Financial Times: Time to turn the screw on human rights abusers by Katrina Lantos Swett

Time to turn the screw on human rights abusers

Magnitsky laws must be enacted and enforced on a greater scale

by Katrina Lantos Swett

As autocratic leaders ascend in many parts of the world and unjustly brutalise their citizens, responsible democratic governments require sharp tools to hold such human rights violators accountable. One of the most important tools available to any government is one first crafted in the US, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the government to sanction human rights offenders by freezing their assets and restricting travel. The creation of this powerful tool has changed how governments are able to respond to human rights abusers and is truly changing the world.

The story of how Magnitsky sanctions came to be is a powerful example of heroism and the pursuit of justice. Sergei Magnitsky was a young and idealistic lawyer who uncovered and brought to light huge tax fraud perpetrated by Russian officials. In an effort to cover up the crimes he had exposed, those officials had Magnitsky arrested and thrown into prison, where he spent 11 months refusing to admit any guilt or to implicate others. He was moved to increasingly squalid quarters, threatened, tortured, and neglected — until ultimately, he was found dead in his cell in November 2009. Magnitsky uncovered the tax fraud while working for London-based investment manager Bill Browder, and his passing left Browder with a life-altering choice: turn away from this injustice or confront it head-on.

Browder bravely chose the latter. That decision defines him as a champion for human rights and has earned him deserved recognition including the Lantos Human Rights Prize. With remarkable skill, persuasiveness and a businessman’s drive, Browder worked to overcome opposition and secure the adoption of the groundbreaking Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act by the US Congress, signed in 2012.


This bipartisan law, whose scope was extended through the subsequent Global Magnitsky Act, is arguably the most powerful tool introduced in the past four decades for holding human rights abusers accountable — if not in their home countries, then at least in the countries where they have long felt free to invest and frolic. Since its enactment, the US has sanctioned more than 70 officials in over a dozen different countries. Most recently, Magnitsky sanctions were enacted to penalise Saudi Arabian officials implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

While the Magnitsky Act has proven itself a useful tool for the US government, its effectiveness will be undercut if other governments provide safe havens within their borders or in their financial markets for human rights abusers. That is why it is so important that similar versions of the Magnitsky Act have passed in Canada, Estonia, the UK, Latvia and Lithuania, and it is why the passage of similar laws by the EU, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Italy, Ukraine and many others — where they are currently being considered — is so critical. Each new country that adopts such a law strengthens the ability to enforce human rights standards around the world. 

As the rest of the world grapples with how to move forward on their own Magnitsky Sanctions, it is vital that the US and other Magnitsky countries be judicious and active in sanctioning obvious human rights abusers. There have been calls for more than a year for the US to sanction Chen Quanguo, the Chinese official responsible for the concentration-style camps that house well over 1m Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province. These calls have been bipartisan and bicameral on Capitol Hill in the US, and have been widespread throughout the human rights community worldwide. What kind of example does it set to those considering their own Magnitsky sanctions if countries like the US are unwilling to show strong leadership and demonstrate by example how effective sanctions can be in punishing human rights abusers and preventing future abuses? 

Sadly, Chinese officials are hardly the only group that deserve the wrath of Magnitsky sanctions. Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia continues to crack down on its citizens, with reports of widespread beatings, arrests and detentions during this summer’s protests calling for fair elections. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni recently allowed his former police inspector general to take the Magnitsky hit for corruption and brutal human rights abuses against Ugandan citizens, but there is likely to be more government-sponsored violence on tap as a contentious presidential campaign mounts. The list sadly goes on and on, but it doesn’t have to. 

Imagine the impact on Chinese officials if the US, the EU, the UK and a dozen other countries simultaneously issued Magnitsky sanctions on Chen Quanguo. Not only would this brutal man be justly brought to light as a human rights abuser and have his ability to frolic outside China seriously curtailed, but other Chinese officials might think twice before undertaking their own vicious human rights abuses lest the same fate befall them. And if the UK would issue its very first set of Magnitsky sanctions against any number of Russian officials who so richly deserve them, would that not send a shocking signal to other Russian abusers who have become quite fond of London in recent years? 

The personal cost of Browder’s crusade for justice has been high. Attacks on both his character and safety continue to intensify as the Magnitsky Act has gained traction across Europe, but he refuses to stop pushing. Browder told me: “Sergei gave his life for me in extremely horrific circumstances, and it’s my duty to him to do whatever I have to do. I’m not going to back down because of threats, because of inconveniences, because of financial losses.”

The US, the EU and other governments around the world have the opportunity to work together to honour Sergei Magnitsky’s sacrifice and ensure that human rights abusers cannot find refuge within their borders. They must seize it — they cannot back down.