Mohammad Nayyeri: Divergence of EU and UK sanction regimes: The curious case of Iranian human rights abusers

Many of those who have engaged with constitutional ramifications of Brexit have warned that protection of human rights in the UK could be adversely affected. They particularly refer to the decision to stop the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights having effect after Brexit and also further indirect effects of it such as the uncertain fate of the Human Rights Act and potential withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. But concerns and risks are not limited to those general and well-known issues. More specific worries are also appearing from the cracks. 

In this post, I focus on only one such issue which concerns the divergence of EU and UK human rights sanctions regimes in post-Brexit context. I particularly examine such measures that have been imposed by the EU Council and recently by the UK on Iranian human rights abusers. I will argue that the divergence between the UK and EU in this regard is unsustainable and will adversely affect global efforts to combat impunity. The solution I propose is that the UK government should make a unilateral arrangement to continue to recognise EU human rights sanctions regime. 


Over the past few decades the EU Council has adopted restrictive measures (assets freeze, travel ban) against human rights violators. The original EU regulation that deals with imposing restrictive measures on Iranian human rights abusers is the Council Regulation (EU) No. 359/2011 which has been implemented through further subsequent regulations. The most recent was in April 2022 when the restrictive measures were renewed and further amendments were made to the list.

When the UK left the EU, the automatic recognition by the UK of EU legislation (including Regulations on human rights restrictive measures) ended. However, as provided by s.3 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, direct EU legislation which is made by the end of the transition period (IP completion day 31 December 2020) continues to form part of UK domestic law. 

That of course does not cover any EU legislation adopted after 31 January 2020, and is conditional on those ‘retained’ EU laws remaining unchanged (i.e. not revoked or modified) by the UK.

The issue here is that the EU sanctions are not frozen or carved in stone. The EU Council reviews its listings regularly which may result in adding or removing individuals. Listed individuals may also challenge the Council’s decision before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) which may lead to the CJEU striking out the listing.

This is not an issue for the EU as they can update their listings as many times as necessary and they are bound by CJEU judgments. The problem is on the UK’s side for such changes are no longer reflected in the UK law as the UK is not importing new EU law into its legal system. 

In 2018, the UK Parliament enacted the Sanctions and Anti Money Laundering Act which authorises ministers to make sanctions regulations in application of sanctions imposed by the UN or in accordance with any other international obligation, or for a range of purposes including provision of accountability for, or a deterrent to, gross violations of human rights (s1.(2)(f)). 

Following the 2018 Act, a number of Statutory Instruments have been laid before Parliament including the Iran Human Rights (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. It specifically deals with human rights abuses in Iran and aims to ensure continuity of financial, trade and immigration sanctions following the UK’s departure from the EU.

In cutting the ties with the EU law, the 2019 Regulations explicitly revoked the relevant EU legislation (Council Regulation (EU) No. 359/2011) that prior to this had provided the legal basis for imposing the EU sanctions in the UK.

The 2019 Regulations came fully into force on 31 December 2020 and, according to its explanatory memorandum, replaced, “with substantially the same effect”, the existing EU sanctions regime relating to Iran. So, it is clear that the prior EU law was replaced in domestic law and will not be affected by any additions or modifications by the EU after 31 December 2020.

Over time, if nothing (adequate or at all) is done, it is inevitable that there will be an increasing divergence between the UK retained listings compared to the listings by the EU. In fact, it is already the case as there is asymmetry of measures between the UK and the EU in relation to human rights sanctions imposed on Iranian officials.

Asymmetric measures

Since 31 December 2020, the EU has imposed a few new listings under its traditional country specific regime. The Council Implementing Regulation (EU) 2021/584 of 12 April 2021 and Council Implementing Regulation (EU) 2022/592 of 11 April 2022 introduced new listings, modifications and updates to the EU human rights sanctions list on Iranian authorities. But because they were adopted after 31 December 2020, none of the changes were directly reflected in the UK domestic law. 

For example, in their 12 April 2021 Regulation, the EU Council added eight officials and three entities to its sanctions list in relation to their role in the violent response to the November 2019 demonstrations in Iran. Those officials were not added to the UK sanctions list in relation to their involvement in human rights abuses until 18 months later when the UK decided to react to a more recent wave of crackdown in Iran. 

On 10 October 2022, the UK Government sanctioned the Iranian Morality Police and several security authorities for their involvement in the recent suppression of the protests over the death of Mahsa Amini. Within the same announcement, 5 (out of 8) of those Iranian officials who were previously sanctioned by the EU for their involvement in the earlier crackdown of protesters in 2019 were also sanctioned by the UK. 

This was an unprecedented move which showed the UK is waking up to its long overdue international responsibilities. In relation to the recent events in Iran the UK acted more swiftly than the EU. However, regarding the 2019 atrocities the inclusion of only 5 of those officials and sanctioning them not so swiftly (nearly 3 years after the event and 18 months after they were listed by the EU) is curious and has significant implications.

The effect of this is that those Iranian officials who were banned from entering the EU or having assets in the EU since April 2021 were free to do so in the UK up until 10 October 2022. Importantly, three of those individuals are still not sanctioned by the UK on the grounds of their involvement in serious violations of human rights.

This raises serious issues. The three individuals who were not included in the recent UK sanctions, were identified by rights groups and the EU as equally responsible for the 2019 atrocities in Iran and it is unclear (indeed strange) why the UK has decided not to sanction them on that basis. 

The UK’s decision to sanction fewer officials than the EU regarding the 2019 atrocities is additionally curious and deeply problematic from another perspective. Each time the UK refuses—deliberately and with no good reason—to sanction all the Iranian officials sanctioned by the EU, the credibility of EU sanctions regime is sabotaged and the international solidarity and global efforts to promote human rights principles is undermined.

