In a landmark move towards accountability for human rights abuses, four governments imposed sanctions last month on Chinese officials for abuses against minorities in Xinjiang. This action by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union – coordinated under the U.S. Global Magnitsky sanctions program and comparable sanctions authorities for the first time – marked an important milestone in the use of targeted human rights and anti-corruption sanctions to advance common foreign policy goals.

Faced with alarming global trends in repression and corruption, the Biden administration’s commitments to strengthening democracies, protecting human rights, and advancing an active anti-corruption agenda could not be more timely. Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive strategy, one that draws on all the tools of diplomacy and foreign policy. Targeted sanctions, in particular the Global Magnitsky program, are a valuable addition to that toolkit. As Congress turns to reauthorizing the U.S. Global Magnitsky program and more countries look to adopt similar sanctions programs, this is an important opportunity to take stock of how these tools have been used, what their impact has been, and how they can be improved.

The Effectiveness of the U.S. Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program

Global Magnitsky sanctions can help provide a measure of accountability to the world’s worst human rights violators and corrupt actors, by exacting personal and financial repercussions for their actions. These sanctions can help stigmatize and isolate individual actors within foreign governments, while preserving the United States’ broader bilateral relationships with those countries. They can help frustrate the work of criminal networks, and send powerful signals of solidarity with journalists, human rights defenders, and others at risk for their work. They can send a message to foreign actors that there is a price to pay for violating international norms and obligations, even if local authorities fail to take action. Importantly, they can help ensure that it is the perpetrators themselves who pay that price, not innocent people who too often suffer from the humanitarian and economic fallout of comprehensive sanctions. And targeted sanctions can express public abhorrence at shocking acts, by identifying those responsible and ensuring that they cannot enter the United States or take advantage of the U.S. financial system.

Since 2017, Human Rights First has built a global network of more than 250 human rights and anti-corruption NGOs that brings information about sanctionable acts to the U.S. government. Our coalition members fight for justice on a wide range of abuses, including religious persecution, attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, human trafficking, gender-based violence, genocide and other mass atrocities, and corruption. To date, we have helped civil society groups submit case files to the Treasury and State Departments that document human rights abuses and corruption by more than 400 individuals or entities, including dictators, kleptocrats, security forces, oligarchs, gangs, militias, and more.

Since the passage of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in 2016 and the issuance of Executive Order 13818 in December 2017, the U.S. Global Magnitsky program has been used to sanction 250 individuals and entities, spanning 34 countries on four continents. While the U.S. government has its own sources of information, more than one-third of these designations have a basis in recommendations from Human Rights First’s coalition partners.

Although the frequent designation of human rights abusers and corrupt actors demonstrates the tool’s usefulness, even a well-targeted and responsive sanctions program is not a panacea for addressing these challenges. The impact of any one sanctions designation is difficult to measure, especially when the tool is used as part of a more comprehensive strategy to protect human rights and the rule of law.

Moreover, there are some situations in which the U.S. government has not used these tools, despite credible reports of large-scale corruption or serious abuses. Their selective use risks sending the wrong message – that accountability bends to power – as Human Rights First and others cautioned when the U.S. failed to designate the Saudi Crown Prince for his role in ordering the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. But were it not for the Global Magnitsky program, it is unlikely any of the 19 Saudi persons who were sanctioned for Mr. Khashoggi’s death would have faced serious consequences.

Despite these challenges, Global Magnitsky sanctions can contribute to an effective U.S. foreign policy in a number of ways.

First, sanctions under this program have helped reinforce and show support for national efforts to provide accountability. These include the Gambia’s ongoing efforts to investigate abuses and recover stolen assets linked to the country’s former president, whom the United States sanctioned in 2017; and South Africa’s investigation of the corrupt capture of state authorities by members of an influential family, several of whom the United States sanctioned in 2019. In some instances, a Global Magnitsky designation has directly spurred national action. Days after the United States sanctioned a corrupt Latvian official in 2019, for example, national authorities passed legislation ending the official’s control over a major commercial port, and he has since been convicted of corruption.

Second, Global Magnitsky sanctions have enabled the United States and its partners to respond more precisely and forcefully to grave international crimes. As discussed above, the multilateral effort to impose sanctions on specific officials and a commercial entity complicit in abuses against minorities in China’s Xinjiang region has the potential for even greater impact than if these four governments had acted independently.

Third, sanctions under this program have helped frustrate or hinder large-scale corrupt schemes with serious implications for good governance and environmental protections. The United States sanctioned Israeli businessman Dan Gertler in 2017 for his role in corrupt mining and oil deals that had diverted more than $1 billion in public assets from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After the designations against him and 28 commercial entities associated with him, Gertler reportedly undertook a number of efforts to try circumventing the sanctions that constricted his business empire, culminating in a request for a Treasury Department license that would effectively end the sanctions. That license was granted in January under circumstances that remain unclear, but it was revoked in March by the new administration. The United States has also targeted Cambodian businessman Try Pheap and 11 associated commercial entities, citing his alleged involvement in illegal logging; civil society groups report that since these sanctions were issued, he is no longer the kingpin of the illegal logging industry in Cambodia.

