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February 11, 2019

Jamal Khashoggi and the Global Magnitsky Act: A Powerful Tool for Accountability

Friday marked the deadline for President Trump to report to leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who the U.S. government believes is responsible for the pre-meditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident. 

President Trump declined to make this determination on Friday, hiding behind a legalistic argument, even though his CIA director has already made clear to Members of Congress what the CIA believes occurred, and who was ultimately responsible—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.

The Khashoggi case captured popular attention for a variety of reasons—including the fact that a world leader, and in this case the leader of a close partner of the United States, seems to have felt emboldened enough by the current international environment to order a hit team to lure a U.S. resident into a diplomatic facility where that individual could be asphyxiated and chopped into pieces.     

The message that the murder seems designed to convey appears to have been directed not just at Jamal Khashoggi and his loved ones, but to a broader audience. It’s a message emanating from a number of authoritarian governments in our current environment. It says, “if you have the audacity to criticize us, or to reveal the facts of our brutality or our corruption, we will come for you. You’re not safe in your home country; you’re not safe anywhere.”

This vision of how the world should work cannot be allowed to take hold; it’s not a vision of the world that any of us want or can afford to live in.

But luckily, the United States has a powerful tool for accountability: The Global Magnitsky Act—the most comprehensive human rights and anti-corruption focused sanctions law in U.S. history. 

Under the Global Magnitsky Act, the State and Treasury departments may restrict the travel and freeze the assets of individuals involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. Since 2016, these sanctions have been imposed on 101 violators, including 17 in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Part of the credit rests with members of Congress, who are in effect saying, “we gave you this tool, and we expect to see you use it,” and who are actively advocating for bringing penalties against alleged wrong-doers.  

Part goes to diplomats at the State Department and officials at Treasury, many of whom realize that Magnitsky sanctions provide leverage to achieve American policy aims, including the protection of journalists, activists, and similar actors threatened for their work. 

And finally, part goes to non-governmental organizations around the world, who, often at personal risk, are doing largely unheralded work to present the U.S. government with credible, corroborated information, and are demanding action. Human Rights First is proud to have taken a leading role in coordinating this truly global effort.  

There is reason for cautious optimism surrounding the future of the Global Magnitsky Act. Future administrations can bolster the deterrent effect by making clear, publicly, and in advance, that those found responsible for gross violations of human rights targeting members of the press in countries like Russia, China, Egypt, Myanmar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—to name a few of the worst offenders—will face consequences for their actions. But only, as has been illustrated so clearly in the Khashoggi case, if voices from the outside continue to demand as much.