Changing tact

RayCollins.jpgRay Collins outlines our approach to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, ahead of Lords Second Reading

Take any of the most pressing foreign policy challenges of our time – from North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar – and the likelihood is that sanctions will feature heavily in discussions over how we should respond. If these examples demonstrate the importance of sanctions as foreign policy tool, they also point to some of the limitations of relying too heavily on this approach alone.

The case of Iran meanwhile, shows it can be made to work if there is a strong enough political will for doing so. Thanks to a combination of carefully-targeted sanctions and a sustained commitment to diplomacy over twelve painstaking years, European Union negotiators ultimately achieved a breakthrough which led to a comprehensive nuclear deal that many had previously dismissed as unthinkable.

Recent history shows the importance of making careful use of sanctions as part of a clear, overarching diplomatic strategy – just one reason why Labour welcomes the new bill, which has its Lords Second Reading later today.

With Brexit on the horizon, passing new legislation is also legal a necessity. Sanctions currently take effect in the UK almost exclusively via EU regulations, so we need a new domestic legal framework in place before March 2019. Without this, we would not be able to fulfil even our most basic international obligations as a member of the United Nations. On that basis, we do not plan to be obstructive on this bill. But it does have substantial flaws, which will need addressing during its passage through Parliament and we will be tabling amendments to address our particular concerns.

To begin with, the Bill as it stands includes no requirement for Ministers to set out an overarching strategy for achieving any specified goals. We will seek to amend the bill in order to address that omission and also to require robust impact assessments setting out any potential humanitarian consequences of sanctions, and the steps needed to mitigate these risks. We will also press for an appropriately streamlined process for granting any necessary exemptions.

Labour will also seek to improve transparency by requiring Ministers to publish an annual report on implementation. The government would have to continually reassess whether sanctions are working, whether enough is being done to meet the relevant objectives via the diplomatic track, and whether adequate safeguards are in place to prevent any unintended humanitarian consequences. Only by making such information public can Ministers be properly held to account.

In addition, we will seek assurances on the need for ongoing parliamentary oversight of sanctions policy. At present, the Bill’s only review mechanisms are ministerial and implementation will therefore essentially be self-policing. That is clearly unacceptable and we will be calling for a guarantee of greater parliamentary scrutiny throughout the process, including on decisions to lift sanctions.

Perhaps most importantly, we will seek to expand the criteria for imposing sanctions, including a strong, unequivocal commitment to promoting human rights as part of British foreign policy. The absence of such a commitment in the Bill is deeply disappointing but perhaps not all that surprising given the Conservatives’ record to date.

Regardless of what we achieve on this Bill, the next Labour government will be fully committed to observing all of these principles. We hope however that Ministers will see sense as a result of the debates and consider writing such provisions into law. And doing so would help demonstrate our continuing ability to carve out an independent, human rights based foreign policy as Britain prepares to leave the EU.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow FCO Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Lord_Collins

Published 1st November 2017

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