While at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum a few weeks ago, Belarusian politician and activist Ambassador Andrei Sannikov told me, after a talk I gave on the role of sanctions in targeting human rights violators and corrupt actors, that he believes he was released from prison in Belarus because of European sanctions. Sannikov, who was a presidential candidate in Belarus’s 2010 elections, had been imprisoned for peacefully protesting at a demonstration following the elections. He was pardoned and released, he believes, due to sanctions.
At a separate panel I moderated at the Forum, Bill Browder, Chairman of the Global Magnitsky Campaign and architect of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, explained that when he took on the fight for justice for the torture and death of his lawyer, Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, sanctions were the obvious tool. His argument was that countries could never agree, when asked, to wanting “murderers and torturers” to travel to their countries and access their financial systems. By deploying this tool, the behavior of human rights abusers and corrupt actors would not only be publicly exposed, but they would be isolated from the international financial community and unable to travel to their most desired locations.
To further deter human rights abuses, release prisoners of conscience, fight corruption and support basic human rights globally, Magnitsky sanctions need to be further multi-lateralized. The consensus of the panel was that we need to further encourage countries who have Magnitsky legislation to implement sanctions under them, and push those countries that don’t have similar legislation to pass it.
In the United States, the use of targeted financial measures to isolate human rights violators, those engaged in corruption, or those who undermine democracy is not a new concept. The United States and the international community have used sanctions to target human rights abusers in Syria, Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere for over a decade.
What is new, however, is the increasing frequency of sanctions used to target those who undermine human rights, corruption, and democracy, and the growing global perspective that those who do, should not have access to the international financial system or enjoy the benefits of international travel. In the United States, these sanctions have not spared any offending country. Those that have been targeted are based around the globe and in countries with which the United States works — including in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ukraine, and numerous others. This increasing frequency can be directly attributed to the passing of the Global Magnitsky Act in 2015, and the Trump Administration’s willingness to use it.
And they can work. Take, for example, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s imposition of Magnitsky sanctions against the Turkish Justice and Interior Ministers for the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson last August. The sanctions were removed only three months later once they had achieved their goal and Pastor Brunson was released.
In March of this year, Under Secretary for the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker underscored the importance of financial tools as a “central element of the U.S. government’s broader efforts to pressure authoritarian regimes and impose costs on regime insiders who exploit their official positions to commit human rights abuses and engage in illicit activities.” She praised the Global Magnitsky sanctions as “one of the most significant additions to our toolkit” and highlighted that since January 2017, the U.S. Treasury has “sanctioned over 500 individuals and entities with a human rights- or corruption-related nexus.”
Similar legislation has been passed elsewhere including in the United Kingdom, Canada, Holland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, but action taken under these new laws has been limited. A number of other countries in Europe and elsewhere have Magnitsky Acts on deck.
The Dutch have proposed similar legislation for the EU, and as Sjoerd Sjoerdsma — a Dutch parliamentarian leading this effort — told me at the Forum, the effort has not been without its difficulties. There are concerns that Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, allegedly has close ties to President Putin, will block the effort. The EU requires consensus to pass sanctions-related legislation and so one negative vote could derail efforts.
The United States government together with the non-profit and human rights organizations fighting for these sanctions must take the lead in further pressuring other countries to adopt Magnitsky legislation and to further the mission in imposing targeted financial measures against human rights abusers and corrupt actors. As with any sanctions, targeted financial measures unleash market forces and inevitably require global financial institutions and businesses to share a burden of this social responsibility, further underscoring the potency of this tool.
If Ambassador Sannikov or Pastor Brunson can be released from political detention because of sanctions, then many more could share a similar fate.
Hagar Hajjar Chemali is CEO of Greenwich Media Strategies. She was former U.S. Treasury Spokesperson for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, former Spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and former Director for Syria and Lebanon at the National Security Council.