Opportunities and Challenges in the Spread of Targeted “Magnitsky” Sanctions Programs

By Adam Keith & Keian Razipour

Over the past year, the number of governments able to use targeted sanctions programs to help hold human rights abusers and corrupt actors to account has grown substantially. The spread of these “Magnitsky” sanctions is enabling partner governments to take coordinated, multilateral actions to respond to abuses and corrupt acts happening anywhere in the world – as they did perhaps most notably in March 2021, when the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the E.U. jointly sanctioned Chinese government officials responsible for atrocities against Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

This is a welcome development, and one that has created new opportunities for impact and new challenges in implementation. Beginning this week, Human Rights First is bringing together leading advocates, legislators, and government officials to explore those opportunities and challenges in a virtual conference that begins Wednesday, September 1, on Multilateralizing Global Magnitsky Sanctions.

The United States moved first to create this kind of sanctions program. Since the passage of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in 2016, the U.S. Global Magnitsky program has proven to be a powerful, bipartisan tool to respond to human rights abuse and corruption around the world. The United States government has used the program to block visas and freeze the assets of more than 330 of the most brutal human rights abusers and egregious corrupt actors in over 35 countries. Notably, the program has been used to sanction Saudi Arabian officials and entities involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; Myanmar military units and generals responsible for the Rohingya genocide; members of the Gupta family for their role in widespread corruption in South Africa; and an Israeli businessman involved in corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In many of these cases, Canada, the U.K., and the member states of the E.U. have been able to take parallel action using the targeted sanctions programs that they, too, have created. The coordinated March 2021 response to China’s abuses in Xinjiang was a milestone, representing the first time all four of these jurisdictions used their human rights-focused sanctions in concert to achieve a greater targeted impact. Different combinations of these jurisdictions have also used their programs to jointly sanction, for example, Russian officials and entities involved in abuses against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Guatemalan officials engaged in corruption. Australia, Japan, and New Zealand are considering creating similar sanctions programs that would allow them to add their voice and their diplomatic and financial clout to such efforts in the future.

There are clear benefits to a more harmonized and globalized approach to combating human rights abuse and corruption. When governments use targeted sanctions in tandem with each other, the stigma of the sanctions is stronger for reflecting a broader international consensus. The travel restrictions and asset freezes that are imposed have a greater impact, keeping corrupt money and abusive actors out of more of the world’s financial markets and providing more opportunities for enforcement action against the sanctioned party’s networks. The sanctions become harder to discredit based on ad hominem criticism of the sanctioning parties and their motives. In sum, the incentives for behavior change are potentially much higher.

But there is no guarantee that governments will consistently choose to pursue a multilateral approach, or that civil society groups will be able to navigate the increasingly complex landscape in order to advocate for such an approach. Human Rights First and our partners are working to assist civil society groups in understanding and engaging with targeted sanctions programs in a growing number of countries. Since 2017, Human Rights First has worked with more than 270 NGOs around the world to submit information and sanctions recommendations on nearly 500 perpetrators to the U.S. and, increasingly, other governments. In addition to listening to the recommendations of civil society, governments face challenges in developing an effective process to share information and coordinate action with each other in a timely manner.

At our virtual conference, beginning Wednesday, September 1, Human Rights First will bring together advocates, officials, and others to discuss these challenges. These include leading advocates for the adoption of Magnitsky-style sanctions; legislators advocating for their own countries to adopt Magnitsky legislation; civil society organizations that help coordinate and work with their peers to advocate for sanctions under these programs; and government officials implementing Magnitsky-style sanctions programs in the jurisdictions where these tools are already in place. The event will offer opportunities to discuss the importance of a multilateral approach to targeted sanctions, the challenges encountered in establishing and using such programs, and how civil society and governments can work together to chart new pathways to hold human rights abusers and corrupt actors accountable.



  • Adam Keith

Published on September 1, 2021


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