Is the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program Working?

The 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (GMA), inspired by the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia after his discovery of $230 million in tax fraud orchestrated by the Russian government, stands as the boldest authorization of U.S. economic sanctions in the fight against corruption. Executive Order 13818, issued in December 2017, designated the first sanctioned parties under GMA, enabling asset freezes and travel bans.

Since then, approximately 150 individuals and entities worldwide have been sanctioned for corruption under the GMA. (The GMA also allows for sanctions against human rights violators, and such authority was exercised to target 75 more individuals and entities.) The list includes current and former government officials—or those acting on their behalf—in Cambodia, China, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Iraq, Latvia, Lebanon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Serbia, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, among others. The designations include familiar names in the anticorruption community such as Gulnara Karimova, former Uzbek first daughter convicted of embezzlement and other corruption totaling more than $1.3 billion, Dan Gertler, the Israeli billionaire who earned millions of dollars through underpriced mining contracts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angel Rondon Rijo, a Dominican lobbyist central to Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht’s $4.5 billion Latin America-wide bribery-for-contracts scheme. Other sanctioned parties include the former Gambian president and first lady for misappropriating $50 million in state funds, a former Mexican judge and a former Mexican governor who took bribes from drug cartels, and a Sudanese businessman who, along with senior South Sudanese government officials, embezzled millions of dollars from a government food program.

The GMA represents a new era of so-called “smart sanctions.” Instead of limiting transactions with an entire country—as in the case of U.S. sanctions programs targeting Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria—these individualized sanctions are designed to maximize harm and minimize collateral economic damage by restricting only bad actors’ access to global commerce, not that of entire populations. This approach is catching on outside the United States, with Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union recently announcing their own GMA-esque sanctions, while other countries, like Australia and Japan, are actively considering adopting similar programs.

Yet, a fundamental question remains: is the GMA working?

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Lessons from Moldova’s “Theft of the Century”

One year ago today, on April 20th, 2017, a Moldovan businessman named Veaceslav Platon was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His crime? Helping to steal a billion dollars. Between 2012 and 2014, businessmen and politicians siphoned off money from Moldova’s three largest banks in a crime now known as the “Theft of the Century.” While corruption is endemic in many parts of Eastern Europe, the theft in Moldova was spectacular in its size and in the severity of its consequences.

This theft was an economic, social, and political catastrophe for Moldova. The amount of money that disappeared was similar to the amount implicated in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia–but Malaysia’s GPD is 2.3 times the size of Moldova’s. The Moldovan government’s secret bailout of the banks cost $870 million, one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP. As a result of the theft, three of Moldova’s main banks went bankrupt and were liquidated; more banks are still under the supervision of the National Bank of Moldova, and there is persistent instability in the financial sector. And then there’s the human cost. For example, the misuse of money in the State Health Insurance Company’s accounts led to a medicine shortage in 2014-2015. During street demonstrations that ensued after the theft became public, two dozen people were injured. The political fallout from the theft has also been substantial: Confidence in the government was shattered, as every government branch and every major political party seemed implicated. Furthermore, because the party seen as most heavily involved in the theft was a pro-EU party, Moldovan support for joining the EU plummeted. Pro-Russian sympathizers capitalized on the public reaction, and the pro-Kremlin Igor Dodon was elected president in 2016. Dodon has talked about joining the Russia-controlled Eurasian Economic Union, halted participation in NATO exercises, and opposes the opening of a NATO office in Chisinau, Moldova’s capitol.

The investigation into the theft has dragged. More than 40 people have been implicated, and more prosecutions are supposedly in the pipeline, but only a few people have been convicted so far. With Moldova’s 2018 elections looming, now is a good time to look back at the fallout and lessons from the Theft of the Century.

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Citizens Against Corruption: Report from the Front Line

Pierre Landell Mills, a long-time and tireless advocate for putting governance at the center of development and a founder and board member of The Partnership for Transparency,  contributes the following guest post:

Everyone professes to hate corruption, but until recently few citizens believed they could stop it. Too often citizens accepted corruption, assuming it was a permanent societal disability to be borne with resignation. But people are increasingly intolerant of being squeezed for bribes and are ever more incensed at predatory officials growing fat on extortion and crooked deals. They want to do something about it.

And they are.  From the Philippines to Azerbaijan to Latvia to India to Mongolia and everywhere in between groups of courageous and dedicated citizens are taking direct action to root out corruption. Citizens Against Corruption: Report from the Front Line recounts the heroic struggle of local civil society organizations in more than 50 countries across four continents supported by The Partnership for Transparency Fund.  Among the examples the book details —   Continue reading

Scorpions with Wax Wings: How Anticorruption Agencies Can Avoid Flying Too Close to the Sun

Public rhetoric about the battle against corruption often centers on the need for “zero tolerance”–the need for institutions, including perhaps most importantly law enforcement agencies–to aggressively root out graft through vigorous prosecution, no matter the circumstances.  What more often goes unsaid, though, is that actually following such strategies may end up being counterproductive.  The aggressive pursuit of corruption-busting litigation can lead to political elites pulling the rug out from underneath the anticorruption agency (ACA).  In South Africa, for example, the National Assembly dissolved the Scorpions, a special investigative unit, once it began going after high-ranking government officials.

As a result of the danger of being undercut, ACAs face an inherent tension in their work: they want to fight corruption to the greatest extent possible, but fighting it too aggressively can lead to the agency’s ability to perform its duties being completely undercut.  How far, then, can an ACA push? Though the unique context of any given ACA means no universal lessons exist, there are some general guidelines ACAs should consider when shaping their anticorruption efforts, if they want to avoid a backlash that ultimately consolidates the power of the corrupt:

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