The UK should prepare for a “bumpy diplomatic ride” after unveiling a new sanctions regime this week as Brexit threatens to leave the country exposed on the international stage, foreign policy experts have warned.
The foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced the British version of the 2012 US Magnitsky Act — named after the Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after alleging officials were involved in tax fraud — despite some officials in the Foreign Office having misgivings over its likely impact on bilateral relations.
In a list published on Monday, Mr Raab targeted 49 individuals and organisations in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea who now face visa bans and asset freezes for alleged human rights abuses.
The list included Saudi citizens suspected of involvement in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 — a move that could strain ties to one of Britain’s biggest allies in the Gulf.
Mr Raab admitted there had been “some disquiet” about the effect of the sanctions regime on bilateral relations, but insisted it was “morally the right thing to do.” Foreign Office officials insisted Monday’s list was just the first wave of those who could be targeted around the world.
Professor Michael Clarke, a foreign policy expert specialising in defence, said the British government should “buckle up for a bumpy diplomatic ride” as the sanctions regime is likely to come with some diplomatic costs.
“It will attract diplomatic retaliation and the UK can be more easily isolated with Brexit”, he said. “There is every motive for our adversaries, especially Russia and Iran, to try to pick us off — to humiliate a significant western country if they think we are diplomatically isolated.”
An expansion of the regime is expected later this year to cover issues such as corruption, persecution on religious grounds and the targeting of journalists — a move that would put the spotlight on other UK allies.
“If we started thinking of countries like Turkey, Bahrain or Egypt, where we have important sensitive relations, it would be very difficult to start putting people on this list”, suggested Peter Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser.
One of the key issues is whether the regime will be expanded to target China. Within hours of announcing the new regime on Monday, Mr Raab came under intense pressure from within his own Conservative party as well as the Labour opposition to use the new regime against Beijing.
Politicians critical of China’s human rights record pointed to the crackdown in Hong Kong and the regime’s oppression of Muslim Uighurs in the west of the country as justification for sanctions.
“It’s one thing to target Russians and the Saudis associated with the Khashoggi killing, it would be another thing to take on China,” said Lord Ricketts.
He pointed out that the Saudis had already accepted responsibility for the killing so targeting those involved with that was “not particularly high risk and we are at loggerheads with Russia anyway.”
Lord Rickets questioned the effectiveness of the UK acting alone. “The uncomfortable truth is that outside the EU Britain is more vulnerable to economic retaliation and that’s always going to be a factor in deciding whether to impose sanctions.”
It would also prove difficult to balance the UK’s new ethical approach to international relations with the need to strike new trade deals as part of the government’s post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ strategy. “I think the two objectives could sometimes be hard to reconcile”, he said.
Turkey, a country where numerous journalists have been detained under government crackdowns, said only this week that it was “very close” to signing a free trade agreement with the UK.
Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, said the UK’s most recent sanctions were a “classic example of foreign policy through public signalling”.
But he questioned the effectiveness of the measures in changing the behaviour of a regime guilty of human rights abuses. “Most of these sanctions . . . are against individuals who were acting on behalf of their states, yet without adding sanctions against the states themselves.
“What does make a difference is if you have US-style sanctions which deny foreign governments access to dollar financing. The question is, why aren’t you sanctioning the state? Because, obviously, that’s far more complicated.”
The announcement on Tuesday that Britain was to resume arms sales with Saudi Arabia a day after targeting 20 of the kingdom’s nationals with sanctions drew immediate criticism that the UK’s foreign policy was selectively ethical.
Prof Chalmers said the targeted sanctions was a way to express UK disapproval of the Khashoggi killing “without impacting on core strategic or economic relationships.”
It is not the first time the British government has sought to establish a more “ethical” foreign policy.
Robin Cook, when he was UK foreign secretary under Tony Blair, struggled to hold the line in the late 1990s as the UK approved the sale of more of the same type of military jet to Indonesia that had been used earlier in the decade in its brutal occupation of East Timor. He later resigned as leader of the Commons over Mr Blair’s military intervention in Iraq.
Diplomats said there was pressure from ministers to find a foreign policy that demonstrated the UK was a global player by showing some leadership internationally post-Brexit.
One official said one of the drivers was the concern that “everyone has been laughing about ‘Global Britain’ being a slogan with no real substance.”
But others insisted the new regime was very “personal” to Mr Raab, who was a human rights lawyer early in his career and was dispatched to The Hague by the UK government to lead a team focused on bringing war criminals to justice.