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Top challenges in complying with sanctions regulations

The sanctions environment has become a whole lot more challenging in recent months. It’s not just the war in Ukraine and the swingeing changes that have been made to sanctions regulations in light of the conflict. In the UK, the FCA has recently advertised its new reporting mechanism for sanctions breaches and deficiencies, as well as bolstering its sanctions supervisory and enforcement capabilities. Plus a big focus for the regulator in 2023 will be cracking down on the efficacy of screening solutions using their “new analytics-based tool” – so the testing of those systems is becoming tantamount. 

Against this backdrop, it’s only a matter of time before they begin to investigate and prosecute organisations and individuals for infringements.

The ever-growing list of sanctions - there are currently around 45 financial and trade sanctions programmes in operation in the European Union, not to mention UK specific sanctions and those implemented across the water in the United States – adds up to a highly complex sanctions environment and one that is very tricky for financial institutions to navigate. Here are some of the biggest challenges that organisations face today:

  • Conflicting regimes: of course, due to the global nature of business, financial institutions operate across multiple jurisdictions, which often means dealing with conflicting sanctions regimes. This increases the number and complexity of cases that need to be escalated and resolved by senior staff, stretching already limited resources.  
  • Compliance fatigue: as the war drags on, the ever growing sanctions increase the number of potential sanctions violations that need to be escalated and reviewed before discounting (false positives), adding to the workload of those managing such “alerts”. This is being felt across the industry and is a real issue and cause for concern at the moment as firms struggle to cope with the volume. There is a danger that staff dealing with low quality alerts experience compliance fatigue, increasing the risk of real violations being missed and increasing staff attrition. Measures such as screening tool optimisation, alert handling process improvements and a robust sanctions risk rating for clients can help alleviate the issue.
  • Inadequate screening systems and technology: legacy systems and processes lead to a lack of efficiency. Take real time screening – to allow payments to flow, financial institutions need it, but banks will struggle to implement it if they have ineffective technological platforms in place.
  • Unravelling complex structures: in order to comply with sanctions, you need to know who your customers are. Identifying who you need to screen, which includes beneficial owners, often requires an understanding of complicated organisation structures, not to mention how to apply sanctions rules on which entities and assets might need to be frozen/blocked.
  • Number of screening lists to be used: the dynamic nature of existing lists and introduction of new lists necessitates a near real-time update of lists and testing to ensure this is working optimally.  
  • Virtual currencies: sanctions obligations apply equally to transactions involving virtual currencies, requiring firms to understand how these are used and identify instances where further investigation is required to understand whether sanctioned individuals and entities are involved in a transaction.  
  • Over-zealous compliance: there is such a thing – some financial institutions apply excessive risk and can restrict or block access to financial systems. This can also impact human rights by locking out some individuals from traditional banking systems, who should be able to access banking services.
  • Staffing: financial institutions are struggling to recruit and retain senior level staff with appropriate sanctions skills and the experience to deal with an increasingly complex sanctions landscape.  

The sanctions landscape is constantly changing and evolving. And financial institutions really need to be able to understand sanctions, how they apply to them and the challenges they face in adhering to them. It’s only through keeping their eye on the ball that they’ll stay on the right side of regulators and avoid sanctions violations. 



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Luke Firmin

Luke Firmin

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30 Sep 2022


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