New law important tool to fight impunity worldwide

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) commends the United States Congress on passing the Global Magnitsky Act, the group said in a statement. The new sanctions law, proposed in 2015 by Senator Ben Cardin, is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management. He died at the hands of Russian authorities on 16 November 2009 after exposing a $230 million tax refund fraud scheme.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act is part of the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the Senate on 8 December. The House passed its version of the bill on 2 December. The Senate vote sends the authorization bill to President Obama for signature.

“The congressional passage of the of the Global Magnitsky Act brings hope of justice to scores of human rights victims worldwide and heralds a new era in the fight against impunity for gross human rights violations”, said Bjørn Engesland, NHC Secretary General.

The act gives the United States President authorization to impose visa bans and asset freezes against any foreign person responsible for large scale corruption and gross human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and torture, carried out against whistleblowers, human rights defenders and individuals seeking to exercise their human rights.

“While economic sanctions have been applied to authoritarian regimes with positive results in the past, the Magnitsky mechanisms provides a stronger, improved tool to combat gross human rights violations”, said Gunnar M. Ekelove-Slydal, NHC Deputy Secretary General. “Magnitsky sanctions will not harm the already hard-pressed populations in authoritarian regimes; instead it will single out individual officials complicit in specific cases of grave violations.”

According to the bill the President, when determining whether to impose sanctions, shall consider credible information also from other states and non-governmental organizations monitoring human rights violations.

“The NHC is closely monitoring human rights developments in a number of countries with abysmal rights records, including Russia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Turkey, and is ready to provide thorough documentation of a wide array of gross abuses having taken place in these and other countries”, Engesland said. “We are currently finalizing a list of Tajik officials complicit in grave rights violations taking place during the country’s ongoing human rights crisis”.

The NHC has long been promoting global Magnitsky mechanisms, and in 2015 published a policy paper calling on Norway and other democratic states to establish such measures. In 2017, the NHC will organize an international hearing dedicated to the subject.

“The passage of this bill is great news for whistleblowers, human rights defenders and victims of gross abuses across the globe, and stands out as a model for democratic states. We urge President Obama to sign to the act and secure the U.S. a powerful tool to promote human rights and democracy worldwide”, Ekelove-Slydal said. “We note with appreciation that Estonia as the first European country has established Magnitsky sanctions. It’s time for other states to follow suit.”

Recent initiatives in Canada and Europe
A range of parliaments and international parliamentary assemblies have urged for Magnitsky sanctions to be established, including the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

12 May 2016, the Conservative party in the Canadian Parliament introduced the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials (Sergei Magnitsky Law) bill in House of Commons and the Senate simultaneously. According to James Bezan MP, one of the introducers of the bill, the purpose is to “sanction those who are committing serious human rights crimes within their countries, or the corrupt individuals who are stealing the assets of people”.

A cross-party group of influential MPs in the UK, led by the Conservative Dominic Raab, recently introduced the so-called Magnitsky amendment to the Criminal Finances bill. Explaining the motivation behind the amendment, Raab said, “People with blood on their hands for the worst human rights abuses should not be able to funnel their dirty money into the UK. This change in the law will protect Britain from becoming a safe place for despots and dictators to hide their money.”

Different from the US legislation, the proposed Magnitsky amendment will only freeze assets, not deny visa of human rights abusers. If adopted, it will enable the government and private parties to apply to the High Court to freeze UK assets belonging to those involved in or profiting from gross human rights abuses in any country.

According to an estimate presented to the House of Commons in July 2016, more than £100bn is laundered through the UK every year.

The first European country, however, to adopt Magnitsky type sanctions, is Estonia. On 8 December, the Estonian Parliament unanimously adopted an amendment to the 1998 Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act, which forbid entry to people if “there is information or good reason to believe” that they took part in activities which resulted in the “death or serious damage to health of a person” or their “unfounded conviction … for criminal offence on political motives”. President Kersti Kaljulaid has signed the amendment.

While the UK legislative initiative focuses on freezing assets, the Estonian law will establish a list of persons who are denied entry into Estonia based on their implication in human rights violations. Eerik-Niiles Kross, an MP from Estonia’s Reform Party and the country’s former intelligence chief, who proposed the legislation, said: “We will finally have the ability to ban entry into Estonia for those types of people who beat Magnitsky to death in jail and those who tortured Nadiya Savchenko.”

In a recent development, 51 members of the European Parliament have called on the European Commission to unblock Magnitsky sanctions. In a letter addressed to Federica Mogherini, the European Commission’s Vice-President and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, they implore her“… to enact the will of democratically elected Members of the European Parliament and present a proposal to the Council of Ministers to sanction the individuals listed in the Recommendation to the Council of 2 April, 2014 …in the case of Sergei Magnitsky”.

Green Party MEP Rebecca Harms commented: “Magnitsky sanctions are an instrument showing our will to protect whistle-blowers, human rights activists or dissidents. These sanctions would allow us to react against those who are personally responsible for violation of human rights and crimes against humanity”.

Further reading:

“The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act: A Sanctions Tool for Promoting the U.S. Human Rights Agenda”, by Sarah A. Altschuller, Published by Foley Hoag,

“A New US Tool for Human Rights Accountability: President-Elect Trump Should Enforce Law – and China is a Good Place to Start”, Alexandra Schmitt, Human Rights Watch,

“Magnitsky sanctions law introduced in the Canadian Parliament”,

“MPs to vote on Magnitsky human rights amendment”, Financial Times, December 4, 2016,

“Estonia joins US in passing Magnitsky law”, EU Observer, 9 December,

“European Parliament Members Call on the European Commission to Unblock Magnitsky Sanctions”,

“Why Europe needs a Magnitsky Law”,

“Norway and other democratic states should establish global Magnitsky mechanisms”,