Human Rights First CEO Argues for More Effective Use of Global Magnitsky Sanctions for Human Rights Accountability

Mike Breen testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the effectiveness of sanctions on curbing global human rights abuse

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Human Rights First President and CEO Mike Breen testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the effectiveness of the Global Magnitsky sanctions program and called for it to be reauthorized and strengthened in order to hold human rights violators and corrupt individuals accountable through targeted sanctions.

“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,” said Human Rights First President and CEO Mike Breen in his testimony. “These sanctions can help stigmatize and isolate individual actors within foreign governments while preserving the United States’ broader bilateral relationship with that country. They can help frustrate the work of criminal networks, and send a powerful signal 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.”

In his testimony, Breen cited several successful uses of these sanctions, highlighting the coordinated use of targeted sanctions by the United States and other governments with similar sanctions programs.

“Just this week, the EU, UK, and Canada joined the United States in imposing sanctions on specific officials and entities complicit in abuses against minorities in Xinjiang,” said Breen.  “This was the first time all four issued coordinated Global Magnitsky sanctions – a multilateral effort with the potential for even greater impact.”

Other successes include spurring or showing support for national accountability efforts in the Gambia, South Africa, and Latvia; hindering corrupt schemes in Cambodia and Democratic Republic of Congo; and signaling solidarity with marginalized groups such as women and LGBTQI persons in Yemen and Chechnya.

As to the local impact of these sanctions, Breen paraphrased the leader of a Central Asian NGO, speaking on the impact of U.S. sanctions against an oligarch there, “It showed kleptocrats that impunity was no longer a given. And it galvanized local civil society, bringing hope that accountability is possible for the abuses they have long fought.”

Breen cautioned, however, that selective application of sanctions can undermine accountability efforts. “The selective use of Global Magnitsky sanctions risks sending the wrong message – that accountability bends to power – as we cautioned when the U.S. failed to designate all those responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. But without the Global Magnitsky program, it is unlikely any of the 19 Saudi Arabian persons sanctioned for Mr. Khashoggi’s death would have faced serious consequences.”

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016 provides the United States with a valuable tool for combating corruption and human rights abuses.  Much of the program’s flexibility stems from Executive Order 13818, issued in 2017, which broadened the scope and reach of the sanctions program. As a result, the U.S. government can use this tool to respond to a broader range of abuses, with fewer 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.

In support of the Global Magnitsky program, Human Rights First has built a global network of 250 non-governmental organizations that provide the U.S. government information about sanctionable acts.  Of the 250 individuals and entities in 34 countries that the United States has sanctioned since the program’s inception in 2017, more than one-third had a basis in recommendations from Human Rights First and its network.

In his testimony, Breen made several recommendations for Congress as it looks to reauthorize the Global Magnitsky Act. He called on Congress to:

  • Codify the beneficial aspects of the 2017 executive order that broaden the scope of victims, abuses, and perpetrators who can be sanctioned.
  • Allow for sanctions against the immediate family members of individuals who can be designated for their abusive or corrupt acts, as family members often help hide assets or benefit from ill-gotten gains.
  • 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.
  • Continue to provide the funding necessary for the key executive branch agencies to implement the Global Magnitsky program, and ensure the Departments of State, the Treasury, and Justice have the resources needed to build on this important work.

Breen’s full testimony is available here.


Published on March 24, 2021


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