It’s Time to Use Magnitsky Sanctions to Better Protect Marginalized Groups
When I first began working on Magnitsky sanctions, I was struck by something you don’t see every day among human rights activists – a sense of real hope.
Three years ago, I joined a small team at Human Rights First that was leading a global coalition of civil society groups, trying to make use of a relatively new tool for human rights accountability: Global Magnitsky sanctions.
In 2009, a Russian tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky was tortured and killed in a prison in Moscow, after he had uncovered a massive corruption scheme involving government officials. Advocates and congressional leaders sought accountability for Sergei’s death, and secured passage of a series of laws – including the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act – which inspired the creation of our sanctions work at Human Rights First.
Global Magnitsky sanctions can be imposed for a wide array of human rights abuses and corruption, anywhere in the world. The sanctions are targeted, meaning they can be used against specific individuals and entities involved in perpetrating abuses, ensuring the consequences of sanctions fall hardest on those most responsible.
My team at Human Rights First works on connecting government policymakers with advocates who document human rights abuses and corruption. We aim to provide officials with the information they need to take action, while also giving civil society the opportunity to influence the use of important tools in addressing these issues. And largely, this has worked.
Today, about one-third of the more than 500 U.S. Global Magnitsky sanctions have a basis in recommendations from our coalition. Other countries with similar Magnitsky sanctions laws like the UK, Canada, and the EU have also adopted this model, taking recommendations from our coalition partners and acting on them.
I often speak with advocates in foreign countries who have been documenting government abuses for decades. Many are unable to turn to international or regional human rights courts for accountability, and are deeply frustrated by how often other forms of advocacy do not seem to lead to tangible changes. I’ll never forget the optimism in their voices when those who have seen and done it all consider how Magnitsky sanctions could actually spark change.
However, at the same time, a second thing became obvious to me. Despite their impressive record, Global Magnitsky sanctions – one of the premier U.S. foreign policy tools for human rights accountability – had been almost totally silent when it came to abuses against certain marginalized groups.
Looking through every press release announcing hundreds of Magnitsky sanctions, there were detailed descriptions of the perpetrators who were sanctioned and the human rights abuses for which they were sanctioned; but when it came to identifying and recognizing the victims of those abuses, marginalized groups were almost nowhere to be found. There were only a handful of cases that mentioned women or children as victims. Only one case mentioned LGBTQIA+ people and none mentioned Indigenous people or people with disabilities.
These gaps stood out to me, in part because my understanding of the meaning of human rights has been shaped by the experiences of people belonging to these groups. Eleanor Roosevelt famously described human rights as beginning “in small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” And that was how I saw it.
Growing up, I heard stories from my grandmother’s life as an 11-year-old refugee during World War II, forced to flee from her home in Hungary as the fighting drew too near, never to return. Her stories echoed those I later heard from women and girls who had lived through more recent conflicts, while working with Women for Women International. Their lives were defined by poverty, war, violence, displacement, lack of education or healthcare, with the added burden of the discrimination they faced as women and laws that did not protect them. One woman summed up the dehumanizing impact these experiences had on her, simply saying, “I never believed that I have rights.”
But in my work, I’ve also heard stories of remarkable courage and determination to stand up for the human rights of marginalized groups. From a woman serving as a local council member in Afghanistan who fought to protect the women in her community, despite the hostility her actions provoked. The LGBTQ activists in Guyana who faced death threats for their work — and for even existing. The Filipino lawyer fighting for the rights of Indigenous peoples, who survived an attempted murder, but still continues his advocacy.
It’s no secret that marginalized groups are very often the targets of violence and repression – one of the early warning bells of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism. They are disproportionately impacted by conflict and poverty globally. They face increased barriers that prevent them from accessing justice. Governments cannot make meaningful progress in strengthening democracies, or advancing human rights, so long as they treat these like lesser issues.
While Magnitsky sanctions alone cannot solve all of these problems, I believe it’s vital that the United States and its partners use these tools more robustly in defense of marginalized groups. More regular sanctions on abusers who target especially vulnerable groups would send a message of solidarity and provide a measure of recognition and accountability that marginalized victims are often denied. They could be used to put pressure on foreign governments to pursue stalled reforms. They might even deter future abuses.
These kinds of oversights are not unique to sanctions. They show up in all the big and small places where human rights begin in our own lives and work. I hope that – whatever issue or challenge you’re working on – you ask yourself: Whose perspectives and voices have I not listened to? What issues am I failing to recognize and address? And what can I do to change that?
Amanda Strayer is the 2023 recipient of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area’s Emerging Leader Award.