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Pressure mounting to adopt ‘nuclear option’ against economies of authoritarian regimes

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 15 June 2021

The forced diversion of a plane carrying a Belarusian opposition journalist on 23 May sparked international outcry. As global powers resolve to take action, there are doubts about the efficacy of sanctions against authoritarian regimes.

The subsequent removal and arrest of Roman Protasevich from a grounded plane in Minsk prompted calls to punish Belarus, where officials, including the country’s leader Alexander Lukashenko, already face sanctions from multiple states for rule of law violations.

Despite recent efforts to sanction the country, Oksana Antonenko, Director, Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks, says the international community has been powerless to stop the egregious human rights violations being committed by the authorities. ‘We’ve seen now almost a year of really severe repression and violence against its people on a daily basis, including arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture,’ she says. ‘That’s happening in the middle of Europe. Of course, sanctions have been applied, but they so far have done nothing to stop these activities within Belarus.’


Sanctions have been applied, but they so far have done nothing to stop these activities within Belarus

Oksana Antonenko
Director, Global Risk Analysis, Control Risks

Sanctions have become a default tool to address breaches of the rule of law. Belarus’ neighbour, Russia, has been the target of numerous Western sanctions over its woeful track record on fighting corruption and protecting human rights. In March, the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader and prominent critic Alexei Navalny. In April, the US issued further sanctions against Russia over cyberattacks and interference in the 2020 US presidential election.

The sanctions were the first imposed under the Biden administration, marking a step change in US diplomatic pressure to rein in Russia’s activities at home and abroad. The impact was lessened somewhat by the government’s decision in May to waive sanctions on the Russian company in charge of constructing Nord Stream 2. However, the gas pipeline has long been a bone of contention between the US, Germany and Russia, and the move has been interpreted as largely aimed at reducing tensions with Germany ahead of President Biden’s trip to Europe in June. As well as attending the G7 and NATO summits in Cornwall and Brussels, respectively, Biden is using the first foreign trip of his presidency to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on 16 June.

Save Nord Stream 2, America’s hard-line approach on Russia has been influential. ‘Such sanctions send the message that the US is aware of and condemns recent Russia's behaviour,’ says Alexa Koenig, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley. ‘While it's unlikely that US sanctions on their own will compel Russia to change its practices, such public-facing acts can motivate other countries to similarly sanction Russia, putting collective and cumulative financial and political pressure on the country.’

In April, the United Kingdom sanctioned 14 Russians accused of being involved in the $230m grand corruption scheme that was exposed by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention in 2009. These sanctions, which fall under the UK’s new 2021 Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations, marked the second time the UK has issued autonomous sanctions against Russia since leaving the EU. In July 2020, the country launched a new global human rights sanctions regime, which imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 49 individuals, including 25 Russian nationals for their alleged involvement in Magnitsky’s mistreatment and torture.

The EU has already sanctioned nearly 60 Belarusian officials over repression and intimidation of protesters, opposition members and journalists. The EU has also escalated efforts to put pressure on Russia. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution in response to Russia’s treatment of Navalny, the military build-up on Ukraine’s border and allegations surrounding Russia’s involvement in a 2014 attack in the Czech Republic that sparked a diplomatic standoff between the two countries.

The proposals are far-reaching, says Antonenko. She points to one proposal to disconnect Russia from Swift, the finance utility that underpins the global banking system and upon which the country’s banks rely heavily to make domestic and international payments. The Parliament also wants to halt EU oil and gas imports and freeze any EU assets and visas held by oligarchs close to the Russian authorities.

The EU has mooted disconnecting Belarus from Swift too, but it seems likely the country would simply re-route payments through Russian banks. After decades of re-nationalisation, Russia forms a relatively small part of today’s global economy. Removing the country from Swift would arguably be one of the most damaging economic penalties the West could inflict on both countries, but this isn’t the first time such measures have been proposed. In 2014, the EU threatened to expel Russia from Swift in retaliation for the country’s incursions into Ukraine. In 2018, the US said it would cut the country from Swift following Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov. Neither followed suit.

Antonenko believes there’s little appetite from many nations to take such drastic measures in the current climate. ‘Apart from individual sanctions, all of these steps would be very costly economically also for the Western investors and financial institutions,’ she says. ‘Disconnecting Russia from Swift is often referred to as a kind of “nuclear option” of sanctions, but it’s just not the kind of price that governments are prepared to pay, particularly now, I would say, in the pandemic.’

In Europe, Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe, which funds the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), has been under serious strain in recent years. Despite 25 years of membership, Russia has failed to comply with hundreds of Strasbourg rulings.

Philip Leach is Director of Middlesex University’s European Human Rights Advocacy Centre and is part of the legal team representing Navalny in an upcoming case at the ECtHR. He believes the Court remains a critical forum for victims, including Russian citizens, that ‘are failed by their national courts’.

Whereas states have sanctions at their disposal, he says the Court could look to launch infringement proceedings against Russia, much like it did against Azerbaijan in December 2017 following the continuing refusal by the authorities to release opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov following a 2014 ECtHR judgment.

Although such a measure wouldn’t lead to any further financial or other penalty, Leach says it could send an unequivocal message: ‘Clearly, it creates a lot of attention and profile on the issue. It's another serious step in terms of the international law proceedings and an indication of a serious breach of the rule of law.’

Image: Shutterstock.com / Alexandros Michailidis

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