On Thursday, August 5, the Australian government announced that it will move to reform and modernize Australia’s autonomous sanctions laws. The reforms will enable the imposition of targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on individuals while ensuring the sanctions framework is “fit-for-purpose and aligned with contemporary foreign policy objectives.”
The announcement comes following a long campaign from stakeholders and after a lengthy parliamentary committee review that recommended the implementation of Magnitsky-style laws. The move puts Australia in lockstep with numerous like-minded countries, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, in adding a new sharp sanctions tool.
The impending reform will intentionally leave a broad scope of categories for which sanctions can be applied. It includes the “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, threats to international peace and security, such as serious human rights violations and abuses and malicious cyber activity, and activities undermining the rule of law and good governance, such as corruption.”
The inclusion of malicious cyber activity is particularly notable in the wake of the Australia joining a U.S.-led coalition of nearly 40 countries which stepped forward last month to accuse China of orchestrating a vast hack of the Microsoft Exchange mail server earlier this year. This reflects the growing international consensus that collective action is required not only on human rights matters but also on the surge of malicious cyber activity in recent years.
The application of the new criteria will have a high threshold, “reflecting that the new regime is a foreign policy tool designed to respond to the most egregious situations of international concern.”
The committee review into the introduction of such laws was published in late 2020 and the wait time drew many questions on the government’s desire to push forward with it. Analysts and commentators often debated the possibility that the government was seeking to placate an ever-incensed Beijing, given some of its citizens could be targets of potential sanctions as result of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
One argument put forward during the committee inquiry was that Australia’s autonomous sanctions regime already provides the ability to implement targeted sanctions. However, many supporters of Magnitsky-like laws, including Human Rights Watch, argued that the current system does not place a sufficient emphasis on human rights concerns.
The strength of Magnitsky-like laws is predicated on its collective enforcement and highly targeted focus. As articulated by the Australian Government, it seeks to “bar perpetrators from benefitting from the fruits of our democracy” by the use of financial sanctions and travel bans.
Australian Senator Kimberley Kitching, who has been championing its introduction in Australia, had moved earlier this week to jumpstart momentum through a Private Senator’s Bill. Welcoming the announcement from the government, Kitching said, “I look forward to working with my parliamentary colleagues, on all sides, to ensure this is legislated by year’s end.”
Greater sanctions harmonization should be a priority for all countries with Magnitsky-like laws and Australia has now joined the table. While coming late to introducing such laws, Australia’s methodical and cautious approach will still be celebrated by allies and particularly the United States and United Kingdom.
Bill Browder, the driving force behind the increasingly global adoption of Magnitsky-like laws, noted that such laws are an effective means by which to target “individual bad actors while leaving the populations alone,” making them a modern foreign policy tool.
Of the 33 recommendations put to the government by the parliamentary committee, a majority have been agreed to. However, the government most effectively articulated its ambitions when it outlined its desire not to be bound by “context-specific terminology.” The government’s language points to these laws having a focus on more than just human rights.
The amendments to the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011 are aiming to be finalized by the end of this year.