Why (and How) the US Should Use “Sanctions Money” to Help Victims of Corruption 

Individually-targeted sanctions pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) have been used to hold individuals responsible for acts of grand corruption and human rights abuse in places like Russia and the DRC (explained here and here). Yet more can and should be done to compensate the victims of those same crimes. Advocates should push the US to use the compensatory mechanisms of other US sanctions regimes to strengthen the power of the GMA to compensate victims.

GMA sanctions, like other individually-targeted sanctions, are administered by a division of the US Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). When an individual is placed on the US sanctions list—known as the “specially designated nationals” (SDN) list)—that individual’s US assets are frozen in an interest-bearing account until either the individual is removed from the SDN list or the assets are seized. In the interim, any US-dollar denominated transaction with those accounts is blocked. Moreover, any person subject to US jurisdiction who does business with any individual on the SDN list can be hit with a steep civil fines for every transaction with the blocked assets, which can cumulatively run into the millions, sometimes billions, of dollars.

Those two pots of money—the frozen assets of the individuals on the SDN list, and the fines imposed on those who violate the sanctions imposed on those SDNs—could and should be used to compensate the individuals victimized by the corruption or other wrongful conduct of those SDNs. Here’s how these approaches might work in the US context, given precedent of other sanctions regimes:

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Getting People Off the Sanctions List: A Process that Doesn’t Support the Policy

Individually-targeted “smart sanctions”—not to be confused with country-wide sanctions, such as trade or arms embargoes—are garnering increased attention as a potentially powerful tool in the anticorruption toolkit, particularly in the United States. Such sanctions typically prohibit persons or entities on the list of those under sanction (known in the U.S. as the Specially Designated and Blocked Person (SDN) list) from accessing the sanctioning country’s financial system. They can also impose travel bans and/or prohibit third parties subject to the sanctioning country’s jurisdiction from doing business with the targeted individuals. These individually-targeted sanctions, particularly the asset freezes, are a powerful instrument, and may be an especially effective deterrent in the context of venal crimes like corruption, given that those motivated principally by greed might also be more sensitive to severe financial penalties. (According to a 2016 study by the US State Department, a sanctioned or associated company loses, on average, over half of its asset value and one-third of its employees and operating revenues.) While the United States had previously used individually-targeted asset freezes to punish individuals responsible for acts of public corruption in places like Venezuela (pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 13692), Syria (pursuant to EO 13460), and Zimbabwe (pursuant to EO 13469), the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) has made individually-targeted asset freezes a more prominent piece of the US anticorruption arsenal. Pursuant to this Act, last December President Trump authorized sanctions against 15 individuals and 37 entities for human rights abuses and acts of grand corruption; in June, the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) added two more entities and five more individuals to the list.

In the months since OFAC released the first tranche of GMA names, there has been extensive discussion about how civil society organizations (CSOs) can add more names to the Global Magnitsky list. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rob Berschinski, for example, is spearheading efforts through Human Rights First to coordinate CSOs endeavouring to submit names for consideration, while the Helsinki Commission organized a special “how-to” event for CSOs to help them be more effective in lobbying to add names to the list.

Yet for all this attention on how to get names on to the GMA list, little ink has been spilled addressing the question of how sanctioned individuals might get off that list. It’s not surprising that CSOs would not devote their scarce resources to getting individuals who have engaged in acts of grand corruption off of a sanctions list. Yet the de-listing issue is important—even in contexts where it’s unlikely that a name would be added to the list erroneously. The main reason has to do with incentives. As the US Treasury Department acknowledges, the “ultimate goal with sanctions is not to punish, but to bring about a positive change in behavior of illicit actors.” And it is the prospect of getting off the sanctions list that can encourage bad actors to change their behavior and/or to cooperate with the US government investigations into wrongdoing. Continue reading

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.

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Unfriended: Should Facebook be Required to Enforce US Sanctions Against its Users?

Late last year, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic leader of the Chechen Republic. The social media giant claimed that it had a “legal obligation” to disable Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts because of new sanctions imposed by the United States government under the Magnitsky Act. Among other things, Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the assassination of a political opponent, personally torturing another, and leading a violent purge of gay men. He’s also an active social media user: four million people followed his Facebook and Instagram profiles, and 400,000 continue to follow him on Twitter. Kadyrov had become famous for posting videos of himself wrestling a crocodile, praising Russian President Vladmir Putin, and—perhaps ironically—mocking what he saw as the ineffectiveness of American sanctions.

As many journalists noticed, Facebook hasn’t disabled the accounts of other sanctioned individuals, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. Facebook explained this seeming inconsistency with an unhelpful truism that it “operate[s] under the constraints of US laws, which vary by circumstance.” Its statements have led observers to speculate that Facebook is using the sanctions as a pretextual reason to cut off a user it already disliked, or that it’s “picking and choosing compliance” in an attempt to please the government. Although those explanations seem plausible at first glance, a careful look at the relevant laws suggests an even simpler (albeit more mundane) one: Facebook may actually be correct that it had a legal obligation to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts but not those of others targeted by American sanctions.

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Guest Post: Trump’s Pledge To Enforce the Global Magnitsky Act–A Skeptical View

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a research expert with the Free Russia Foundation, contributes today’s guest post:

Earlier this month the White House sent a letter to Congress pledging a commitment to the “robust and thorough enforcement” of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA). The GMA, which grew out of a similar 2012 law that focused only on Russia, allows the executive branch to impose certain sanctions—including visa bans and freezing of U.S. assets—on any foreign citizen who commits gross human rights violations or who retaliates against whistleblowers who expose corruption. After Trump won the election, many feared that his administration would shelve meaningful enforcement of the GMA. (After all, the Obama Administration had also been reluctant to implement the original Magnitsky Act aggressively, and did so only under pressure from Congress.) In light of those low expectations, the White House’s statement was taken by many as an encouraging sign.

But many activists and NGOs fighting corruption, in Putin’s Russia and elsewhere, remain rightly skeptical. After all, Trump’s praise and upbeat rhetoric about corrupt authoritarian leaders—not only Putin, but President Erdogan or Turkey and President Duterte of the Philippines—naturally call into question the Administration’s seriousness about aggressive GMA enforcement. Consider further the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence coming out of Chechnya that its president Ramzan Kadyrov has authorized massive abuses against the LGBT community and opened what is amounting to prisons for gays, there are no signs that the Trump Administration is considering adding Kadyrov to any open sanctions lists, despite not only recent events, but his long track record of corruption and human rights abuses.

Moreover, the White House’s statement in support of the GMA might be an attempt to create the appearance of taking a firm stand against corruption and human rights abuses, to diminish political momentum for more consequential actions. Specifically in regard to Russia, the latest statement about the GMA should also be understood in the context of the broader scandal regarding the Trump team’s ties to Russia. This scandal has, if anything, intensified anti-Russian sentiment in Congress. Not only have leading Senators and Representatives come out in strong support of sustaining existing sanctions against Russia, but there are now a half-dozen initiatives under consideration in Congress that would both codify and expand these sanctions. In such context, it might actually be useful to Trump (and arguably his Russian friends) to appear to be taking firm measures against Russia and other kleptocrats, while resisting adoption or implementation of more meaningful responses. The recent White House statement pledging robust enforcement of the GMA fits that narrative. After all, rhetoric aside, neither the original Magnitsky Act nor the GMA create more than a small headache for Trump and Russians. Only few really high level names have been sanctioned under those initiatives. Financial sanctions (particularly restrictions on long-term loans) are what matters for the Kremlin most. Indeed, Russian leadership might even be happy to have the Magnitsky laws in place if those restrictions are relaxed.