Consistency is key – sanctions as a foreign policy tool

Last week, legislation was laid in Parliament as part of measures to urge Russia to end its campaign of aggression in Ukraine. This legislation now provides a framework for the strongest sanctions regime the UK has had against Russia.

In practice, the legislation will allow the UK to impose sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals in a wide range of economic and strategically significant sectors, such as financial services, chemicals and defence.

The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, stated that the legislation “will mean we [the UK Government] can act swiftly in lockstep with the US and other allies to freeze assets and ban travel” of Russian businesses and individuals. Prior to such legislative change, the government’s powers were limited to designating people and entities threatening or destabilising the territorial integrity of Ukraine and those associated with them.

Under the new legislation, the UK retains that power, but also now has the power to impose sanctions on people and entities “involved in obtaining a benefit from or supporting the Government of Russia”.

Sanctions are a common foreign policy tool, often used by the UK Government. In 2020, for example, the UK Government introduced a new ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions regime that would target those who have been involved in some of the gravest human rights violations and abuses around the world.

Targeting individuals and organisations, rather than nations, the first wave of sanctions targeted 25 Russian nationals, 20 Saudi nationals, 2 high-ranking Myanmar military generals, and 2 organisations involved in forced labour, torture and murder.

In foreign relations, historically the UK Government has always sought to positioned itself as a global force for good. The Government seeks to pursue its commitment to the rules-based international system and to standing up for victims of human rights violations and abuses around the world.

However, whilst the intentions of the UK Government may be positive, it can only be so if it acts consistently, and applies sanctions to different foreign powers and actors consistently across the board.

Take for example, the deteriorating human rights situation in China and Hong Kong. To this day, despite the UK Government recognising that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently reneged on the commitments set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and since the introduction of the National Security Law has crushed the exercise of democratic rights and perverted the rule of law, no sanctions have been directed to Chinese Communist Party officials, Hong Kong Government officials, members of the Hong Kong Police Force, and the Chinese security officials.

This is despite the clear, and growing portfolio of evidence demonstrating that basic human rights are being violated in Hong Kong.

This is clearly a failure on the UK Government’s part, and demonstrates that despite its best intentions, and significant influence as a foreign policy actor, nowhere near enough is being done to deter the behaviour and actions of the CCP.

It is vital that the abuse of human rights is met with a proportionate, but more importantly, consistent response. This applies not only to Hong Kong, but also other countries and regions where similar heinous and flagrant violations of human rights are being committed.

Looking back to Russia and Ukraine, whilst no new sanctions have been imposed, the UK government now have the power to impose them. It will be interesting to see whether the UK Government uses these powers, as the situation develops further.

The Whitehouse Communications team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at