Friends Like These: U.S. Security Partners and Selectivity in the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program

U.S. Security Partners and Selectivity in the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program

To live up to its commitments to protect human rights, Human Rights First urges the U.S. government to address the serious abuses and corruption of its partners by using Global Magnitsky sanctions, among other policy tools.

This report includes five brief case studies on countries where such an approach would be appropriate: Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, India, Mexico, and the Philippines. In situations like these, the U.S. government’s ties to abusive or corrupt actors offer both a responsibility to take meaningful action and an opportunity to help deliver change.

After his predecessor’s embrace of dictators whom the United States had typically kept at arm’s length. President Biden’s claim that his administration would “put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy” was welcome. How he and his administration would handle the abuses and corruption of U.S. partners was always going to be the key test of this commitment; it is one that this and previous U.S. administrations have often failed to meet.

The last two administrations have had a new tool that expands the options for advocating for human rights and fighting corruption in any diplomatic relationship: the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 and the targeted sanctions program that implements it. Using these sanctions, the U.S. government can impose tangible consequences – asset freezes, visa bans, and bans on transacting with sanctioned parties, as well as the stigma the sanctions carry – on foreign officials and other individuals responsible for human rights abuse or corruption anywhere in the world.

Global Magnitsky sanctions are a unique tool in the foreign policy toolkit.

  • They make specific calls for accountability in particular cases, rather than generic ones that other governments can more easily sidestep.
  • They address the perennial bureaucratic concern that using other,less-targeted measures would be too sweeping a response to a partner’s human rights abuses.
  • They can be reinforced by other governments that, like the United States, have Magnitsky-style sanctions programs.
  • Unlike many other diplomatic tools, they are visible to outside observers, making it easier for civil society in both the affected country and the United States to evaluate the seriousness of U.S. advocacy and the partner’s response.
  • They both stigmatize the sanctioned party and keep them and their ill-gotten wealth out of the United States.

Nearly five years after its creation, the Global Magnitsky program has been used by the Trump and Biden administrations to address abuses and corruption in 40 countries. Human Rights First and other civil society groups are concerned, however, that Global Magnitsky sanctions have gone unused in many prominent situations where the party responsible for serious abuses or corruption is a U.S. partner. These omissions do not appear to be due to the U.S. government choosing other policy tools to confront its partners over their actions, but part of an all-too-common practice of the U.S. government failing to challenge abuses by its friends.

Of course, U.S. adversaries also commit human rights abuses and practice corruption. For example, the abuses committed in China’s genocidal campaign against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang; by Russian authorities in their brutal assault on Ukraine; and by the Iranian government against its own people, are vast and cry out for justice. Human Rights First and other civil society groups have sought targeted sanctions in those situations, and the U.S. government has often imposed them.

Sanctions against adversaries will be more credible, though, if tools like the Global Magnitsky program are also used with respect to the serious abuses and corruption of allies and partners. This does not require a posture of false equivalence: while not all U.S. partners are abusive or corrupt, many are – some to a shocking degree. Even established democracies face the risk of sliding into authoritarianism and instability if they fail to confront emerging abuse or corruption; they can reverse those trends if their friends help and press them to do so.

Sometimes at the prompting of civil society groups, both the Trump and Biden administrations have seen the value of using Global Magnitsky sanctions to press a U.S. partner to rein in corrupt or abusive actors. We estimate that 77 percent of those sanctioned under Global Magnitsky were sanctioned for abuses or corruption committed in countries that are not adversaries. Perhaps because the U.S. government has more influence with its friends than its enemies, these sanctions actions have been among the most directly impactful.

If not part of a broader and credible strategy, though, targeted sanctions can be drowned out by more consequential actions. For instance, President Biden’s July 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia and embrace of the country’s brutal crown prince – including by granting immunity from legal action seeking to hold him accountable for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder – have far outweighed the administration’s January 2021 decision to impose Global Magnitsky sanctions on an additional Saudi official responsible for that murder. Governments seeking to promote human rights must recognize that one action can gravely undermine the credibility and impact of another.

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Published on November 30, 2022

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