To Combat Human Trafficking, Use Magnitsky Sanctions

By Gita Howard

Human trafficking is a worldwide epidemic that implicates the U.S. and other jurisdictions on several levels. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that this abuse is “a global crisis…an enormous source of human suffering,” and an “affront to human rights.”

The Human Trafficking Legal Center has reported that an estimated $144 billion worth of goods made using forced labor enter the U.S. market every year. The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened human trafficking, leading to more people being enslaved.

Perpetrators of human trafficking – including forced labor and sex trafficking – remain largely unsanctioned across jurisdictions with Magnitsky-style sanctions regimes — the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the EU.

These governments are missing an opportunity to cut off human traffickers from their countries’ markets, which would be a significant blow to traffickers’ ability to profit from this abuse. The measures would also impose visa bans on sanctioned persons.

During Magnitsky Month, Human Rights First spotlighted this critical oversight and we continue to call for governments to act.

On November 17, Human Rights First hosted a panel on targeted sanctions and human trafficking that featured renowned anti-trafficking advocates Martina Vandenberg from the Human Trafficking Legal Center, Duncan Jepson from Liberty Shared, and John Cotton Richmond, former U.S. Ambassador to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The panelists explained how Magnitsky-style sanctions can provide meaningful accountability for survivors of a human rights abuse that is currently perpetrated with extreme levels of impunity.

Vandenberg stated, “In the face of impunity, in the face of no chance of a prosecution…we feel very strongly that Global Magnitsky sanctions are the next best option.” Vandenberg detailed the particular utility of these sanctions against foreign diplomats in the United States who traffic in domestic workers and profit off their forced labor, given the difficulty of prosecuting these diplomats in U.S. courts.

The panel also explored why human trafficking abuses are often not sanctioned, and how sanctions complement other accountability mechanisms. “The understanding of human trafficking as a human rights abuse is still developing,” Jepson said. “It is about convincing people that corporations are involved in gross violations of human rights, they aren’t simply bad employment terms.”

In fact, human trafficking almost always amounts to “serious human rights abuse” under the U.S. Global Magnitsky standard.

Richmond described how Magnitsky sanctions can fit within a broader anti-trafficking toolkit, as the individualized nature of Global Magnitsky sanctions can “fill an incredible gap.”  Other remedies might include penalties for states rated “tier three” in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report and U.S. Customs and Border Control withhold release orders.

Enacting targeted sanctions against human traffickers would offer sanctioning jurisdictions significant strategic advantages, given the abuse’s connections with other forms of corruption, transnational crime, terrorism, and criminally-infiltrated corporate supply chains.

Used with other tools, Magnitsky sanctions would encourage businesses to substantially restructure their business models to avoid perpetrating human trafficking. Facing a historic surge in human trafficking, governments must employ the full force of their diplomatic and foreign policy toolkits to address human trafficking, and that must include Magnitsky-style sanctions.

To this end, Human Rights First will continue working with civil society partners to urge the U.S. government to recognize that human trafficking nearly always amounts to a sanctionable “serious human rights abuse” and to impose targeted sanctions against individuals and entities engaged in human trafficking.

Civil society organizations with information on specific human trafficking cases that are interested in leveraging Global Magnitsky sanctions can contact Human Rights First to discuss potential recommendations. Please email [email protected] for more information.

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  • Gita Howard

Published on December 5, 2022

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