EU launches online map to navigate sanctions maze

Trade sanctions are a legal minefield, varying enormously according to the country and sector

Brussels (AFP) – The European Union is launching an interactive online map Friday to help businesses and officials steer through the jungle of international sanctions in force against regimes, organisations and individuals around the world.

With around 30 to 40 international sanctions regimes in force against regimes such as North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, as well as designated terror groups including the Taliban and the Islamic State group, knowing who is targeted and in which areas can be difficult.  

They are laid out in hundreds of pages of dense legal text, making it hard for businesses and administrators to be sure of who they can do deals with legally.

Breaching international sanctions can have major repercussions, as French bank BNP Paribas learned when the US fined it $8.9 billion (7.55 billion euros) for illegal transactions with Iran, Sudan, Myanmar and Cuba.

Fears of breaking sanctions laws have led some into “overcompliance” — avoiding trading with companies or countries that are in fact not subject to restrictions — while some unscrupulous regimes take advantage of the confusion to flout measures.

Estonia, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency and developed the map, says that member states and EU institutions deal with “thousands of enquiries” every day from companies and officials unsure of which sanctions they need to follow.

“There are right now hundreds of legal acts that shape the sanctions regime. The Al-Qaeda sanctions only represent more than 300 legal acts,” Juuli Hiio, a sanctions expert at the Estonian foreign ministry, told AFP.

An EU official said a dedicated European Commission email helpline was typically bombarded with queries about sanctions after new measures were adopted, adding that the new map was a “very welcome and complementary tool”.

Up to now the EU has maintained a 136-page list of sanctions, with links to hundreds of detailed legal acts, she said, but it is currently only updated twice a year.

“But there are on average 80 amendments a year to the sanctions regime,” Hiio said.

– Ghost sanctions –

Sanctions can take the form of hitting specific organisations and individuals such as high-ranking officials or military officers with travel bans and asset freezes, or broader measures putting whole economic sectors under embargo.

In the case of Russia, heavily sanctioned in 2014 for supporting pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine, EU citizens and companies are barred from investing in Russian finance or doing business with the country’s banks, oil companies and defence firms.

For North Korea, as well as materials that could be used to further its nuclear and ballistic missile programme, the EU also bans the export of coal, steel and luxury goods popular with the Pyongyang elite.

The new map, due to go online on Friday, allows users to click on countries to see what sanctions are in force and also to search by sector — oil, weapons, finance and so on — and individual names.

The EU hopes this will clear up confusion around measures in places like Moldova, where a sanctions blacklist is technically in force, but has no entries.

“It has no impact, but if you’re not familiar with this, this is deterring you from doing business with the country, because you don’t know if you can expect an impact on your business,” Hiio explained.

Sanctions expert David Cortright of the Kroc Institute of Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, in the United States, said the map was “interesting and probably useful” but warned that “undercompliance” was a bigger problem than “overcompliance”.

“Companies are always looking for loopholes to be able to trade in some way and the targets are always changing names, companies reincorporating under different names, so it’s hard to track them,” he told AFP.

Cortright said the North Koreans are “masters” at dodging sanctions, using techniques such as setting up fake companies in China to channel goods and funds.


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