Do Magnitsky-type laws actually work?
January 21, 2021 1:15 AM   Subscribe

By a "Magnitsky-type law" I refer to legislation that imposes sanction on individuals for their roles in oppressive regimes. (Named after Sergei Magnitsky, previouslies on MeFi). My questions is this: Is there evidence that Magnitsky laws actually work?

By "work" I mean mostly this: Do they in any way help the victims? Do they deter human-rights abuses from happening? Do they lead to behaviour changes within the oppressive regimes?

I'm not a professional of political theory or international laws. I would like to find approachable investigations about this topic but I have a hard time finding much useful information. I also understand that this kind of laws are intended to "work" in the above senses, on the face of it. What I care about is demonstrable effect, especially from the victims' perspective.
posted by runcifex to Law & Government (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Browder says yes. He highlights examples on his Twitter feed. Most recently, 19 hours ago:

Anyone who ever said that Magnitsky sanctions aren’t effective, check out this story: “Kyrgyz Tycoon, Wife Change Names After Put Under U.S. Magnitsky Sanctions
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:04 AM on January 21

Here are a few recent panels where experts weigh in on this question more broadly (note the second link begins with more like the the Foreign Affairs series of articles on this topic.

I can answer your question more specifically in the Nicaragua context, where the U.S. imposed a few corruption-related sanctions on individuals in 2017 and 2018, then a much more rapid succession of corruption- and human rights-related sanctions following a violent crackdown on political protesters that upended the country in 2018. The closest they came to "working," under your definition, is this: in 2019, in part due to existing sanctions and fear of more to come, the anti-democratic Ortega regime agreed to re-enter negotiations with representatives from the opposition (we can be pretty sure sanctions played a part because the regime made many public demands that sanctions relief be part of the agenda).

While the dialogue turned out to be pretty fruitless in negotiating the opposition's political demands such as restoration of civil rights and elections reform, it did result in the release of hundreds of political prisoners. One can argue the sanctions weren't critical to the prisoners' release - maybe the Ortegas kept them in prison as bargaining chips from the beginning and would have traded their release at some point anyway - but it was certainly an important action from the victims' perspective.
posted by exutima at 5:23 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

I think Putin wouldn't be trying to so hard to get these rules changed if they weren't effective.
posted by mmascolino at 6:01 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:
> the regime made many public demands that sanctions relief be part of the agenda
Thank you very much, exutima. Did the "sanctions" mentioned in the BBC story refer to sanctions on individuals? From the context in the story, it seemed to me that the word referred to the more conventional kind (i.e. on the economy of the entire country).
posted by runcifex at 6:21 AM on January 21

Best answer: In the Venezuelan context, there are individual sanctions on many people in the regime and it has played out similarly to exutima's explanation of what happened in the Nicauraguan has given the (extremely inept, but I digress) opposition a bargaining chip...the government has consistently fought very, very hard to get sanctions removed and it comes up in basically every negotiation etc. That said, it hasn't really translated into any real concrete action by the government, but it's hard to disentangle because the opposition is so ineffective (though admittedly they're in a very, very difficult situation).
posted by wooh at 6:27 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a good question. Technically, when this took place the only sanctions that had been imposed were on individuals (first they were literally Magnitsky sanctions, then an EO created a standalone sanctions framework for Nicaragua. After the negotiations broke down sanctions were also applied on non-individuals, like a regime bank and the Nicaraguan national police as an institution). The United States also implemented a stated policy of opposing new loans from the IDB, World Bank, and IMF to Nicaragua except in specific humanitarian circumstances. Voting against concessionary loans within multilateral development banks isn't what we would typically consider "sanctions," but it sometimes seemed the Nicaraguan government meant both things when they used the word.

People skeptical of the Nicaraguan government would often assert that the Ortegas would deliberately conflate the two actions so that they could rail about how sanctions hurt the poor (arguably true in the case of suspended development loans) while really negotiating to eliminate the individual sanctions targeting government officials and the ruling family. I think it's more likely they cared about both things, but they never got to the point of defining what they wanted more specifically than "suspending sanctions."
posted by exutima at 7:41 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry for the multiple messages - it was difficult to find English-language reporting on the fight about including sanctions relief as a condition for negotiations, but here's a Spanish language summary. If you'll pardon a rough translation of relevant exerpts:

Daniel Ortega's government in Nicaragua asked this Friday that the Civic Alliance condemn the sanctions imposed on the Centralamerican nation in order to generate a "climate of confidence" that will facilitate the dialogue between the two sides and end the political crisis...

