Holding torturers and kleptocrats to account

On May 5, the European Union's Court of Justice will hear a complaint by the head of Iran's state broadcaster, Mohammad Sarafraz, and the news director of its English-language channel, Hamid Reza Emadi. The EU imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on them because they broadcast forced confessions by tortured or mistreated political prisoners. Sarafraz and Emadi want the restrictions lifted. But even if they lose their case, they can park their money in the United States, because they aren't on a U.S. sanctions list.

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Their case shows that sanctions hurt human rights abusers and corrupt officials, as intended. And that's a key selling point for the bipartisan Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (S. 284/H.R. 624) being debated on Capitol Hill. The bill, based on Russia-specific sanctions legislation adopted in 2012, would begin to hold human rights abusers and corrupt officials to account around the world by denying them U.S. visas and access to our financial system.

Aside from the Russia-specific sanctions, executive orders have imposed sanctions on human rights abusers in Iran (though the U.S. sanctions list for Iran is significantly shorter than the EU's) and on seven Venezuelan officials. Targeted sanctions on human rights abusers should be expanded worldwide, because authoritarian rulers and their lieutenants are driving a global decline in respect for human rights. According to Freedom House's ratings, media freedom has fallen to its lowest point in 10 years, and political and civil rights overall have deteriorated for nine consecutive years.

Targeted sanctions as envisioned by the Global Magnitsky Act could start to turn this trend around. It would build on current policy of condemning human rights abuses and supporting human rights defenders by actually going after the perpetrators of abuses. Perpetrators are usually shielded by their government and expect to evade justice. If a penalty loomed over their head, they may think twice about committing their crimes.

By imposing consequences on individual abusers, the Global Magnitsky Act would force authoritarian rulers into a difficult choice: either to protect the most repugnant officials and thereby expose the cruelty of their regimes or to cut loose the officials who do their dirty work and keep them in power.

A Global Magnitsky Act also targets high-level corruption — the Achilles heel of authoritarian regimes. While human rights might seem a bit abstract to ordinary citizens, corruption is all too real. Citizens understand what's wrong with corrupt officials getting rich at the public's expense while everyone else struggles to make ends meet.

Corruption often fuels human rights abuses. Because corrupt officials stand to lose their ill-gotten gains if they leave office, they will go to ever-greater lengths to hold onto power. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was a prime example. As he and his family amassed enormous wealth, he tightened media restrictions, selectively prosecuted opposition figures and increasingly manipulated elections.

Under the Global Magnitsky Act's targeted sanctions, no country would be singled out. And it would apply to countries like China and Saudi Arabia that tend to escape criticism for their human rights abuses because of U.S. economic or security interests.

The executive branch would decide whom to sanction. But it would have to listen to Congress's input and explain its decisions. And chances are that governments with an extensive apparatus of repression would end up with more than seven officials on the sanctions list.

If passed, a Global Magnitsky Act probably will elicit some angry responses, like Venezuela's cry about "a new escalation of aggression" and "extraordinary threat" from the United States. But authoritarian governments can't give an honest response, because they can't admit that they harbor officials responsible for human rights abuses and large-scale corruption. If China's leadership were sincere, it ought to welcome a Global Magnitsky Act for reinforcing President Xi Jinping's policy of cracking down on corrupt officials and stemming their flow of assets abroad.

The prospect of angry reactions shouldn't discourage the introduction of the Global Magnitsky Act. The United States always meets resistance when it champions human rights, because authoritarian governments prefer to avoid responsibility for their violations. We shouldn't let their officials abuse their power and then benefit from our legal protections.

And we shouldn't accept their insistence that we look away from human rights abuses as the price for economic or security cooperation. The Global Magnitsky Act would focus pressure on the perpetrators, not commercial relations. We should use our influence and engage authoritarian governments on our terms. We can be strong and confident enough both to cooperate with authoritarian governments where prudent and to still hold their human rights abusers and corrupt officials to account.

Calingaert is executive vice president of Freedom House.

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