The US Congress has taken a small but important step toward bringing accountability for human rights abuses around the world. Buried deep in the 3,000-page National Defense Authorization Act, passed by the Senate yesterday, is a new tool that will enable the executive branch to more easily impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for committing human rights violations or gross corruption.
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act fills an important gap in the US sanctions toolkit by preserving the flexibility to target individual human rights abusers without punishing entire countries. This new tool will allow the US to more easily go after known abusers in a smart, targeted way without interrupting larger bilateral engagement.
The law borrows its name from the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, passed in 2012, in honor of the late accountant who was tortured and found dead in his jail cell in Moscow. Magnitsky was targeted for his role in exposing huge levels of corruption and the largest tax fraud scheme in Russian history. A version of this bill was introduced early last year by Senator Ben Cardin, a long-time advocate of human rights and anti-corruption efforts. The bill quickly garnered bi-partisan support, with five Republicans – Senators McCain, Rubio, Wicker, Kirk, and Cruz – and five Democrats – Senators Shaheen, Durbin, Markey, Blumenthal, and Coons – signing on as co-sponsors. A House version followed and a coalition of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have been active supporters ever since.
Now that the bill has passed, and President Barack Obama signs it as expected, implementation will be key. The strong endorsement by senators on both sides of the aisle sends a vital message to the incoming administration that accountability for human rights abuses is a bipartisan priority and may provide an opportunity for future collaboration if president-elect Donald Trump is willing to make good on what could be a rare opportunity.
One place to start could be China. Trump has written in his book in 2000 that he is “unwilling to shrug off the mistreatment of China’s citizens by their own government” and that Chinese leaders are keen to overlook “the human rights situation.” A new Human Rights Watch report documents a raft of abuses by Chinese Communist Party authorities who oversee a secretive detention system, including torture and deaths, in the name of combating corruption. Trump could demonstrate his willingness to address this concern by directing his secretary of state to examine possible senior Chinese officials who could be sanctioned under the Magnitsky law.