Concretely, it has asked the opposing coalition to join the government in "a joint call to cease and suspend the unilateral and illegal measures, called sanctions, which affect the human, economic, and social rights of everyone"...

The Civic Alliance responded in a memo that "the government, with its actions of systematic abuse of human rights and corruption, is the one truly responsible for these sanctions." "It is them, the people sanctioned, who are affected," it responded...

"We reject the deceptive campaign, through false communications, that tries to present these sanctions as damaging to the most poor and vulnerable, when in reality it affect the officials designated for their acts of corruption and violations of human rights."
posted by exutima at 8:04 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has to be paid in cash because no one can offer her a personal bank account anymore if they want to transact through the US, which of course all Hong Kong banks do. She earns about $670,000 USD a year; I presume most of it is just sitting in the Hong Kong Treasury somewhere because Hong Kong's largest banknote is worth around $130 USD.

In this South China Morning Post interview on YouTube, she describes how her cash is "in a drawer" and that this also has also affected the financial life of members of her family. Her son was at Harvard; he's obviously not there now. Here is the US Consulate-General in Hong Kong's statement on why she has been sanctioned. Her entry on the OFAC sanctions list is here.

Do they in any way help the victims? Do they deter human-rights abuses from happening? Do they lead to behaviour changes within the oppressive regimes?

Knowing that the leader of the place where a person lives is judged by a widely-respected and globally-essential cultural and economic superpower to be a financial persona non grata is not a politics-free experience.

It can be hard to see from inside the US, but America is everywhere, from the phones we use to the shoes our kids wear to the TV shows we binge. Just about everyone on Earth uses the US as a reference for almost every element of consumer culture. So, yeah, there's not nothing in seeing a leader being told that they can't participate in everyday things from Amazon Prime shipping to completing an in-app purchase to earning airline points on a credit card. There is a melding of wealth and political power in many places on this planet, and when ordinary people are asked to still respect a person who has lost a huge part of their financial influence, it can be quite a big ask.

So perhaps it's less a direct, visible-in-the-news-cycle political change on the part of the sanctioned person of the kind your questions ask and more a question of how it changes the mindset of the ordinary people who live under that leader. It makes every tap of a contactless Visa the average person makes at a 7-11 or every weird mechanical part that person picks up for ten dollars on eBay a political differentiator. The leader of a city of seven million people can't get Spotify Premium while even the poorest person in that city can probably find the few dollars a month it takes to skip the ads, you know?

People define their lives through decisions made and objects bought with digital money running through, in some way or another, US institutions; operating outside that is such an alien experience that you're going to definitely notice when someone is doing so.
posted by mdonley at 8:25 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you again, exutima. You have nothing to apologize about, and I find your answers very pertinent and instructive, and thank you very much for the translation. One thing I haven't thought about is how the sanctions limit the negotiating space available to the regime. Since sanctions are by design limited in scope, the regime is less prone to take the risk of going full hostage-taking.
posted by runcifex at 8:36 AM on January 21

Response by poster: Thank you, mdonley, however I doubt in this specific case whether individual sanctions against Carrie Lam &c. "helped"? I think if one measures "help" by the actual relief brought to Hong Kong, on the face of it there didn't appear to be much difference in this case. Lam may be inconvenienced, but we've seen no concrete behaviour such as expression of remorse, giving up collaborating with the oppressive regime, or just implicit behaviours that may be understood as softening of stance.

Using your own words with a slight variation, I'd say China is also everywhere and is more than capable of compensating its collaborators (unlike Nicaragua, in the previous example), which, in the larger backdrop of an authoritarianism-adjusted, hostile Mainland populace and business network that has no root in a civil society, seems to render the sanction not very effective. To draw a contrast with Nicaragua, in the case of Hong Kong the regime's hand in negotiations was unchanged: there was no negotiation to begin with. Do you think this is true?
posted by runcifex at 9:14 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

I think it is very difficult to draw the counterfactual - did a lower respect for the governing official inspire protests to be stronger? Did it (either the sanctions, or the attitude change they might have caused, or the protests that might have been influenced by those attitudes) require the leaders to take a more careful stance with regard to their people, or cause them to limit which policies they proposed in a way that they might have chosen differently if they had international support and more institutional backing? Hard to really quantify any sort of deterrent or edge effects like those.
posted by Lady Li at 1:35 PM on January 21

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