Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian accountant who, in 2009, was tortured, denied medical attention, and found dead in his Moscow jail cell. Russian authorities had targeted him for his role in exposing a giant tax fraud scheme allegedly involving high-level government officials.

In 2012, the US Congress passed a law in his name that imposed sanctions on a list of Russian officials believed to be responsible for serious human rights violations, freezing any US assets they hold and banning them from entry into the United States.

In an important step for global accountability, Congress built on the original Russia-focused Magnitsky law in 2016 and enacted the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or gross corruption. The act received widespread bipartisan support. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, introduced a version of the bill, and five Republican senators and five Democratic senators signed on as co-sponsors. President Barack Obama signed the law on December 23, 2016.

What does the Global Magnitsky Act do?

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act authorizes the president to block or revoke the visas of certain “foreign persons” (both individuals and entities) or to impose property sanctions on them. People can be sanctioned (a) if they are responsible for or acted as an agent for someone responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” or (b) if they are government officials or senior associates of government officials complicit in “acts of significant corruption.”

Why is the Global Magnitsky Act a useful tool?

The act promotes respect for human rights at all levels of government by enabling the US executive branch to apply targeted sanctions on any individual involved in a human rights violation, from senior officials to low-level officers and even nongovernment associates. These sanctions can take the form of asset freezes for funds held in US banks and bans on visas for coming to the US.

The Global Magnitsky Act functions as a deterrent, forcing foreign officials at all levels who would use unlawful violence or corruption to consider repercussions from the US government. The act also provides incentives to foreign governments to improve their own accountability mechanisms. By cooperating with the US on Global Magnitsky investigations, foreign leaders can show that they will not tolerate human rights abusers in their own countries.

How effective are sanctions from the Global Magnitsky Act?

Sanctions deny individuals entry into the US, allow the seizure of any of their property held in the country, and effectively prevent them from entering into transactions with large numbers of banks and companies. Both American firms and international firms with American subsidiaries run the risk of violating US sanctions if they do business with sanctioned people. The law’s impact is exemplified by the Russian official sanctioned by the Magnitsky Act who hired a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to advocate against the act at the US Congress and help establish a non-profit organization opposing the act.

What is President Trump’s stance on the Global Magnitsky Act?

In a letter sent to members of Congress on April 20, 2017, President Trump affirmed his administration’s “support for this important legislation” and “commitment to its robust and thorough enforcement.” Trump also noted that his administration was in the process of identifying people and entities to whom the act should be applied and “collecting the evidence necessary to apply it.” During his short time in office, Trump has established a poor track-record for promoting human rights. By making appropriate use of the Global Magnitsky Act, though, he has an opportunity to show the world that protecting human rights remains a fundamental part of US foreign policy.

Who can recommend individuals for the president to sanction?

The act allows the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, in consultation with other State Department officials, to submit recommendations for people to be sanctioned to the secretary of state. The Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and the Committee on Foreign Relations in the Senate and the Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House can also submit names to the president. In determining whether to impose sanctions, the president can also review credible information obtained by other countries or nongovernmental organizations that monitor human rights violations. In practice, the decision about whether to carry out the sanctions will most likely be made jointly by the State Department and Treasury Department.

What is being done currently under the Global Magnitsky Act?

Senator Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator John McCain, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Trump in August with a list of 20 people they believe should be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Similarly, in September a group of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, submitted to the Departments of State and Treasury a list of 15 people from around the world – with detailed evidentiary dossiers – that the organizations believe are strong candidates for Global Magnitsky sanctions.

These cases include people responsible for torture, enforced disappearances, murder, sexual assault, and extortion. On September 8, Trump formally delegated authority to the treasury secretary to impose economic sanctions, and the secretary of state to impose visa bans, paving the way to issue sanctions under the act.

Do other countries have legislation similar to the Global Magnitsky Act?

Several European countries, Canada, and the European Parliament passed bills imposing sanctions on Russian officials implicated in Sergei Magnitsky’s death. Recently, several countries have expanded their sanctions regimes to include human rights abusers from any country. On February 21, the United Kingdom passed its own version of the Global Magnitsky Act. Estonia passed a similar law in 2016. The Canadian Parliament and European Parliament are both considering bills to target international human rights violators.