New Zealand last week announced its third round of sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine – but the Government has become more equivocal about plans for a wider autonomous sanctions regime

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has walked back a timeline for the development of autonomous sanctions legislation, after saying last month the Cabinet would discuss such a regime within weeks.

In early March, the Government announced it would pass a bespoke Russia sanctions bill under urgency, allowing it to take action against those involved in the invasion of Ukraine.

The move came after it twice killed off legislation which would have put in place a broader autonomous sanctions regime, allowing New Zealand to take action in other situations where the United Nations Security Council proved unable to act.

In late 2020, the Government removed a sanctions bill from the order paper, while it subsequently voted down a near-identical member’s bill from National foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee after it was drawn from the ballot last year.

Speaking against the bill last September, Mahuta said the legislation was unfit for purpose and any such plans needed further consideration.

“An autonomous sanctions regime would be an option of last resort and something to be used only after this full range of other options had been exhausted. It cannot be seen as a way of avoiding or an effective substitute for multilateral action; indeed, it should not be called upon by outsiders beyond New Zealand to strong arm our own interests.”

But in March, Mahuta said she would be “stewarding through” the approach to a broader autonomous sanctions bill in parallel to the targeted Russia sanctions.

“We undertook to take a broader approach, with human rights at its core but also favouring multilateralism, and also ensuring that our independent foreign policy stance could be considered within the creation of an autonomous sanctions bill … I’m hopeful that, in the next few weeks, Cabinet will be able to consider that approach.”

Nearly two months on from those comments, there have been no signs of such consideration taking place.

Brownlee: Russia sanctions ‘disappointing and ineffective’

A spokeswoman for Mahuta told Newsroom the minister “has said she would like to have a wider review of NZ’s human rights toolkit and as part of this consider where and how an autonomous sanctions regime would fit”.

“This process is currently being discussed with officials. Any process would seek to take into account public consultation as well as lessons learned from the Russia Sanctions Act.”

The current focus was implementing new sanctions in relation to Russia, the spokeswoman said.

The Government’s approach to sanctioning Russia has come in for some criticism, with Brownlee accusing it of a “disappointing and ineffective” approach lacking in speed.

“The Government should urgently introduce new sanctions that mirror actions taken by our traditional partner nations, so we can fully join united action against Russia’s invasion and human rights atrocities, instead of putting out press releases proclaiming actions that are disappointing,” he said earlier this month.

Work on a wider-ranging autonomous sanctions regime is likely to prove more polarising than the action against Russia, with some concerned about the effectiveness of sanctions as well as the pressure New Zealand could face from international partners to take action.

In an analysis of the decision to vote down Brownlee’s autonomous sanctions bill last year, law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts said it was “likely that the specific regime proposed would have achieved little more than political signalling (and some counter-productive signalling at that)”.

“In contrast, if passed, the bill would certainly have further complicated the regulatory compliance obligations of New Zealand exporters, importers and trade facilitators (e.g. banks, freight forwarders, international carriers and insurance companies), some of whom already struggle to conclude cross-border contracts as they are unsure whether their proposed transactions comply with New Zealand’s existing sanctions and the myriad of foreign autonomous sanctions that may also apply.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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