The rights of women: an international sanctions response
Suzanne Gallagher takes a closer look at the new sanctions targeting those responsible for the violent subjugation of women
International Women’s Day (IWD) has its roots in agitation and ideological aspiration. Its earliest manifestation was in 1908, when critical debate on female oppression and inequality in the workplace led to 15,000 marching through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Similar iterations of radical, feminist ideology swept across Europe in the years that followed, culminating in the 1917 strike by women textile workers in Russia for ‘Bread and Peace’. This moment in history marked the end of Tzarist Russia, and the beginning of the February Revolution. After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, one of the first acts of the provisional government was to grant women the right to vote, becoming the first major European nation to do so.
IWD has become a day for celebrating women and their achievements. The now mainstream UN day of observance is marked not only by social media campaigns, fundraising initiatives, and corporate events, but also by echoes of discontent. One of the most scathing manifestations of this is the Gender Pay Gap Bot Twitter account, which focuses on publishing gender pay gap statistics next to ‘companies cut-and-paste platitudes’ that have become central to IWD corporate media campaigns.
The 2023 sanctions response
This year saw the day take on another dimension. The US, EU and UK authorities marked the occasion with coordinated sanctions (or restrictive measures as they are known in EU parlance), adding individuals and entities to their sanctions lists who are said to be responsible for the violent repression and social oppression of women.
In the UK, prominent amongst those sanctioned is Seyyed Mohamed Saleh Hashemi Golpayegani. Golpayegani is head of the Headquarters for Enjoining Right and Forbidding Evil; an Iranian government agency responsible for determining and enforcing mandatory dress codes for women. In the statement of reasons accompanying his listing, the agency (which was also sanctioned) is said to be responsible for the use of unreasonable force against women deemed to be non-compliant. The US chose (amongst others) to target Iranian prison official Ali Chaharmahali. At one incarceration facility under his control (Evin Prison), female inmates were, according to the detail accompanying the announcement, frequently threatened with rape as a form of coercion. It is also said that the Evin Prison women’s health services are non-existent, with women denied access to medical care. In the EU, the new designations included Taliban officials said to be responsible for prohibiting women’s participation in higher education, issuing hijab decrees and creating gender segregated public spaces. The associated announcement says that these restrictions ‘deprive women of their right to education […] violating the principle of equal treatment between men and women.’ Another designation targets a commanding officer and a more junior police officer stationed at Moscow Police Station. These policemen are said to be responsible for the arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture of female anti-war protestors. Torture methods used by these officers include beating, suffocation, and physical and verbal abuse for a period of six hours. These designations were made under Regulation (EU) 2020/1998, the EU global human rights sanctions regime.
These are not the first designations where the accompanying press release and statement of reasons highlight the role of the individual in the persecution of women. In April 2011, an Iranian government official was designated for his role in extreme violence used during the crackdown against students and universities in 1999, 2002 and 2009. He is said to be responsible for ‘promoting aggression against women for their choice of clothing.’ In October 2022, the Iranian Morality Police was designated as an entity for its role in ‘engaging in and promoting violations of the right to liberty and security and the right to freedom of expression through their enforcement of mandatory dress codes for women, including the use of unreasonable force against individuals they deem to be non-compliant.’ A Pakistani cleric was designated in December 2022 under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations for his role in forced conversions and marriages of girls and women from religious minorities.
Neither is the imposition of sanctions on IWD the first-time time Western powers have marked an occasion or anniversary with sanctions. At the one-year anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar, the UK, the US, the EU, Albania, Australia, Canada, Korea, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland imposed further sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the military junta. On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, G-7 allies also imposed further sanctions.
We can expect to see similar designations focused on women’s rights in the coming years. In a new International Women and Girls Strategy covering the years 2023 to 2030, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has set out how it will ‘drive the conversation’ in what it calls a ‘major global campaign’. In doing so, the FCDO will make use of ‘UN and UK sanctions regimes, including working with international partners to take direct action against those responsible for’ tyranny and violence against women. The strategy goes on to say that it will also ‘look to international architecture to prosecute the most serious crimes, including the ICC, and support efforts to strengthen national mechanisms to improve justice for survivors […].’
