3 December 2021

New Australian Sanctions Regime to Tackle Cyber and Human Rights Abuses

Australia’s parliament has approved measures to significantly widen the scope of its sanctions legislation to target cyber hackers, human rights abusers, and corrupt officials with removal from the country and asset seizures.

The Autonomous Sanctions Amendment (Thematic Sanctions) Bill 2021, along with amendments to the 2011 Autonomous Sanctions Regulations were passed on parliament’s final sitting day of the year. They will establish new thematic sanctions regimes to help Australia “respond more flexibly and swiftly to a range of situations of international concern, including where relevant in collaboration with our close allies and partners.

The new reforms follow a government inquiry into the use of sanctions to target human rights abuses. In our 2021 State of Financial Crime report, we forecast that Australia was likely to join the US, UK, EU, Canada, Latvia, and Lithuania in announcing a specific sanctions program to target human rights abuses. 

These Magnitsky-style laws — based on the Global Magnitsky Act, named after a Russian lawyer who in 2008 uncovered a web of tax fraud linked to the Kremlin and died in suspicious circumstances in a Moscow prison — have enabled increased coordination among countries. 

But the new ‘autonomous’ reforms (i.e. those able to be used in situations not covered by United Nations Security Council decisions) move a step beyond the parameters of Magnitsky sanctions. As well as bolstering economic and travel sanctions against foreign individuals or businesses involved in serious human rights abuses and corruption, they cover threats posed by malicious cyber activity and serious corruption.  

Australia’s existing sanctions regime already involves several country-specific ‘themes’ that will be expanded under this framework — including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, threats to international peace and security, and human rights abuses as they apply to particular country regimes.  

This update enables the establishment of new thematic regimes that will not be restricted by their operation to any particular country. Any person or entity meeting the required criteria under a thematic regime can be sanctioned, regardless of where the relevant conduct occurred.  

“Positioning Australia to act more quickly to freeze the funds of perpetrators and beneficiaries, and to prevent them from traveling here, will ensure that we do not become an isolated, attractive safe haven for such people and entities, and their ill-gotten gains,” states the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Tackling Cyber Threats

The inclusion of malicious cyber activity in the reforms aligns the Australian sanctions program with those of international allies such as the US, UK, and EU, where counter-cyber operations have been stepped up in recent months.

Neighboring countries in Asia-Pacific have also tightened regulations, and in October, representatives from 32 countries including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, attended a virtual Counter Ransomware Initiative Meeting hosted by the White House National Security Council.

Cybercrime blamed on actors within China, including the 2021 Microsoft Exchange server attack, which saw countries, including Australia, accuse China of orchestrating the hack, is also adding to rising tension between Australia and China

In 2020, China introduced trade embargoes and other economic sanctions on Australian products in response to criticism by Australian authorities regarding human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Relations deteriorated further in July 2021 when a Chinese official indicated that “Beijing has singled out Australia for economic punishment” as a result of criticism from Australia on the way Beijing was handling investigations into the origins of COVID-19. Embargoes remain on coal, barley, meat, and wine.

The broad terms under which these new sanctions can be applied suggest that firms should keep a close eye on future statements by government ministers, which may indicate where sanctions are likely to be imposed. They should also monitor AUSTRAC for the latest reporting requirements for sanctions violations relating to the new guidance and take a look at the DFAT overview of the reforms.

Read more about global sanctions in our 2021 guide.

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