The White House may be warming up to sanctioning human rights abusers

Landmark legislation, passed under Obama, may finally be implemented by the Trump administration.

Sergei Magnitksy was arrested and killed after reportedly discovering a $230 million tax fraud scheme in Russia. (CREDIT: AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO)
Sergei Magnitksy was arrested and killed after reportedly discovering a $230 million tax fraud scheme in Russia. (CREDIT: AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO)

As one of his final acts as president, while the country was still reeling from the election of Donald Trump, then-President Barack Obama took an unprecedented step toward cracking down on the types of authoritarian kleptocrats Trump had courted during his campaign.

Dubbed the Global Magnitsky Act, the legislation took aim at gross human rights abusers abroad, providing, as Human Rights First wrote, “the most comprehensive human rights and anti-corruption sanctions tool in U.S. history.” It provided the White House with the ability to target foreign actors responsible for torture or “other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” — or even those tied to “acts of significant corruption” — through selected sanctions and assets seizure.

As the Washington director of Human Rights Watch said in 2015, the Global Magnitsky Act is “designed to take a tailored approach that creates a long overdue tool for the U.S. to easily go after abusive individuals.”

At the time of the signing, the media scarcely took note, distracted by both the holidays and the incoming Trump administration. However, one group responded forcefully: the Kremlin. Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova slammed the legislation as an outgrowth of a “tradition of Washington to use human rights to put pressure on undesirable governments.”


Moscow’s response to Obama’s signing was, in a sense, predictable — not simply because the expanded ability for targeted sanctions could presumably be extended to Kremlin higher-ups, as well as Russian allies in states like Belarus and Kazakhstan, but because the legislation globalized a policy named directly for a Russian lawyer who died after discovering the largest tax-fraud case in Russia’s post-Soviet history.

After uncovering a scheme in which $230 million in taxes was effectively stolen, Sergei Magnitsky was himself arrested, later dying in prison, with his body allegedly tortured. Three years later, in 2012, the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act, which focused solely on Russia and targeted Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s death. The measure was also subsequently the focus of a 2016 meeting between a Kremlin-linked lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, and something Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has repeatedly tried to unwind.

But since the passage of the Global Magnitsky Act, the legislation has been largely ignored, at least publicly. Despite an April 20 letter from Trump saying his administration would push a “commitment to its robust and thorough enforcement,” and that it was “actively identifying persons and entities to whom the [Global Magnitsky] Act may apply and are collecting the evidence necessary to apply it,” the president has largely steered clear of discussing the legislation, let alone its potential implementation moving forward. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, likewise, pronounced his support for the Magnitsky Act, focused on Russian rather than necessarily globally, during his confirmation hearing in January. But Tillerson has preferred to discuss other topics — and other epithets — in the time since.

That, however, may finally be changing. In early September, Wall Street Journal’s Samuel Rubenfeld reported that the White House — in the midst of unfurling questions about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia — finally authorized both State and Treasury departments to move toward implementing the legislation.


Around the same time, a group of over a dozen human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and Transparency International, sent a public letter to Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin outlining some 15 candidates they believe should be targeted by the Global Magnitsky Act. Ranging from China and Saudi Arabia to Azerbaijan and Vietnam, the candidates are tied to a host of abuses, running from corruption to torture. The letter described the Global Magnitsky Act as a “potentially revolutionary tool” to roll back human rights abuses, saying implementation would allow the U.S. “to take a leading role in the international community in combating impunity and protecting human rights defenders worldwide.”

“There’s a gap in leadership at the top on Magnitsky, but Tillerson has said that he will push Magnitsky,” Melissa Hooper, director of human rights and civil society programs at Human Rights First, told ThinkProgress. “And we do think, in particular after [Tillerson] failed to push out the human rights reports earlier this year and was really called on the carpet about that, that he saw [that] these human rights issues can be a tool… We’ve seen a better response from him on that. Not a great response, but better.”

Other names have been proposed for the list, including those identified by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), although those names haven’t yet been published. Those following Magnitsky-related developments expect certain names to, finally, be publicized in December.

“The designations will come in December, if they come out,” said Bill Browder, a financier who helped spear Magnitsky-related legislation in the U.S. and elsewhere. “And if Trump wants to prove he has no ties to Russia, the best thing he could do is put together 50 to 100 Russians on the sanctions list based on the original Magnitsky Act.”

Until then, international pressure will likely make it only more difficult for Trump to avoid naming anyone to the Global Magnitsky list. Not only would a continued lack of names — especially if none are found in Moscow — only raise suspicions of kleptocratic influence in the White House, but other countries beyond the U.S. have picked up Magnitsky’s mantle. Canada, for instance, stands set to join the U.K. and Estonia in passing similar legislation, allowing Ottawa the ability to target specific human rights abusers globally. (The Russian embassy responded by calling the bill’s passage a “deplorably confrontational act” that’s been “pressed by Russophobic elements.”)


All told, the Global Magnitsky legislation is one more conspicuous tool at the White House’s disposal in combating rising kleptocracy, and encroaching authoritarianism, abroad. It’s just a matter of implementation — and the will to do so. As Hooper said, “I think it helps that the U.S. is having this crisis of moral authority — and this could be a tool in increasing at least the perception that the U.S. is still a supporter of human rights.”