Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Bolster Magnitsky Sanctions Against Human Rights Abusers

February 3, 2021 Updated: February 4, 2021

Leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission have introduced a bill seeking to strengthen Global Magnitsky sanctions to improve the United States’ ability to hold human rights abusers and corrupt actors accountable.

The incoming chair of the commission Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chair Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) on Feb. 3 unveiled the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act, which would permanently reauthorize the original Global Magnitsky Act and broaden the law’s scope.

The 2016 Global Magnitsky Act allows the president to impose economic sanctions or deny entry into the United States foreigners who have engaged in human rights abuse or corruption. This federal law expands sanctions from a similar 2012 Russian-focused law to other countries. The 2012 act was introduced to hold accountable individuals responsible for the detention, abuse, and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer and auditor in Russia.

The global act was first implemented by former President Donald Trump, who in 2017 issued Executive Order 13818, which applied the Global Magnitsky sanctions to 13 individuals. Trump’s order also broadened the standards of behavior for potentially sanctionable targets and specifies additional categories of people as potential sanction targets, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Cardin and Wicker’s bill builds on the original law (pdf) by extending the sanctions to the immediate family members of violators, and broadening the scope of the act by including “serious human rights abuse” and “violation of internationally recognized Human rights” standards to expand the actors and abuses eligible for sanctions.

roger wicker
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, on Jan. 26, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool/Getty Images)

It also simplifies the standard for corruption offenses and removes the victim status requirement to ensure no victim is excluded.

Meanwhile, the bill requires future reports to Congress to include information about additional steps taken by the president through diplomacy and other means to address persistent underlying causes of human rights abuses and corruption in countries of sanctioned violators.

“This reauthorization will send a clear signal of our national commitment to defending democratic values and the international rules and standards that enable us all to live peaceably together. When human rights abusers and kleptocrats violate these norms, it is incumbent upon us to create concrete consequences,” Cardin said in a statement.

“When it was introduced, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was a groundbreaking tool for combating human rights abuses and corruption around the world,” Wicker added. “Since then, the law has helped to hold the worst violators accountable no matter where they are.”

The Global Magnitsky Act has been used to respond to human rights violators affecting members of Muslim minority groups in northwest China’s Xinjiang Province, corrupt actors in South Sudan, and Ugandan officials who were engaged in an adoption scam that victimized Ugandan-born children.

A group of Republican lawmakers last year called on (pdf) then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to issue Magnisky sanctions against seven Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials who the lawmakers say had violated the 2005 International Health Regulations and human rights of Chinese citizens due to their “duplicitous, ineffective, and cruel response” to the outbreak of the CCP virus pandemic.

There have been calls by lawmakers around the world to enact similar laws in their respective countries. The European Union in December 2020 decided to adopt an EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime that would allow the bloc to target serious human rights abuses and violations worldwide.

Similarly, Australia is looking into whether to enact its own Magnitsky-style legislation. In December 2020, a joint standing committee that held an inquiry into the topic found that such laws would align Australia with a global effort to limit human rights violators and corrupt individuals from “enjoying the proceeds of their abuses.”

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