Getting the Right People on the Global Magnitsky Sanctions List: A How-To Guide for Civil Society

Last December, pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, President Trump issued Executive Order 13818, which declared that “the prevalence and severity of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States … threaten the stability of international political and economic systems,” and authorized the Treasury Secretary to impose sanctions against (among other possible targets) a current or former government official “who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in: (1) corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery; or (2) the transfer or the facilitation of the transfer of the proceeds of corruption.” Pursuant to this Executive Order, the Treasury Department imposed powerful economic sanctions against 37 entities and 15 individuals, including Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, and Artem Chaika, the son of Russia’s Prosecutor General.

This was big news, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, Trump doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a “human rights guy,” let alone a Russia hawk. Given that the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (unlike its predecessor, the 2009 Magnitsky Act) enables but does not require the imposition of sanctions, it was far from inevitable that the Trump Administration would make use of it. Perhaps just as newsworthy was where the specific names on the list came from: nearly half of those names were provided to the Administration by civil society organizations (CSOs) or by Congress (and in the latter case, it was likely CSO efforts that brought individual names to the attention of Congressional staffers).

The Global Magnitsky Act and EO 13818, then, seem to create promising opportunities for anticorruption CSOs to impose consequences on kleptocrats and their cronies. Because the process is so new, it’s not yet clear how it will develop, yet it is nevertheless useful to draw lessons from the first round of Global Magnitsky sanctions for how CSOs can be maximally effective in using this new tool. The Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission) hosted a workshop in early March 2018 to discuss this issue. I was fortunate enough to attend this gathering, and in this post I’ve attempted to distill a handful of key lessons that the participants discussion identified. I’ve framed the lessons as a “how-to” guide addressed to members of a hypothetical anticorruption CSO: that would like to take advantage of this powerful tool.

  • Step 1: Figure out who your targets should be. On paper, EO 13818 seems to sweep broadly—perhaps even more broadly than the Global Magnitsky Act itself. (For example, the original Act references acts of “significant corruption” whereas the executive order references acts of “corruption,” and the executive order also extends to those who have provided “indirect” assistance to those acts of corruption.) But it’s likely not feasible for you to convince the Administration to include every individual culpable in some act of gross corruption on the Global Magnitsky sanctions list. You will therefore have to make some strategic decisions about whom to target. The egregiousness of a potential target’s misconduct is obviously an important consideration, but the most corrupt actors might not always be the best targets. Additional factors to consider include the amount and quality of evidence available, the potential target’s role in a larger network, and the assets the potential targets have (the amounts and locations). Other relevant considerations might include whether sanctions would force the targets to change their behavior, the likelihood other CSOs would be willing and able to back your claims, and how sanctioning the targets would impact larger US foreign policy objectives.
  • Step 2: Gather evidence. Once you have decided which individuals to prioritize, you must gather evidence. The most important evidence concerns their misconduct, ideally gathered from multiple sources, including both documentary evidence and personal testimonies. You’ll need to be able to explain and document the details of the target’s role in the corruption scheme, and the more evidence you can provide, the better. After all, the number of persons tasked to verify allegations of corruption in connection with the Global Magnitsky is limited. (It might often be useful to coordinate with others in the field who have evidence you don’t.) Additionally, it’s important to gather basic identifying information on the potential target, including nationality, position in government, and date of birth (and, if possible, passport or national ID numbers), because there are often many officials with the same name.
  • Step 3: Find a geopolitical angle. Sanctions are an instrument of US foreign policy, but one that can create significant tensions with foreign governments. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rob Bershchinki remarked last January, regional bureaus in the State Department “tend to be skeptical of any actions that involve increasing friction in a bilateral diplomatic relationship, even when dealing with foreign governments with truly odious records.” So when suggesting names for the sanctions list, it helps to think “geopolitically”—outlining in clear terms why sanctioning specific individuals would further US foreign policy goals. Some questions to consider, when thinking about how to frame the case for targeted sanctions against particular individuals, include: What message would targeting the specific individual send in his or her home country? Would the sanction be seen as a complement or impediment to broader reform efforts? What might the potential blowback of sanction be on US diplomatic relations? Could individual sanctions be used in such a way so to bolster US diplomatic efforts? What leverage would the sanction, or threat of sanction, provide the US? Could the sanctions enhance regional security situation in some way?
  • Step 4: Submit names and evidence. Once you have a list of target names, credible evidence, and a strategy for how to present them to US officials, you can email the names to the Treasury Department or the State Department directly, and and, respectively. Alternatively, you can share names with State Department officials or Members of Congress. It’s important that specific facts provided to the US government also include any material that is even partially exculpatory, as failure to do so include such material, however minor, could potentially derail the case later on. The submitted names will typically be reviewed privately, and you often won’t know where the process stands, as the Treasury Department can’t reveal what individuals they’re investigating. So you shouldn’t necessarily conclude that Treasury rejected your suggested names if they’re not included in the next list of sanctioned individuals—it could be that these names are still in the pipeline, and perhaps are being cross-verified by other agencies. But if you want to get the names out in the open, either because you’re still collecting evidence or because you believe public shaming would be effective, you can try to convince the relevant Congressional committee to give one of your representatives an opportunity to testify at a Congressional hearing. (In addition to the added publicity, allegations made in the context of a committee hearing are shielded from potential defamation charges.)

2 thoughts on “Getting the Right People on the Global Magnitsky Sanctions List: A How-To Guide for Civil Society

  1. Thanks for sharing these insights Hilary on a potentially important corruption weapon.

    I’m hoping a donor will now fund the development of a more detailed global guide, that could easily be adapted to country context, and one that could be used by governments and CSOs alike. This is needed more than ever since other countries are passing similar Magnitsky laws.

    In my view the major missing strategic element in what you outlined is the need for a media and monitoring and reporting strategy and campaign. Garnering public support and getting the attention of journalists, anticorruption and human rights CSO’s is really the key to success.

  2. Pingback: Getting the Right People on the Global Magnitsky Sanctions List: A How-To Guide for Civil Society | Matthews' Blog

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