposition of sanctions.

The difficulty in many cases of human rights abuses is that they occur in countries that are kleptocracies and/or tyrannies where finding direct evidence can be difficult.

If the regime is genuinely to deliver Magnitsky-style sanctions, it needs to have broad definitions of just who may be targeted, as do the Acts in Canada and the USA. If the definitions in the regime are not broadly drafted, we risk failing to deliver on the manifesto commitment to introduce Magnitsky style sanctions, since it would be wrong to associate a narrowly defined regime with such a description.

Of course, Raab, like the whole Government, has been focusing on COVID-19; and we risk officials, who are instinctively much more cautious than Raab, taking opportunist advantage of that demanding reality to work up a detailed scheme that, frankly, doesn’t deliver.

What we need now is for Raab to give clear and unequivocal clarification on the matter of the scope of the definitions, and to ensure that they are fit for purpose in delivering on our Manifesto, to publish the secondary legislation prior to, not after it has been laid before parliament, so that a watching world can ensure that the scope of the legislation is what it needs to be.

Conservative members of both Houses of Parliament, others within the party and human rights watchers, should take this opportunity constructively to press Raab on these points, because if the regime when laid before parliament is flawed in this way, it will be years before there is another chance to put it right. Better on this occasion to get it right, than to get it rushed, if we don’t want to risk being accused of betraying a Manifesto commitment…