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Renewing Magnitsky: The best weapon against an emerging security threat

It’s been more than three years since a paid hit man assassinated Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in February 2018. Kuciak was only 27 and had been investigating the Slovak government’s ties to organized crime when he was gunned down in his home. I didn’t know him but, during my time as an American diplomat in Slovakia (2008-2011), I knew many brave journalists like him, as well as the powerful forces he was up against in his struggle to expose the corruption that threatened Slovakia’s nascent democratic institutions.  

My team and I focused on judicial integrity and bore witness to the many beguiling manipulations of the judiciary at the hands of then-Prime Minister Fico and the president of the Supreme Court; they sued a satirical cartoonist and reporters focused on corruption, and had censured judges who followed the rule of law rather than the instructions of corrupt communist-era mafia bosses. 

In the U.S. embassy we heard complaints from American companies about the country’s business climate, and from concerned civil society activists about human rights abuses. We knew who the bad guys were but we were relatively powerless to stop them. It was clear that the Slovak courts couldn’t, or wouldn’t, either.   

A decade later, that has changed: The U.S. government now has the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. State and Treasury departments to publicly name and shame corrupt actors or human rights violators, freeze their assets and revoke their visas. 

In December 2019, the U.S. government used this powerful tool to sanction the notoriously corrupt Slovak businessman, Marian Kocner, who reportedly threatened Jan Kuciak before his death. Kocner will never travel to the United States or launder his many ill-gotten gains through the U.S. financial system again. Global Magnitsky has given our diplomats and civil society a way to use the information we collect to proactively address the corruption and abuses we see threatening our economic and national security interests. 

While Jan Kuciak was investigating the government’s ties to mafia in Slovakia, undeterred by Kocner’s threats, I was serving in Latin America where the Odebrecht case (and the ICIJ expose) disclosed vast sums of money the Brazilian construction company was paying under the table to win tenders for mega-contracts. In the Dominican Republic, another corrupt businessman, Angel Rondon, admitted to accepting $92 million in “consultancy” payments from Odebrecht and redistributing them to Dominican officials. U.S. companies bidding on contracts didn’t stand a chance at winning tenders in the face of such corruption. The brazenness with which the scheme operated, coupled with the lack of a corruption-related conviction in the country, contributed to general public acceptance of corruption as the cost of doing business.  

This time, however, U.S. officials took action to protect our interests and values. In December 2017, we publicly named and shamed Rondon, froze his U.S.-based assets, and revoked his U.S. visa. We were lauded by the Dominican public for defending their public resources and for addressing a crime that they could (or would) not. 

Kocner and Rondon are now on the Federal Register with more than 200 individuals and legal entities from around the world that our diplomats and a broad consortium of NGOs have identified and that the United States has subsequently sanctioned. Our financial system is no longer complicit to their deeds. However, as the latest “Pandora Papers” treasure trove of financial documents shows, there are many, many more who should be held accountable.  

The Global Magnitsky Act sunsets in December 2022. If not renewed, this powerful tool to fight the scourge of corruption and human rights abuse will be lost. At the United Nations General Assembly, President Biden called corruption “nothing less than a national security threat in the 21st century.” We must make it a bipartisan priority to preserve the authorities of Global Magnitsky and, frankly, should resource the State Department and Treasury Department to implement them more aggressively.

Global Magnitsky works. I firmly believe that the United States providing a consequence for such behavior in defense of our national interest in a tangible, serious, public way empowered citizens in both places I served to defend theirs. In Slovakia, a brave environmental lawyer who protested illegal construction and ran a justice NGO is now president, and improving transparency and rule of law is her top priority. In the Dominican Republic, public protests targeting a host of ills fueled turnout at internationally-observed elections and allowed for the first peaceful transition from one party to another in a generation. The new government there is aggressively tackling corruption with local resources. 

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the first Russia-specific Magnitsky Act passed the Senate by a vote of 94-2 and the House of Representatives, by 365-43, in December 2012. It was a testament to our shared bipartisan values of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Both sides of the political aisle agreed then that it was in the U.S. interest to sanction those Russians implicated in the corruption that Sergei Magnitsky uncovered during his work for a U.S. hedge fund, as well as the human rights abuses that led to his untimely death in a Russian prison.  

Reauthorizing the Global Magnitsky Act is but one crucial step we must take as a nation to combat this ever-evolving national security threat. It sends the right message to both our friends and our competitors that our domestic politics stops at the water’s edge and we will continue to defend our values and interests abroad. 

Katharine M.R. Beamer is a National Security Affairs Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a career Senior Foreign Service officer at the Department of State. She has served abroad primarily as a political officer in Guatemala, Poland, Slovakia, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, as well as in Washington. The views expressed here are hers and not the U.S. government’s.

Original source: THE HILL