The significance of the Magnitsky Act for sanctioning serious human rights violations on a global level

Today, November 16th, marks 11 years since the death of Sergei Magnitsky. On this day in 2009, in a Moscow prison, he was tied to a bench by guards and beaten with rubber truncheons. He had pancreatitis, which he contracted due to the appalling conditions at Butirka Prison, where he had previously been held for almost a year and died the same day. He was 37 years old, married, and had two children.

His “fault” was that he alerted the Russian authorities that an organized criminal group, including high-ranking Russian officials, had embezzled 200 million euros in taxes from a British fund where he worked, the Hermitage Capital.

The fact that the perpetrators of this crime were not punished, the posthumous trial of Magnitsky, the murder of Litvinenko and some other cases of human rights violations, as well as the fact that Russia, as an authoritarian regime, does not sanction such acts, but on the contrary, systematically violates them is the reason why an initiative has been launched for the adoption of regulations that will provide sanctions for those who violate human rights.

Thus, in 2012, the US Congress passed the “Magnitsky Act“, which provides for sanctions against those responsible for the death of Magnitsky and other gross human rights violations in Russia. 2016 was followed by the Global Magnitsky Act, which provides for sanctions for serious human rights violations around the world. Similar laws, following the example of the Magnitsky Global Act, have been passed by several other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic states.

Commenting on the debate in the EU on the need for such an act, Magnitsky’s wife said: “The Magnitsky European Act is not just for Sergei. This regulation will aim to prevent an increase in the number of new victims of dangerous regimes committing similar crimes. If evil is not defeated, it tends to spread indefinitely. I believe it is a matter of time – sooner or later Sergei’s executioners will be brought to justice.

Which countries have adopted legislation similar to the Magnitsky Act?

In October 2017, Canada passed the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Act), arguing that all internationally recognized human rights violators should be treated and sanctioned equally worldwide.

Following the addition of Magnitsky elements to several UK laws, the first sanctions under the new global human rights were announced in July 2020. The new Magnitsky -style sanctions regime will target those involved in some of the most serious human rights violations and abuses around the world. They will not be allowed to enter the country, send money through British banks or profit from the British economy. The measures are aimed at individuals and organizations, rather than countries.

The first wave of sanctions in the UK under this new rule concerned:

  • 25 Russian citizens involved in the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky.

  • 20 Saudi nationals involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • two generals from Myanmar involved in systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya ethnic group and other ethnic minorities.

  • two organizations involved in forced labor, torture, and killings in North Korean camps.

The package of measures may also apply to those who facilitate, encourage, promote, or support these violations / abuses, as well as those who profit financially from human rights violations and abuses.

Estonia was the first European country to introduce a ban on foreigners found guilty of human rights abuses. The law is unofficially named after Sergei Magnitsky and was unanimously passed by parliament in December. With it, Estonia imposes a ban on the entry of persons if “there is information or good reason to believe” that they participated in activities that resulted in “death or serious damage to the health of certain persons” or their “unfounded conviction” of crimes committed by political motives. ”

In November 2017, Lithuania also passed the Magnitsky Act to ban foreigners involved in high-profile corruption, money laundering or human rights abuses, making it the fourth country in the world after the United States, Estonia and Canada to enact such legislation.

Latvia is the sixth country in the world and the last of the three Baltic countries to adopt such regulation in February 2018. It imposed travel restrictions on 49 Russian nationals who were complicit in the Magnitsky case or other human rights abuses. Sanctions on the 49 are also listed in the US Magnitsky Act, including on Kadyrov (Chechen leader and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin) and others linked to human rights abuses against the LGBT population in Chechnya.

The European Union

The EU has already imposed human rights sanctions, but they are currently geographically limited to individual countries around the world. However, the EU is shifting to a thematic approach. In 2016, it added sanctions on terrorism, chemical weapons and cyber-attacks that span the globe. The advantage of this approach is that new persons and entities can be added to the EU sanctions list, without the need for a separate legal framework and Council decision for each country.

In December 2018, the Netherlands proposed thematic human rights sanctions at EU level. The idea was initially opposed by some member states, and only after a year of debate, in December 2019, High Representative Josep Borrell announced that the EU was ready to start working on the necessary measures.

On October 19th, 2020, the European Commission proposed a bill banning travel and freezing funds for those responsible for human rights violations around the world, informally known as the “European Magnitsky Act”.

The Commission’s plan, which is to establish a global EU human rights sanctions regime, will replace the previous country-focused system. According to him, a freeze on funds and travel bans for foreigners who are considered to have violated fundamental rights is envisaged and a unified legal framework for these acts is unified.

According to the draft, human rights violations will be identified based on 12 criteria, including the following:

  • crimes against humanity.

  • executions without trial.

  • enforced disappearance.

  • arbitrary arrest.

  • human trafficking.

  • sexual violence.

  • abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly.

  • abuses of freedom of expression.

  • abuses of freedom of religion.

In its September 2020 resolution on the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the European Parliament called on the EU Council to approve and implement Magnitsky-style sanctions in the near future.

With this, the European Union shows its readiness to act against human rights violations in Russia.




This project was funded in part through a U.S. Embassy grant. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the implementers/authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.


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