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