by Sarah Allis and Joy Hammer
The U.S. government uses its Global Magnitsky targeted sanctions program in a primarily confrontational manner, i.e., to condemn and check abuses in countries where national authorities are taking limited or no action to stop them. In this blog post, however, we highlight another possibility: that sanctions can offer an alternative avenue for the U.S. to work with foreign governments as they attempt to combat abuses within their own borders. The relationship-building potential of the Global Magnitsky program is illustrated in sanctions imposed on individuals and entities in The Gambia, Latvia, and Mexico.
The Gambia: Yahya Jammeh rose to power as President of The Gambia in 1994 following a violent coup. His well-documented reign of terror was marked by pervasive human rights abuses and corruption, and finally ended following the December 2016 election of Adama Barrow and Jammeh’s subsequent self-imposed exile to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. With a new government in power under Barrow, The Gambia has begun a process of reconciliation and accountability through commissions of inquiry and efforts to recover assets. Attempts to hold Jammeh accountable or recover stolen assets have nonetheless proven difficult. In a show of support for Gambian efforts at accountability, the U.S. sanctioned Jammeh and associated entities in the first group of sanctions announced under the Global Magnitsky program in December 2017. The Gambian government expressed its support for these sanctions as consistent with its own reconciliation process. The U.S. government continues to impose pressure on Jammeh, bringing a civil forfeiture case against assets held in Maryland in July 2020, and sanctioning his wife in September 2020 for aiding and abetting his corrupt activities.
Latvia: While Aivars Lembergs has had a long history as a prominent local politician and Chairman of the board for the Ventpils Freeport Authority, a major Latvian commercial port, he and other Latvian politicians have for many years faced allegations of corruption. Lembergs has been referred to as “the oligarch of oligarchs” in reference to his extensive corruption in the Latvian government. In December 2019, the U.S. government sanctioned Lembergs and four entities affiliated with him – including the port authority’s governing body – due to credible allegations of money laundering and related crimes. The Latvian government, already facing pressure to enact anti-corruption reforms as corruption resulted in increased scrutiny and falling international investment, stripped Lembergs of his authority related to the port and transferred ownership to government authorities just three days after the U.S. designations were announced. Latvia’s swift and decisive response to the U.S. sanctions is an example of ongoing work to help press Latvian authorities to take the politically difficult steps toward combating money laundering.
Mexico: Following allegations that a former state governor, Roberto Sandoval Castañeda, had misappropriated state funds to narcotics trafficking organizations in Mexico, the U.S. government sanctioned Roberto, his family members, and associated businesses, under Global Magnitsky and other sanctions programs in May 2019. Despite tense relations between the two countries during the Trump administration, both U.S. and Mexican officials framed these sanctions as part of a cooperative effort to increase pressure on drug cartels by targeting their larger support systems of people in power providing protection and favorable treatment. As the new Mexican president campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, these sanctions were beneficial for both countries, offering Mexico the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to rooting out corruption, while simultaneously furthering the U.S. government’s focus on corruption as an enabling factor in cross-border drug trafficking.
In these cases, it is often difficult to determine the exact impact of the designations. While understanding how sanctions affect the targeted person is important, these cases highlight that it may be just as important to look at the ways in which governments respond to these sanctions. This approach opens up the discussion on sanctions policy to include the use of targeted sanctions as a cooperative measure to implement positive change, presenting a new tool to collaborate on human rights and anti-corruption challenges.
In the cases of Latvia and Mexico, the U.S. sanctions may have served to press national authorities to root out corruption – while also giving these governments the opportunity to show they were acting toward that goal, making the sanctions mutually beneficial. In The Gambia, the U.S. sanctions indicated support for a Gambian national reconciliation process that was already underway and allowed the U.S. to further sidelining Jammeh and his family by limiting their travel and freezing significant assets. The positive response to these cases is no doubt partly due to the power imbalance between the United States and the other countries, but it can also be attributed to the benefits the host country also gains.
Based on the practice of past U.S. administrations, the U.S. government will undoubtedly continue to use targeted human rights and anti-corruption sanctions in antagonistic contexts such as against China and Myanmar, where local authorities oppose the sanctions. Sanctions will remain a valuable means of naming and shaming the perpetrators of major abuses, signaling U.S. commitment to human rights and democratic norms in authoritarian countries and other closed societies, and shutting malign actors out of the licit international dollar market.
As sanctions policy continues to evolve, the cases described here show there are ways that governments can approach the use of sanctions more strategically to creatively build relationships, not just cut targets off from the U.S. financial system. Civil society advocates and government entities should consider that Global Magnitsky sanctions may also help catalyze action in countries that are working, however imperfectly, to achieve accountability, and that this can be a cooperative effort.
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