Targeting Leaders Who Rob and Repress

Sergei Magnitsky

​Sergei Magnitsky

By Mark P. Lagon

This piece was originally published by Freedom House.

The United States has the chance to make greater use of a tool that has held foreign officials to account for flagrant corruption and human rights abuses. Complicated relationships with autocracies like China and Iran highlight the need to have it readily available.

That tool is targeted sanctions, refined to squeeze culpable officials and minimize collateral damage to innocent people and businesses. Congress now has an opportunity to deploy them on a larger, more effective scale to promote fundamental human rights.

The Magnitsky Act of 2012, named for a Russian lawyer who was mistreated and murdered in prison for daring to call attention to high-level corruption, allowed the United States to block Russians responsible for corruption and rights abuses from traveling to this country or parking their ill-gotten gains in U.S. financial institutions. The law succeeded in getting Russian authorities’ attention without harming the welfare of Russian citizens.

The proposed Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act—introduced by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ) and Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Jim McGovern (D-MA)—would apply to corrupt or abusive officials anywhere in the world. It allows the executive branch, in consultation with Congress, to decide which officials to target. This would doubly dissuade the administration from setting basic values aside in favor of ostensible strategic and commercial interests with illiberal governments—first through the embarrassment of not using the tool, and second through Congress’s ability to nominate worthy targets.

Three cases dramatically demonstrate how useful Global Magnitsky could be. The negotiation of the recent Iranian nuclear accord means that the days of comprehensive sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table are numbered. Yet heinous human rights abuses in that country persist: a spiking rate of executions since the reputedly reformist Hassan Rouhani became president, secret police–style monitoring of civil society and internet usage, and persecution of numerous faith groups. Global Magnitsky would allow sanctions that target the worst offenders in the government and ensure that human rights are not forsaken for the goal of curbing nuclear proliferation.

The United States has been unwilling to apply blanket sanctions for China’s human rights abuses since the country gained permanent most-favored nation trade status in 2001. Yet President Xi Jinping has accelerated repression and the centralization of power in his own hands, as documented by Freedom House. China mocked the United States by detaining dozens of human rights lawyers immediately following the June Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

China’s leaders previously provided for some rights on paper but flouted them in practice. Xi now seeks onerous legislation on nongovernmental organizations, internet communication, and counterterrorism that would further erode even the veneer of legal rights. Moreover, China is rife with corruption, not just among the political enemies Xi is arbitrarily punishing, but also in the current party leadership. A Global Magnitsky law could highlight the officials most responsible for crackdowns, and pinch them where it hurts—international travel and a place to hide their tainted wealth.

But Global Magnitsky would not be limited to notorious autocracies. It could also apply to other countries where the United States has major commercial and financial interests, but where the rule of law has gone awry. Argentina is such a case. Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment on January 18. He died the day before he was to formally accuse President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of negotiating with Iran to allow perpetrators of a 1994 Buenos Aires terrorist attack that killed 85 people to go unpunished.

Evidence of corruption is meanwhile building against Kirchner’s administration, from the vice president’s alleged use of illicit means to gain personal wealth, to allegations that the former security minister and current ambassador to the Organization of American States, Nilda Garré, maintained U.S. bank accounts containing tens of millions of dollars. A Global Magnitsky law would allow Washington to freeze assets and place visa bans on corrupt Argentine officials and help slow the country’s backsliding on democracy, without harm to average Argentines.

Without a Global Magnitsky law, some notoriously lawless, abusive leaders remain off the hook—as in Iran and China—and some festering cases of impunity receive little attention—as in Argentina. Nimble, targeted sanctions would not only serve American values but advance American interests by spurring change and demonstrating support for those being robbed and repressed.

Mark P. Lagon is President of Freedom House. 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.