A potential explanation for the distinction seems to be that the current UK government is trying to avoid being seen as taking the lead from the EU and replicating the same list. If this (rather childish) approach was indeed the rationale behind the UK listings, it is unfortunate that the UK decided to do less, while they could have easily overcome this by doing more i.e. sanctioning additional perpetrators of 2019 atrocities that the EU had failed to sanction. 

Just last month an international people’s tribunal which was convened in London a few hundred meters from the FCDO, and over the course of two years heard evidence from over 250 witnesses, delivered its damning judgment regarding the atrocities of November 2019 in Iran. The UK FCDO could (and still can) do more by imposing sanctions on the Iranian officials and security forces that were found guilty by the Tribunal of planning and implementing crimes against humanity of murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, and sexual violence.

The said divergence is going to only increase when the EU enacts its new rounds of sanctions against Iranian officials. Indeed, this was exactly what happened in the course of finalising this post. 

On 17 October 2022, the EU foreign ministers adopted Council Implementing Regulation (EU) 2022/1955 adding 11 officials and 4 entities, including Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (which is a significant move the EU was until now reluctant to take), to the EU sanctions list for their role in the crackdown on nonviolent protests following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

The new EU sanctions only partially overlap with the UK sanctions concerning the same events in 2022. Iran morality police and its national and Tehran chiefs are now sanctioned by both the UK and the EU. But the symmetry ends there and there are 9 officials and 3 entities that are sanctioned only by the EU.

It is unclear whether, and if so how (and how quickly), the UK is going to keep up with new EU listings given that the UK has already announced its limited number of sanctions regarding the recent developments in Iran. 

This is a problematic situation and an action is needed to address it. The question now is: what form should that action take?

The case for unilateral recognition

One obvious solution would be for the UK to pass new legislation through Parliament to automatically incorporate subsequent changes to EU listings. This can be done by allowing the EU law to continue, to a very limited and exceptional extent, to be a source of UK domestic law. In other words, the new legislation would function as a miniature size ‘conduit pipe’ that would continue to automatically (i.e. without further enactment) import the variable content of EU human rights measures and give effect to whatever may from time to time be the EU sanctions regime.

While it would resolve the issue, it sounds unrealistic in the current political climate as it will revive the same controversies regarding the creation of a direct link between UK and EU law. This appears even more far-fetched in light of the recently introduced Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which is designed to get rid of retained EU Law. A less controversial solution is needed that does not require reviving that link. 

My proposed solution is that the UK Government should make a unilateral (not a reciprocal) arrangement to continue (indefinitely) to recognise EU human rights sanctions regime, whilst continuing with the introduction of its own complementary homegrown sanctions. 

Anything short of the above will result in increasing divergence of the UK and EU sanctions regimes. 

The UK government can do this without upsetting Brexiters too much by taking a default assumption of recognising the EU measures, while not being bound by it and preserving the power for itself to diverge in any cases where there are compelling reasons to do so. 

As discussed, there is nothing to stop the UK government to do more and show leadership by going beyond and above the basic symmetry with the EU sanctions regime. To do so, the UK can make use of the full force of its sanctions regime including its Magnitsky-style autonomous mechanism under The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020.

There are both normative and practical arguments to back up the above proposal. 

First, the right to justice of the victims of violations of human rights is clearly engaged in the imposition of sanctions, and creates moral and legal obligations for every state. However, the fight against impunity and serious violations of human rights cannot be effectively fought if the global players fail to cooperate and tighten the net for perpetrators. 

As demonstrated earlier, if the UK fails to recognise EU sanctions, this will loosen the net and create a situation where the UK risks becoming a safe haven for perpetrators sanctioned by the EU but not by the UK. In addition, timing is crucial, and out-of-date sanctions will be ineffective and may even damage global solidarity.

It must be noted though that the above argument can cut both ways (with uneven forces, of course), and provides a reason for the EU too to be prepared to act to avoid creating a reverse situation where the EU becomes a safe haven for those sanctioned only by the UK. This is precisely what the EU did on 17 October where they included in their sanctions list all those sanctioned by the UK only a week earlier. But as explained the EU did not stop at that and went much further.

Second, the EU sanctions regime against Iranian abusers, while being far from perfect and can justifiably be criticised e.g. for its slow and overtly cautious nature, has accumulated years of experience. It is also a fact that the EU is better prepared and supported not only by the resources of the EU institutions but also by the 27 EU member states who contribute to the rigorous scrutiny of the listings. 

The UK is free to conduct its own investigations particularly if they intend to target additional abusers, but there is no need to waste increasingly scarce resources to reinvent the wheel.

Finally, it must also be noted that this is not unique to Iran or even the sanctions regime, but rather part of a wider debate about the increasingly problematic asymmetries of UK and EU standards and regulations across many other affected areas. As the post-Brexit reality hits and pennies begin to drop, similar proposals for the UK to continue to unilaterally recognise certain EU standards have come even from unlikely corners. For an example of this see a February 2022 report by the Institute for Economic Affairs proposing unilateral recognition by the UK of EU regulations concerning non-tariff barriers to trade. For an analysis see Chris Grey’s post.

Brexit ideology and hostility to the EU should not be an obstacle if the UK government is serious in holding to account human rights abusers. The attempts such as the recent piecemeal and belated listing of Iranian authorities for 2019 atrocities by the UK, while is a move in the right direction, only puts a plaster on the issue.

Dr Mohammad Nayyeri is a lecturer in law at Brunel University London

(Suggested citation: M.Nayyeri, ‘Divergence of EU and UK sanctions regimes: The curious case of Iranian human rights abusers’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (24th October 2022) (available at