The Trump administration significantly escalated its fight with the Turkish government over detained American pastor Andrew Brunson last week by taking the extraordinary step of sanctioning two members of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s cabinet. The Treasury Department announced the penalties against Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu just six days – warp speed, in the sanctions world – after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence vowed “consequences” and “significant sanctions” over the continued detention of a man Trump described as a “great Christian.”
Perhaps because it intended to move quickly, the administration sanctioned Gul and Soylu under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, an extremely powerful and flexible authority that enables the executive branch to sanction human rights violators and corrupt actors in any country. As I’ve written previously, many in the human rights community view the Trump administration’s energetic use of the Global Magnitsky Act as a singular positive in what has otherwise been a disastrous period for American leadership on human rights.
Imposing sanctions on ministerial-level foreign officials is a big deal. Wednesday’s measures against Gul and Soylu mark the first time that the Global Magnitsky Act has been used against such high-ranking sitting officials. That the sanctions were levied against cabinet ministers of a NATO ally makes them truly unprecedented.
But for anyone interested in maintaining the legitimacy — and thus the effectiveness — of the Global Magnitsky sanctions regime, this move was a step in the wrong direction.
The administration based its decision to sanction Gul and Soylu for their respective roles as “leader of an entity that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse,” according to the Treasury Department’s press release. But the only specific abuse mentioned in that public document is that the Turkish ministries of justice and interior are “organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson.”
The press release describes Brunson’s prolonged detention as unjust and unsupported by evidence, a view shared by most independent analysts. What it does not say, however, is that the administration based its sanctions on any other aspect of Turkey’s atrocious human rights record, which the State Department itself documented in its latest annual human rights report, issued in April.
Tens of Thousands Arrested, Purged
To briefly recap that record, Erdoğan, in response to a failed coup attempt in July 2016, initiated a far-reaching crackdown on virtually all facets of Turkish society. His government harnessed loosely worded terrorism laws and emergency powers to arrest tens of thousands of Turkish citizens, many of whom are reported to have been tortured in custody. Tens of thousands more civil servants, academics, and teachers have been purged from their jobs. More than 180 news outlets have been shuttered, and the Turkish government has been particularly aggressive in criminally prosecuting journalists on highly dubious grounds. Based on these and other factors, Freedom House labeled Turkey “not free” in its most recent global analysis of civil and political rights.
One can only speculate as to why the Trump administration neglected to highlight any of these pertinent facts in announcing human rights-related sanctions against Turkish officials, or why the announcement also omitted any reference to other American citizens detained in Turkey. Some have argued that the administration seeks to focus attention solely on the Brunson case, rather than on these other, related issues, as an explicit appeal to its domestic, evangelical Christian base.
The administration seems to have intended its sanctions against Gul and Soylu, which block their assets, bar American citizens and corporations from conducting transactions with them, and deny them the ability to travel to the U.S., as a point of leverage specific to the Brunson case. Financial asset freezes and visa restrictions are intended to compel foreign governments to alter their policies. In this case, the administration’s message seems clear: Release Brunson.
The problem with this approach is that the Trump administration may have set itself up for failure — or at least a weakening of the Global Magnitsky regime — over the longer term, even if the Turkish government succumbs to U.S. pressure and releases Brunson. Moreover, some analysts view his release as less likely following the imposition of sanctions.
If the administration arrives at a deal to effect Brunson’s release in exchange for lifting sanctions on the two Turkish officials, the implicit message will be that the Turkish ministries of justice and the interior have in some way improved their human rights records. Conversely, if the administration continues to impose Global Magnitsky sanctions after Brunson’s release, the U.S.-Turkey relationship may erode further, since the administration’s only public justification for its actions concerned Brunson’s detention.
Fuel for Conspiracy Theories
To be clear, securing Brunson’s release — and that of other unjustly detained Americans held in Turkey and elsewhere — is worth significant U.S. government effort. And the Trump administration has made something of a priority of gaining the release of Americans held overseas, from Aya Hijazi in Egypt, to Josh Holt in Venezuela, to three Americans previously held in North Korea.
But effecting the release of American prisoners held overseas is not the same thing as supporting human rights. Likewise, a foreign government’s decision to release an American held hostage has no inherent connection with that government’s approach to repressing its own citizens. One need look no further than the human rights records of the three countries just mentioned – Egypt, Venezuela, and North Korea — to recognize this fact.
As noted by Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the administration’s decision to focus Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on high-level Turkish officials based solely on Brunson’s case may also inadvertently play into conspiracy theories that the pastor is actually a spy, given the seemingly disproportionate focus on him vis-à-vis other Americans and U.S. Embassy employees detained in Turkey. Similarly, the action may well result in accusations of pro-Christian bias, given a perceived sense that the administration is concerned only about the well-being of a Christian pastor, and not the tens of thousands of non-Christians (including other Americans and U.S. Embassy workers) suffering under Erdoğan’s post-coup purge.
The administration’s ham-handed use of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions in the Brunson affair marks an unfortunate departure from the relative success that it has had to date in implementing this new sanctions regime. As of today, the U.S. government has imposed sanctions against a total of 78 individuals and entities under the act. These have included human rights abusers and corrupt actors in Burma, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Guatemala, Israel, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Serbia, South Sudan, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
In a model of how governmental efforts can be amplified and improved through open communication with civil society, officials at the Departments of State and Treasury have also welcomed the help of NGOs in identifying potentially worthy targets. Just last week, my organization, Human Rights First, and 10 other NGOs met with State and Treasury representatives to discuss our recommendations for future sanctions designations. During the meeting, non-governmental experts briefed their government counterparts on cases of alleged human rights violations and acts of corruption in 14 separate countries – Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burundi, Cambodia, the Central African Republic, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, Hungary, Malaysia, Russia, Sudan, Turkey and Vietnam.
The Global Magnitsky sanctions imposed last week differed in virtually every respect from those the administration has otherwise made to date. The president and vice president’s tweets threatening Turkey over Brunson’s captivity suggest that the administration’s decision to sanction the two Turkish officials was driven from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. While it’s impossible to know the extent to which political considerations drove what appears to have been a hasty action, circumstantial evidence hints as much.
One can hope that the sanctioning of Gul and Soylu will result in freedom for Andrew Brunson. What is slightly more certain is that the decision to use an innovative human rights tool to sanction these two officials will do little to impact growing repression in Turkey, and may in fact dent the legitimacy of the Global Magnitsky Act.