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The strength of sanctions against Russia makes the case for imposing them on the brutal Hong Kong leadership

3 min read

Over the last few weeks, the world has watched in horror as Russian armies marched on Ukraine.

Post-World War II, for most, the idea of war in Europe did not seem possible. But possible it has become and, as the tragedy has unfolded, the question has been raised: How, in a 21 century war with nuclear capability, can states effectively exert influence without military intervention?

For many governments looking to deter Vladimir Putin from the war in Ukraine, one of the answers to this question has been economic sanctions.

Historically, blanket sanctions over an entire country have been criticized as a blunt tool, negatively hitting the economy and the most vulnerable citizens – rather than those in positions of authority. But in recent years targeted sanctions, such as freezing the assets of those responsible, can be effective.

Those in Hong Kong are yet to face any consequences for their actions

The United Kingdom currently has economic sanctions levelled against individuals from groups and countries all over the world, including in China, North Korea, and the so-called Islamic State. Sanctions against Russia have also included freezing the assets of individual Russian leaders and oligarchs, as well as restricting transactions with the Russian Central bank and banning Russian ships from UK ports.

These measures, particularly when enacted by many states in unison, will undoubtedly have an impact on the Russian economy. Whether or not they will put enough pressure on Putin is yet to be seen. The other concern is what repercussions might result from western sanctions, especially when Russia controls so much of the world’s oil and gas supply.

Meanwhile, workarounds like cryptocurrencies and Russia’s sometimes positive relationship with China may help the Russian economy to weather the sanctions storm in the short-term.

Even with the uncertain outcomes of sanctions, we should not be allowing powerful individuals or states to bully smaller nations through violence and destruction. While the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has been swift and united, there are other regions where sanctions could be employed but as yet have not.

They would clearly be appropriate in Hong Kong for example, where the imposition of draconian national security legislation and the brutal repression of protestors standing up for democracy has undermined the rule of law and human rights.

Instead, the British government has sat back and hoped that the authorities in Hong Kong would cease their campaign of political repression. They haven’t and, while some officials in China have had their British assets frozen over human rights violations, those in Hong Kong are yet to face any consequences for their actions.

In some cases, as in Ukraine, the criteria for sanctions to be imposed are met so quickly and absolutely that the correct decision is easy to make. In other cases, as in Hong Kong, the sanctions process is taking longer but it is vital that we demonstrate to the brutal Hong Kong leadership that their repressive tactics will not be tolerated. As the British government has stood with Ukraine, we also hope it stands with Hong Kong and imposes the sanctions on the Hong Kong leadership that will have a real impact.

Sanctions are a vital part of the international community’s toolkit, and the UK government should be more prepared to use them to hold brutal dictators to account for their actions, to limit their ability to operate with impunity and to demonstrate that the UK will stand up for what it believes in - freedom, democracy and human rights.


Lord Hunt is a Labour peer and vice chair of the APPG on Hong Kong.

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