By Perry Diaz
Last December 11, 2019, a U.S. Senate committee passed Senate Resolution 142, invoking the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. It put a lot of officials in foreign countries at risk of being sanctioned and face the prospect of being denied U.S. visas and having their assets there frozen.
The law is named after Russian lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered $230 million in massive tax fraud, which implicated Russian officials. Magnitsky alleged there had been large-scale theft from the Russian state, sanctioned and carried out by Russian officials. Magnitsky was jailed in 2008 and later died in 2009 days before his release, after he had been beaten and denied medical treatment while in custody.
Magnitsky’s death led a U.S. financier, Bill Browder, to launch a campaign to ensure that the Russian officials involved would face consequences in the form of sanction. Browder’s campaign resulted in the U.S. Congress passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012. The law mandated the US State and Treasury departments to impose travel restrictions and freeze assets of Russian officials responsible for serious human rights violations.
It later became the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act with extrajudicial scope. On December 20, 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13818 that allowed the U.S. government to effectively freeze the property interests of people involved in serious human rights abuse or corruption.
In the Philippines, officials who have been involved in extrajudicial killings (EJK) and human rights violations are targeted for sanction by the U.S. A recent case is former Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief and Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa who has been sanctioned by the U.S. for EJK and human rights violations. His U.S. visa was revoked and assets and properties in the U.S. frozen.
However, dela Rosa claimed that he has not been notified by the U.S. Embassy of his visa cancellation. Dela Rosa led the PNP’s anti-drug campaign, Oplan Tokhang that claimed the lives of more than 5,000 drug users and pushers, which human rights advocates say were denied due process.
Some say that imposing sanctions is tantamount to meddling in Philippine internal affairs. However, advocates claim it is the sovereign prerogative of the sanctioning country to impose sanctions. Besides, the Philippines is a United Nations member; thus, it is committed to honor universal human rights.
Many Philippine officials are suspected of having bank accounts and properties in the U.S. With the adoption of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a lot of them are at risk of being sanctioned.
De Lima Case
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act is also being invoked in the celebrated case of Sen. Leila de Lima who is imprisoned on drug and corruption charges.
At issue is the U.S. 2020 spending law amendment that bans Philippine government officials involved in the imprisonment of de Lima from entering the U.S. The U.S. spending law includes a “Prohibition from Entry” provision, which states that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “shall apply subsection (c) to foreign government officials about whom Pompeo has “credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of Sen. de Lima, who was arrested in 2017.” Subsection (c) refers to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the U.S. government to impose a travel ban and a freeze of assets to those it deemed were human rights violators.
President Duterte reacted by ordering the Bureau of Immigration to deny entry to two American senators who supported the 2020 spending law. They are senators Dick Durbin (Illinois) and Patrick Leahy (Vermont). They introduced the amendment to include a provision denying entry to government officials behind de Lima’s “wrongful imprisonment.” Duterte also threatened to require American citizens to secure a visa to enter the Philippines if the U.S. enforces the ban.
It is interesting to note that the majority of tourists coming to the Philippines are American citizens of Filipino heritage, who have enjoyed unrestricted entry to the Philippines. This would create a backlog of visa applications in Philippine consular offices in the U.S. Until now, Filipino-Americans can enter the Philippines visa-free for 30 days.
Indeed, enforcement of the ban on Philippine officials could eventually affect all American citizens. Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said: “Should a ban from entry into U.S. territory be enforced against Philippine officials involved in – or by reason of – Senator de Lima’s lawful imprisonment, this government will require all Americans intending to come to the Philippines to apply and secure a visa before they can enter Philippine territory.”
If the issue of de Lima’s imprisonment is not resolved, it would lead to a diplomatic standoff. The question is: Is de Lima’s imprisonment wrongful (according to the U.S. government) or is it lawful imprisonment (according to the Philippine government)? Tough question that requires both governments to review their positions vis-à-vis de Lima’s imprisonment.
In November 2017, two weeks after it passed its Magnitsky Act, Canada imposed sanctions on 30 individuals tied to Russia, 19 Venezuelan officials, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and three individuals from South Sudan. They were sanctioned for corruption and rights abuses.
Russia protested but Canada stood firm. The Canadian Foreign Minister issued a statement saying: “Canada is determined to protect human rights and combat corruption worldwide. Today’s announcement sends a clear message that Canada will take action against individuals who have profited from acts of significant corruption or who have been involved in gross violations of human rights.”
In April 2019, Washington added more sanctions on Venezuela and two of its key allies, Nicaragua and Cuba. The U.S. Treasury has designated the Central Bank of Venezuela to prevent it from being used as a tool of the Maduro regime, which it claims continues to plunder Venezuelan assets and exploit government institutions to enrich corrupt politicians. The move shows the Trump administration’s resolve to prevent the Maduro regime from gaining access to the U.S. financial system.
The U.S. Treasury also sanctioned Laureano Ortega Murillo, son of Nicaragua’s president, and a Nicaraguan bank as well. “President Ortega, Vice President Murillo, and members of their inner circle continue to engage in blatant corruption, violence, and violations of basic human rights,” says a press release issued by the U.S. Treasury.
Khashoggi murder case
In November 2018, the U.S. Treasury, using the Magnitsky Act, sanctioned 17 individuals allegedly involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. It resulted in the designation of “any property or interests in property of the individuals designated within or transiting U.S. jurisdiction is blocked.”
Consequently, several other countries followed and introduced their own legislative framework to impose sanctions on grave human rights abusers including Canada, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom.
Interest in Magnitsky Act is catching fire in other countries. With the European Union (EU) moving towards adoption of the Magnitsky Act, that would add the 28 countries in the EU that could sanction individuals who are suspected of violating human rights.
Dictators who are human rights abusers are on top of the list of potential Magnitsky Act violators. In today’s advanced technology in tracing financial movements, there is no safe haven for dictators to keep their ill-gotten wealth.
Indeed, the Magnitsky Act is one hell of a deterrent that would keep the international scene free of human rights violators. Who’s next? At the end of the day, Sergei Magnitsky will be remembered for his crusade against corruption and human rights abuses. Thanks to him the world will be a lot safer. He did not die in vain. He is a hero.