Shaming Without Naming
The limits of confidential U.S. visa sanctions for accountability
Visa sanctions have become an increasingly popular and, in some cases, quite effective tool in the U.S. government’s response to human rights abuse, corruption, and attacks on democracy. Unlike with the Global Magnitsky program or other financial sanctions, though, the U.S. government is often restricted by law from publicly naming the individuals on whom it imposes visa sanctions. Even when it uses visa sanctions tools that do not require confidentiality, it sometimes chooses nonetheless not to name names.
There is a long history of journalists expressing frustration and even mockery to U.S. officials who announce this kind of anonymous sanction, pressing to know if an announced action has “actually had any effect” or quipping sarcastically that “this will be a grand deterrent.” Human rights activists and members of Congress have also signaled doubt about the impact or significance of this kind of policy action. Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s use of these confidential visa bans has been growing, in a practice that may be constructive but requires much more scrutiny.
Confidential sanctions generally do much less to promote accountability for abuse and corruption than ones that publicly assign blame. They also make it impossible to evaluate the impact or the seriousness of U.S. policy efforts that rely on these tools or to understand how the U.S. government is enforcing the law that generally bans the entry of abusive or corrupt foreign government officials into the United States.
To address these shortcomings, Congress should ensure the State Department at least has the option to publicly identify the perpetrators it bans from entering the country on these grounds. When the State Department chooses not to name names, it should release aggregate information about whom it has sanctioned to improve oversight and scrutiny of how these tools are used. Greater transparency is needed to ensure that the growing use of this subset of U.S. sanctions tools makes an effective contribution to accountability for abuse and corruption.