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15 Jan 2020

Smart Sanctions: Fighting Impunity through the Global Magnitsky Act 

The Director of Safeguard Defenders, Peter Dahlin, explains how civil society can bring serious human rights violators to justice.


An interview conducted and published by



Smart Sanctions vs traditional sanctions

At the center of the current sanctions debate is the question how governments, as well as other social and political entities, most effectively punish gross human rights violations and other serious breaches of international norms and rules. One of the greatest challenges remains to stop human rights violations as they are occurring, or to prevent them altogether. Relatively new sanctions regimes, like so-called targeted or ‘smart’ sanctions, are considered to be more effective because they target specific human rights violators quickly and directly. In doing so, they allegedly provide an important deterrent effect, which means they supposedly prevent new human rights violations from occurring.

The most well-known example of a targeted sanctions regime for human rights is the Magnitsky Act, named after Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was jailed and brutally tortured in Russian prisons in 2009, after testifying in a massive tax fraud scheme allegedly committed by Russian authorities and the Russian mob against his employer, the British investment company Hermitage Capital Management. 

The legislation was first proposed by the British businessman William Browder, owner of Hermitage Capital, who has led a tireless campaign to punish those responsible for Magnitsky's death. Browder central argument is  that the global expansion of the law will provide governments and human rights advocates with important new tools in their fight to hold human right violators accountable.

The Magnitsky Act imposes two types of sanctions:  Travel and visa bans as well as asset freezes. The original Magnitsky Act was passed in the US in 2012, punishing Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky’s murder, including (Russian) individuals profiting from this crime. Since 2016, the law applies globally, allowing the US government to impose sanctions against human rights violators regardless where these crimes occur.  Other countries that have adopted similar legislation – a full or partial Magnitsky Act - are Canada, the U.K., Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 

On December 9, 2019, one day before the 71th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Ministers of Foreign Affairs unanimously agreed to adopt a proposal by the Dutch government for an EU-wide Magnitsky Act (EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime). The legislation is expected to be formally enacted later this year.  Australia, too, is currently considering the introduction of a Magnitsky Act.

Q&A with Peter Dahlin (excerpt)

Q: Safeguard Defenders' has just released its most recent publication  Fighting Impunity: A guide on how civil society can use Magnitsky Acts to sanction human rights violators (Safeguard Defenders, 2020). It is essentially a step-by-step guide how to file a formal complaint against human rights violators in countries that have adopted so-called Magnitsky legislation. Why now, what makes this publication so urgent?

PD: The main problem we are trying to solve is that the Magnitsky Act looks fine on paper. However, unless it is enforced, it has no value. We have been told by several government that in order to apply the Magnitsky Act, they need information, they need targets. And so far, NGOs and civil society have not been very active in filing complaints against such potential targets, meaning human rights violators. So, what we want to do is to get civil society more involved in this process, to file complaints. That way we can take it from a theoretical tool to a practical one, in terms of defending human rights.  So, we are trying to solve that one specific problem - how does civil society become more involved in getting this act off the ground? Because there is so much potential here. Many countries already have different kind of tools that they can use to sanction perpetrators of gross human rights violations. But with the Magnitsky Act, you have an entire new framework for doing that. There are so many different things that can be done through this act. The fact that you can go after specific individuals rather than groups, organizations or countries - that has a lot of potential, I think.

Q:  You say there are so many different things you can do with this Act. Can you give some examples? What makes it different from other sanctions, from other punitive measures?

PD: Well, it ranges from asset freezes, for example of bank accounts, property, etc., as well as travel bans. Also, if your assets are frozen, it tends to have an effect outside your jurisdiction. If the U.S. government, for example, issues a freezing of your bank accounts, it's going to have a ripple effect in many other territories. So what you really want to do and what the Act wants to do is to go after the spoils of these violations. Because many people who partake in these gross human rights violations do so for monetary interest, for money. And that is really what you are going after. That and their ability to travel freely in the Western world. That is of course especially big when it comes to  Russia, but also, for example China.


Interview: Susanne Berger (Washington, DC, USA)


Read the full Q&A by clicking below