When sanctions work
Many will see this as positive, with the FCDO identifying abuses and taking action. However, beyond driving the conversation as part of the major global campaign, it is unfortunately difficult to discern what exactly these sanctions will achieve. Sanctions work when they put political elites responsible for reprehensible conduct under pressure. In the case of sanctions introduced following the Russian invasion of Ukraine (by way of example) over the past 12 months, we have seen sanctions that target the nation state’s access to the global financial system, capital markets, military technology and energy markets. This is in sharp contrast with the designation of Muscovite police officers for their treatment of women over a period of six hours. One must ask: what is the tangible benefit these designations will bring in upholding and strengthening the rights of women? When the designated individuals are unlikely to have assets or other interests in the EU, can these sanctions ever prevent further violations and abuses?
Of course, sanctions cannot be assessed in isolation. They must be judged against government action more generally in supporting women’s advancement. The UK government has been seen to consistently cut funding of projects supporting women through the Department for International Development (DFID). In 2021, the UK government ended its annual aid commitment of 0.7 per cent gross national income, reducing it to 0.5 per cent. The reduction in this target followed years of budget cuts to key projects in the developing world that had a positive effect on women. In 2011, DFID committed funding of £308.6 million to reproductive health projects and a further £175.6 million to family planning projects. As of 2017, funding for both was nil. Women’s rights organisations around the world are chronically underfunded. Only 1 per cent of aid supporting gender equality went to women’s rights organisations in 2016-2017, despite governments around the world committing an extra $1 billion to gender equality initiatives globally.
Between 2002 and 2021, the rights of women in Afghanistan experienced a Spring awakening, with the 2003 constitution enshrining equality between the sexes. Those freedoms came to an abrupt end following the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the allied forces withdrawal from the land that is also known as the graveyard of empires. Soon after, the Taliban announced that women would not be allowed to work in high-ranking government posts. This announcement gave rise to women led demonstrations.
In January 2022, the UK government introduced a resettlement scheme for Afghan citizens, which is an effort to secure the safety of those most at risk from Taliban aggression. To date, this scheme has had a patchy record on protecting women. It was recently reported that the Home Office has refused to reconsider a decision that denied a female Afghan Judge permission to enter the UK. The woman in question had a successful career in the Afghan judiciary spanning two decades, during which she adjudicated cases involving crimes committed by members of the Taliban. The judge fled Afghanistan after an attack on her home in Kabul and the assassination of a number of former colleagues. This Home Office decision appears to be irreconcilable with the FCDO’s new strategy document. The case has been listed for a hearing at the Immigration Tribunal.
Foreign policy objectives
What is unclear is how we can assess whether a sanctions response to women’s rights violations is effective in improving women’s lives around the world. To what extent can targeting the Western economic interests of mid-level, and even senior, officials in states such as Afghanistan, Iran and Russia deter others from committing similar oppressive action? How will sanctions ever provide remedy to the women suffering at the hands of despots and tyrants? It is highly unlikely that the coordinated sanctions announced on IWD that ‘promote’ women’s rights will ever have a discernible impact on the lives of women affected by this violence and cruelty. At the time of writing, at least 12,000 individuals are on the UK sanctions list. The list is getting longer still with every passing year, whilst the associated foreign policy objectives appear to be moving further away and even more out of reach.
What is really going on?
Arguably, and accepting that they do represent a clear statement in support of women's rights, introducing these coordinated IWD sanctions in the absence of targets who are ever likely to be affected by them can legitimately be characterised as Western governments engaging in what is primarily an exercise in virtue signalling on women’s rights. This is performed in a manner akin to the corporate messaging we see on our Twitter and LinkedIn feeds every year on 8 March, ‘celebrating’ women’s achievements, but failing to accelerate progress towards gender parity. It may be argued that doing something is better than doing nothing and that the FCDO is, at least, raising awareness. What is true is women suffering violence, discrimination, lower pay, lack of access to education and inadequate healthcare need to be supported in finding the courage to take a stand against their oppressors, like the women of New York and Moscow who instigated a movement at the beginning of the 20th century.
Suzanne Gallagher is an associate at BCL Solicitors LLP