The UK has announced that it will introduce new sanctions following the Russian government’s announcement that it has unilaterally recognised breakaway territories located in eastern Ukraine. The UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has said the UK will introduce these measures in response to Russia’s “breach of international law and attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

What are sanctions?

Sanctions are a coercive foreign policy and security tool. They can be imposed by the UK government on individuals, non-state organisations, companies and countries. They are intended to constrain or deter certain actions, to force a change in behaviour, or send a political message to other persons, organisations and countries. For example, in 2014, following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the UK imposed a sanctions regime on individuals and entities aimed at encouraging Russia to cease actions “undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.”[1]

The UK can impose sanctions unilaterally or in coordination with other countries. As a permanent member of the UN security council, the UK plays a leading role in determining UN sanctions policy. Like all UN members, the UK is obliged under international law to implement all sanctions approved by the UN Security Council.

What types of sanctions are there?

UK law provides for the following types of sanctions:

  • Financial sanctions – these include asset freezes of designated persons; blocking access to financial services and capital markets for individuals, companies or whole sectors of a certain country’s economy (for example, restrictions on the issuance or trading of debt of some Russian state companies). It also prevents commercial transactions with designated individuals and companies.
  • Immigration sanctions –  enable the UK government to refuse designated individuals leave to enter or remain in the UK.
  • Trade sanctions – allow the UK government to restrict the export or import of goods or technologies to or from target countries, or specific sectors or entities within those countries.
  • Shipping and aircraft sanctions – allow the UK government to control the movement of designated ships or aircraft, or ships and aircraft originating from a specified country.
  • Other sanctions required to comply with sanctions imposed by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

How many UK sanctions regimes are there?

The UK currently operates 38 sanctions regimes relating to human rights abuses, corruption and money-laundering, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and military conflict and military occupation.[2] As of the end of 2021, over 1,700 individuals and 500 entities were subject to UK sanctions regimes.[3] A full list is published by the government.[4]

What is the legal framework for imposing sanctions?

The UK government’s powers to implement sanctions are set out in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018.[5] This Act replaced the legislative framework that operated when the UK was an EU member.

When the UK was a member of the EU, sanctions were largely a matter of EU law. Sanctions were implemented through legislation made under the European Communities Act 1972, which was repealed when the UK left the EU. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act set out to create “maximum continuity” for existing sanctions policy. The UK government created a series of regulations under this Act that allowed it to retain existing sanctions regimes after the UK left the EU.

The 2018 Sanctions Act also enables the UK to create regulations to implement new sanctions regimes independently of EU states.

How are sanctions introduced?

The 2018 Sanctions Act allows an “appropriate minister” to make sanctions regulations, which take the form of secondary legislation. An “appropriate minister” is defined as a secretary of state (usually the secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth and development affairs) or a Treasury minister.

When making the regulations, the secretary of state must set out in a report to parliament the purpose of the sanctions. These include: to comply with UN or international treaty obligations; to prevent terrorism, to promote resolution of armed conflicts; to deter human rights abuses; or to promote compliance with international law. The minister must inform a designated individual or entity of the sanctions as soon as is reasonably practicable.

What were the first sanctions introduced under the new framework?

The first new regulations made under the Act following Brexit were the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations, which came into force in July 2020. This instrument enables the UK government to freeze the assets of individuals, entities and organisations involved in serious human rights violations, and prevent the entry of individuals to the UK.[6] It is partly modelled on the US Global Magnitsky Act, which was named after a Russian tax adviser, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in detention in Moscow after making accusations of large-scale fraud by Russian officials.[7]

On 6 July 2020, the UK government used this instrument to impose travel bans and asset freezes on 49 individuals and organisations involved in serious human rights abuses.[8] This included officials accused of involvement in the killing of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Russian officials alleged to have been involved in the mistreatment that led to the death of Sergei Magnitsky.

Does parliament need to approve sanctions regulations?

In most cases, new sanctions can come into force immediately, or at a date specified in the regulations. However, the sanctions regulations must be approved within 28 days of being laid in parliament by a vote of both houses of parliament, or they cease to have effect (this is known as the made-affirmative procedure).

What are the requirements for reviewing and reporting on sanctions?

Each year, the secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth and development must conduct a high-level political review of each sanctions regime to consider whether the regulations are still appropriate for their specified purpose. The government must present a report on its sanctions reviews to parliament each year.

At least every three years, the government must reassess the evidence used to designate the sanctioned individual or entity.

Can sanctions be challenged?

A sanctioned person or entity can ask the government to revoke or amend sanctions regulations, if they believe they have been misidentified or that the decision was based on insufficient evidence.

If this application is unsuccessful, they can also challenge their designation in the courts. In this case, the courts apply the principles of judicial review, a kind of court case, in which someone challenges the lawfulness of a government decision.

  1. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, UK sanctions relating to Russia, 15 April 2019,
  2. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, UK sanctions regimes: Information on UK sanctions regimes currently in force, 31 January 2020,
  3. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Sanctions Regulations Report on Annual Reviews 2021 Annex: Annual Reviews, January 2022,
  4. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, The UK Sanctions List, 6 July 2020,
  5. Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018,
  6. Explanatory Memorandum to the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, No. 680
  7. UK’s first post-Brexit sanctions (
  8. Ibid.
Update date: 
Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Original source – The Institute for Government

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