The Global Magnitsky Act Represents New Era of Smart Sanctions

By Michelle Smoler

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act is picking up steam. The law authorizes the administration to sanction foreign individuals for human rights violations and corruption. Human rights groups are recommending that the U.S. government investigate politicians, police chiefs, security service personnel, and businessmen from across the world for their involvement in torture, murder, extortion, or bribery, to name a few.

The United States has often used sanctions to incentivize policy change by foreign governments, but research and experience demonstrate the pitfalls sanctions often encounter as a foreign policy tool. In the past, broad-based economic sanctions have often increased, rather than reduced, incidents of repression and corruption, while also increasing poverty, unemployment, and creating poor health conditions for the population at large.

But the Global Magnitsky Act reflects a new age of smart, targeted sanctions specifically designed to avoid the pitfalls of more comprehensive sanctions regimes. More importantly, Global Magnitsky provides the United States with real leverage to hold foreign individuals accountable.

Smart sanctions do what more comprehensive sanctions cannot—they target elite supporters of a regime without harming the larger population. In the case of Global Magnitsky, they target specific individuals who have engaged in coercive and corrupt behavior.

These human rights violators are punished for their actions by being cut off from their assets, thus ending impunity and hitting them where it hurts—in their wallets. It also publicly outs them for their misdeeds. On a larger scale, U.S. policymakers hope that targeting elite offenders for sanctions will give reason for others to think twice before engaging in significant human rights violations or corruption.

A less publicized but equally important benefit of Global Magnitsky is that it creates formal channels for transnational cooperation on human rights advocacy. Individuals, NGOs, or other civil society organizations living under repressive regimes can express their concerns over human rights violations and seek recourse by bypassing their own government and connecting with the United States, engaging in a boomerang pattern of influence, which is essential to any human rights campaign.

Evidence shows that by and large, smart sanctions achieve their goals: they hold foreign individuals accountable for human rights violations and corruption, while minimizing humanitarian and human rights concerns. Whether they can motivate more large-scale policy concessions depends in part on the state’s coercive capacity from the get-go: some regimes are more susceptible than others to foreign or domestic pressures.

Democracies bear higher reputation costs for unpopular or detrimental policies and are therefore more likely to make concessions than non-democracies in response to sanctions of any kind. On the other hand, a recent study finds that states with more domestic institutional veto players are more likely to make concessions, as they are less capable of repressing opposition. As the U.S. government develops its economic statecraft, sanctions will need to become even smarter, implemented in ways that account for the different political economic landscapes of target states.

More importantly, however, Global Magnitsky cannot succeed without the full commitment of the U.S. government to promoting human rights abroad—and this includes President Trump, whose praise for autocratic leaders, and embrace of extremist ideals has already weakened our nation’s credibility. If Global Magnitsky and U.S.-based human rights advocacy is to have any chance at making a real impact, we must show the international community that we are truly committed to the values that we espouse.

The Global Magnitsky Act should not be the last word for our country in promoting human rights, but part of an ongoing conversation. In the long term, we must continue to develop our leadership and influence abroad, as well as build new strategies that match the diverse political approaches of foreign leaders.

In the short term, the administration needs to fill critical vacancies in the State Department, so that the United States can reinvigorate its relationships with foreign political actors who are our partners in promoting an effective international human rights regime. If President Trump intends to keep his promise of “robust and thorough enforcement” of the Global Magnitsky Act, he must support both the letter and spirit of the law, which means rejecting strongmen leaders and condemning extremist attitudes and activities that endanger human rights at home in the United States.


Published on September 20, 2017


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