Fourth, Global Magnitsky sanctions have helped signal solidarity and support for marginalized or vulnerable groups. In December, individuals involved in arbitrarily arresting, detaining, and raping politically active women in Yemen were sanctioned. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was also sanctioned in part for kidnapping, torturing, and killing LGBTQI persons. These sanctions add weight and consequences to U.S. statements of condemnation for these heinous acts.                                                                                                    

Strengthening the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act Through Reauthorization

The United States has this valuable sanctions tool today because of the broad, bipartisan support for combatting corruption and human rights abuses that Congress expressed through the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016. In turn, much of the program’s flexibility stems from the 2017 Executive Order that significantly and beneficially broadened the scope and reach of the program beyond what the Act provided. As a result, the U.S. government can use this tool to respond to a broader range of abuses, without constraints on the types of perpetrators or class of victims, and with the flexibility to target individuals based on the abuses committed by groups they oversee.

Strengthening the Global Magnitsky program begins with the permanent reauthorization of the Global Magnitsky Act. Reauthorization provides an opportunity to codify and make permanent the beneficial aspects of the 2017 Executive Order. That would emphasize to the new and future administrations that Congress expects the executive branch to continue to be a leader in holding corrupt actors and human rights abusers to account. It would send a clear signal to other governments that have established or are considering similar targeted sanctions programs that the United States will remain a partner in this work. And it would renew the unique oversight provision that allows Congress to formally request the executive branch’s assessment of whether a person has committed sanctionable acts.

More specifically, Congress should adopt the following updates to the law:

First, Congress should codify the aspects of the executive order that broaden the scope of victims, abuses, and perpetrators who can be sanctioned. This includes:

  • Removing the standard that victims must be, in effect, human rights defenders or whistleblowers. All victims, regardless of the reason for which they were targeted, should be equally protected.
  • Broadening the scope of covered human rights abuses to include single incidents of abuse, abuses committed by non-state actors or in a private capacity, and abuses committed outside the perpetrator’s home country.
  • Allowing sanctions based on an individual’s status as a leader of an abusive or corrupt organization, to ensure that leaders cannot evade responsibility for acts committed by those they oversee.

Second, in line with the practice of several other sanctions programs, Congress should extend the scope of the Global Magnitsky program to include the immediate family members of individuals who can be designated for their abusive or corrupt acts. In our work helping NGOs document patterns of human rights abuses and corruption, we often see that family members help perpetrators hide assets or benefit from ill-gotten gains. Extending sanctions to family members will appropriately increase the effect of a sanctions designation and make it more difficult to shield the benefits of sanctionable acts.

Third, Congress should clearly express its view that the executive branch should continue and expand upon its routine coordination with civil society and foreign government partners in exercising its Global Magnitsky authorities. Regular information sharing and coordinated decision-making – especially among the growing number of governments that have Magnitsky-style sanctions – can send a more powerful signal and better isolate bad actors from the global financial system.

Through Human Rights First’s coalition, many brave activists and human rights defenders around the world have shared their perspectives on the value of Global Magnitsky sanctions and the contributions the program has made to their work fighting human rights abuses and corruption in their own countries. They affirm what we already know: the impact of sanctions spreads far beyond those designated. After the U.S. sanctioned an oligarch in Central Asia for corruption, for example, a local NGO told us the designation was “a real game-changer” for the whole region. They said it sent a very strong signal to kleptocrats that their actions could have serious consequences. At a time when their own governments have turned a blind eye, the case has galvanized local civil society actors and brought new hope that accountability is possible for the abuses they have long been fighting.

As the United States seeks to advance human rights and anti-corruption efforts around the world, strengthening the Global Magnitsky sanctions program – and ensuring it is used to hold both friends and foes to the same standards – will send an important message about its commitment to those working to protect human rights and end corruption.

This piece is adapted from testimony the author gave before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on March 24, 2021. Additional recommendations for how Congress and the executive branch could improve upon implementation of the program can be found in Human Rights First’s report, Walking the Talk: 2021 Blueprints for a Human Rights-Centered U.S. Foreign Policy.

Image: Protestors hold posters during an anti-corruption rally in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on December 18, 2019. On December 9, 2020, the U.S. Treasury department sanctioned Raimbek Matraimov, a former Deputy of the Kyrgyz Customs Service, under the Global Magnitsky Act. Treasury alleges that Matraimov was involved in a customs scheme where at least USD 700 million was laundered from the Kyrgyz Republic. (Photo by VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images).