2024: Deepening sanctions focus on circumvention and new frontiers in enforcement

With over one thousand updates to the sanctions regimes in 2023, the sanctions’ “boardroom moment” and its implications were significant talking points amongst policymakers and industry leaders attending the UK Finance Year in Review Sanctions Conference on 6 December 2023.

In partnership with Deloitte, attendees considered the rapidly changing sanctions landscape and shared their thoughts on both 2023’s developments and the likely emerging themes for 2024.

Looking Back: A Year of Preparation, Collaboration and Counter-evasion

Throughout 2023, the development of the UK’s sanctions regime, from design to enforcement, brought about a new focus and method of planning. Attendees all spoke highly of the Oil Price Cap measure as a gold-standard for future efforts on alignment. Successful collaboration at all levels from its inception six months before launching in December 2022, produced a strong policy with consistent implementation across G7 allies.

Attendees shared how silos continued to erode between AML, Sanctions and Proliferation Finance and how touchpoints in areas such as export controls and trade sanctions stimulated further collaboration. The result has been areas of compliance engaging where they historically did not, signifying significant step changes in ‘business as usual’ to the Common High Priority Items list to support the fight against economic crime.

2023 saw immense focus on circumvention and evasion, with concerns addressed on listed entities and designated persons evading sanctions through legal arrangements and third countries. As we look to our strategic priorities for 2024, attendees took note of the themes of ownership and control provisions and greater emphases on alignment with international partners with intelligence sharing through guidance and updates.

Looking Ahead: Themes for 2024

In recent weeks three key themes have been consistent:

  1. New anti-circumvention measures. On the receiving end of sanctions are networks of intelligent individuals facilitating multi-billion-dollar markets evading Western measures. Following our 6 December conference, the European Union finalised its 12th package of sanctions targeting Russian diamond trades and oil-market sanctions evasion. Further, the US President, Joe Biden issued an Executive Order bringing financial service providers that facilitate Russian military-industrial trade sanctions evasion squarely into US authorities’ sights. Some speculate that further measures could come as soon as February 2024 to coincide with the second anniversary of Putin's invasion.
  2. Increased enforcement. Industry should expect the spotlight to increasingly move to civil and criminal enforcement as governments seek to deter non-compliance. This might especially be the case in the UK following the announcement of a new department, the Office for Trade Sanctions Implementation (OTSI), on 13 December 2023. OTSI is due to launch in the first half of 2024 and will hold responsibility for the enforcement of trade sanctions, working across Whitehall and with international partners to enhance intelligence and crack down on evasion with trade.

    We can be sure this new department will want to demonstrate its powers, especially at a time of increasing pressure on Western governments to prove that sanctions have teeth. During UK Finance’s 6 December conference, governments consistently stated their intention is not to catch firms out, but to strengthen their hand on the most egregious cases. Nevertheless, with over $5.5 billion issued in fines in 2023, industries must be aware of the risks and prepare accordingly.
  3. Refined guidance. Multiple court cases in late 2023 produced statements creating more questions than answers. Governments have been quick to provide comment but increasingly concede a need for enhanced guidance. Throughout UK Finance's conference delegates heard directly from HMG that changes in approach are coming. Those in the room welcomed this, however, hope that any refreshed strategy on guidance comes in time for the expected increase in cases reaching the courts and associated judgments throughout 2024.

Closing Thoughts

2023 represented the start of a long acclimatisation to a new world of compliance, international collaboration and efforts to counteract circumvention. Going into 2024, geopolitical stability continues to suffer, governments are making moves to counter circumvention and judiciaries are setting precedents when adjudicating sanctions cases.

Against this backdrop, 2024 will most likely see the realm of enforcement alongside strategies to counter circumvention. Critically, as governments increasingly look to trade as a target - and the involvement of third countries - we could expect more industries and governments to be grappling for a seat around the table as the landscape is shaped in a manner to affect economies for years to come.

Robust systems, controls, and compliance measures will be more crucial than ever. The most successful firms will be those who can take advantage of networks to exchange information and are able to adapt their approach to new measures. One thing remains clear: the use of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy is here to stay, but much remains un-chartered territory for those concerned - on all sides of the table.

We will see swiftly how the landscape changes further. UK Finance’s Sanctions Conference planned for April 2024 will, like previous conferences, see attendance from Government, financial services and other sectors to discuss progress and places for further collaboration - we hope to see you there.

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