The EU on Monday took on powers to punish human rights abusers anywhere in the world, though the new sanctions regime would only take effect with unanimous approval by member states.
Foreign ministers approved the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which would be used in cases such as torture, slavery or systematic sexual violence.
The new framework would allow the EU to identify rights abusers and freeze their assets in Europe and ban them from travelling to the bloc.
But these must be “serious violations” and the final decision is left to the discretion of member states.
The EU could already impose penalties for human rights violations, but it is usually done within sanctions frameworks linked to specific countries, conflicts or crises.
It also has three specific regimes to sanction the use of chemical weapons, cyber-attacks and terrorism.
Eight close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused by the EU of being involved in the poisoning in Russia of opponent Alexei Navalny, were sanctioned on October 15 under the chemical weapons regime.
Their names were included in a list along with Syrians found guilty of similar offences.
The new human rights measures have been compared to the US Magnitsky Act, which was passed in 2012 after the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian jail in 2009.
Washington has used the act to slap tough sanctions on dozens of senior Russian officials, blocking them from visiting the United States or affecting their finances.
Other “Magnitsky Acts” have been passed in Britain, Canada and the three Baltic states.
In the EU, member states limited the initial ambitions of the bloc’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell, pushing for unanimous approval of any decision.
“The rule that has prevailed for a number of years with regard to the adoption of sanctions is the practice of unanimity. There is no change from this practice,” the representatives of the member states said.
Lithuanian Minister Linas Linkevicius pointed out that the EU measures were not as extensive as the US Magnitsky Act.
“We hope that this new regime can in the future be expanded to include acts of corruption,” he said.
In a statement before the start of the meeting, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the new framework could be considered a “warning” to Turkey.
The EU has accused Turkey of backsliding on democratic standards and human rights, saying a crackdown launched after a coup attempt in 2016 was having a “profound and devastating impact”.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Monday welcomed the EU’s new initiative.
“Those who torture or are responsible for human trafficking should no longer be able to shop in Europe without worry in the future,” he said.