Will the new wave of sanctions on foreign human rights abusers, announced by Dominic Raab this week, work? While much of the coverage focused on the fact that, for the first time, London was acting unilaterally, rather than as part of a European or wider initiative, the actual measures – controls on entry to the country to them and their money – are pretty familiar.
So, too, are the targets. In the first wave (we are promised more) are 49 'individuals and organisations involved in some of the most notorious human rights violations and abuses in recent years', from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea. They are deemed responsible for, respectively, the death of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky during an industrial-scale fraud in 2009, the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, persecution of the Rohingya minority, and Kim Jong-Un’s forced labour camps.
Fair enough, and none of us should be shedding tears for any of these monsters. Sanctions make us feel like we are on the side of the angels and are a clear and public sign of national condemnation. But now the speeches are finished and the warm glow of self-righteousness has faded, is there any evidence that it actually affects the behaviour of states or individuals?
If these sanctions are aimed at the people truly behind the worst human rights violations of recent times, where are the architects of the mass repression of Chinese Uighurs: the 're-education camps', the forced sterilisations, the disappearances?
Khashoggi’s murder was a terrible crime, but what about the scores of executions inside Saudi Arabia every year, many allegedly following secret trials based on confessions beaten out of their victims? Do they not count because they happen within the kingdom’s borders?
What happened to Magnitsky, imprisoned, abused, and left to die, was an horrific abuse. But what about all the other people dying in Russian prisons? Or those allegedly subjected to punitive psychiatric treatment? Do they not count?
It is easy to reply that there is a great deal of inhumanity in the world and one cannot expect even such a 'global force for good' to address them all at once, and that is a fair point. Better something than nothing. However, the countries in which abuses are most prevalent tend to have a pretty cynical take. To be blunt, they consider us sanctimonious hypocrites, happy to indulge in grandstanding displays of piety, but only when it is not too expensive for us, and ideally when we can use allegations of others’ sins to advance our own cause.
Relations with Russia can hardly get much worse, and those with North Korea are negligible. The Saudis and Myanmar will have noted that we targeted those who executed policy – in every sense – rather than initiated it, and will presumably be mollified by our restraint. And China’s omission has already been noted.
In short, the danger is that this looks like the usual sound without fury. 'If you’re a kleptocrat or an organised criminal', said Raab, 'you will not be able to launder your blood money in this country'. So far the truth is more that the UK is closed to a few of these people, but still very much open for the rest.
Sanctions, like all punishments, are about deterrence as well as retribution. Deterrence is a product of the likelihood and severity of punishment: the lower the chances of being caught and convicted, the greater the potential penalty has to be, to change behaviour.
At present, the chance of punishment is low, and so is the impact. These people may be barred from coming to the UK 'to buy up property on the King’s Road…or frankly to siphon dirty money through British banks'. But they can still do it somewhere else.
If 'Global Britain' really does want to be an ethical as well as entrepreneurial leader, the answer is to go beyond these – laudable but limited – first steps and address the problem systemically.
The National Crime Agency has only a fraction of the resources it needs to tackle the complex financial structures that allow the kleptocrats to move and mask their ill-gotten gains. There is a whole industry of professional facilitators getting rich on serving and protecting them, from lawyers to lobbyists, with high profit margins and low risks. 'Regulatory compliance' in too many major financial organisations does not go far enough.
There is nothing wrong with this new initiative. But for reality to begin to match rhetoric, the UK needs to be ruthlessly ethical in targeting kleptocrats and rights abusers abroad regardless of the political fallout. It also needs to be genuinely committed to systemic reform at home. That will inevitably have a cost, pushing money from the City to the other havens, from Liechtenstein to Dubai, but it will mean genuine global leadership.
Failing that, why not simply be honest with ourselves, that we are not that serious, and let swashbuckling Global Britain attract as much of that lovely dirty money as it can?