April 01, 2021

Sanctions by the Numbers: Spotlight on Human Rights and Corruption

By Jason Bartlett and Megan Ophel

The 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, subsequently referred to as the Global Magnitsky Act, allows the U.S. government to impose sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses and/or corruption anywhere in the world through the Global Magnitsky Sanctions program. This sanctions authority supplemented the original Magnitsky Sanctions program pursuant to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, which imposed sanctions only on individuals involved in the detention and death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, as well as other human rights violations specific to Russia. Magnitsky was falsely charged with tax evasion and died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after investigating a large-scale tax fraud case involving Russian government officials.

While the Global Magnitsky Sanctions program has increased the U.S. government’s flexibility in imposing sanctions on non-state actors and those in countries not already subject to country-specific sanctions programs, the United States has long employed targeted sanctions under other legal authorities to respond to human rights violations and corruption. In the absence of an objective legal definition of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions, this Sanctions by the Numbers installment classifies human rights– and corruption-related sanctions data into two categories: narrow and broad. The former includes only individuals and entities sanctioned under legal authorities that deal specifically with corruption and/or human rights abuses, such as the Global Magnitsky Sanctions program. The latter includes all individuals and entities designated under any legal authority where the Treasury Department press release associated with their designation contains specific language citing human rights violations and/or corruption.

For example, despite the fact that Syria is currently subject to the most human rights– and corruption-related sanctions in the world, with over 640 total designations, the Treasury Department has only designated 39 Syrian individuals and entities under the narrow definition tied to specific human rights– and corruption-related clauses found in executive orders or other legislation. However, the Treasury Department has sanctioned large numbers of Syrian individuals for human rights violations through legal authorities related to their status as government officials, which is included in the broad definition of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions. In order to track how sanctions addressing human rights abuses and corruption have evolved over time, the authors paired the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)-issued sanctions designations from 2009 to 2021 with official Treasury Department press releases and legal notices to determine which sanctions have been imposed in response to human rights violations and corruption.

New Human Rights– and Corruption-related Sanctions (2009–2020)

Source: Historical data from 2009–2020 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

This figure depicts the fluctuating trend in human rights– and corruption-related sanctions according to the narrow and broad definitions, with a notable increase in overall designations during the Trump administration. The spike in 2017 is largely explained by the simultaneous designation of 271 Syrian scientists and officials in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

Over the past five years, the U.S. government has imposed an unprecedented number of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions, averaging 230 per calendar year, with the majority targeting Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. The Treasury Department has imposed many of these targeted sanctions through country-specific programs, rather than through the Global Magnitsky Act, which requires individuals and entities to be linked directly to specific human rights– and corruption-related activities. Since 2009, the United States has designated only 635 individuals and entities (39 percent of which are designated under the Global Magnitsky Act) for human rights and corruption pursuant to the narrow definition. Meanwhile, 1,791 individuals and entities (14 percent under Global Magnitsky) have been targeted according to the broad definition. This suggests that the Treasury Department may have more difficulty meeting the designation threshold for specific activities related to corruption and human rights due to the challenge of finding clear evidence. At the same time, the Treasury Department has demonstrated an increased willingness to use broader criteria for corruption and human rights–related sanctions designations through other tools, as sanctions regimes and designations drastically expanded under the Trump administration. As the Biden administration begins to apply its new sanctions strategy, it is likely that country-specific sanctions regimes will continue to play a major role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and its economic response toward human rights violations and global corruption.

Designations by Administration (2009–2021)

Source: Historical data from 2009–2021 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

As the Treasury Department expanded its sanctions programs under the Trump administration, both human rights– and corruption-related designations increased, from 459 to 686 and 36 to 565, respectively.

The Trump administration significantly increased the number of designations, nearly tripling the total number of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions of both Obama terms. The administration focused on Syria (403), Venezuela (335), and Iran (114). Even with the inclusion of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions dating back to 2009, the Trump administration imposed the overwhelming majority, with 78 percent of the total human rights– and corruption-related designations on Iran, 98 percent on Venezuela, and 62 percent on Syria. Furthermore, the Trump administration placed particular emphasis on corruption, with designations increasing by 1,419 percent from the Obama administration, mainly driven by 295 such sanctions on Venezuela and 78 on Syria.

Human Rights– and Corruption-related Sanctions by Target (2009–2021)

Source: Historical data from 2009–2021 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

This heat map illustrates the global distribution of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions from 2009 to 2021 with the largest concentration in Syria (647), Venezuela (344), and Iran (147).

During the Trump administration, the Treasury Department issued official statements and sanctions designations with increasing focus on corruption within Nicolás Maduro’s regime as the primary cause of the protracted humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. In Syria, the Trump administration increased corruption-related designations that targeted businessmen for supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime’s reconstruction efforts during the waning years of the Syrian Civil War, claiming that “corrupt businessmen underwrite the regime’s exploitative schemes and shamefully profit from its atrocities.” The dramatic increase in human rights– and corruption-related sanctions on these specific countries suggests that the Trump administration used these economic measures as part of their wider “maximum pressure” campaign.

Total Human rights–related Sanctions on Russia (2009–2021)

Source: Historical data from 2009–2021 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

Half of all human rights–related sanctions on Russia are linked to the death of Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, while the remaining designations are pursuant to other human rights abuse cases.

In October 2020, the United Nations General Assembly elected Russia and China to the U.N. Human Rights Council, a move which elicited widespread criticism from the international community due to both countries’ poor human rights records. The United States first imposed human rights–related sanctions on Russia in 2013 under the original Magnitsky Act, which called for sanctions on those responsible for Sergei Magnitsky’s death, as well as for other human rights violations in Russia. Designations specifically related to the death of Magnitsky comprise half of all human rights–related sanctions on Russia, while the next largest share are designations for human rights abuses committed in Chechnya. For example, the Treasury has sanctioned Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, and other Chechen government officials, entities, and individuals, for their involvement in extrajudicial killings, torture, and persecution of LGBTQI persons. Designations in response to the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny represent the next largest share.

Total Human rights–related Sanctions on China (2009–2021)

Source: Historical data from 2009–2021 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

The overwhelming majority of human rights– and corruption-related sanctions targeting China are in response to Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Prior to 2020, the United States had only imposed one human rights–related sanction on China, which was in response to the death of Cao Shunli. Cao was a human rights activist who died in 2014 during her detainment in a Beijing prison after the Chinese government refused her medical treatment and visitation from her lawyer while she suffered from tuberculosis. From 2020 to 2021, the U.S. government dramatically increased sanctions on China in response to its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the ongoing mass detention and abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Although Congress has passed several laws calling for sanctions on those in China who are responsible for human rights abuses in both Hong Kong and Xinjiang, only 22 percent of human rights–related sanctions on China are related to Xinjiang, with the vast majority of designations linked to Hong Kong. The Treasury Department has sanctioned only 10 individuals and entities in relation to activities in Xinjiang, all under the Global Magnitsky Act.

In Xinjiang, the U.S. government has relied more heavily on export controls and customs restrictions on companies implicated in the facilitation of, and/or complicity in, the systematic human rights abuse against the Uyghur people, rather than traditional sanctioning or asset blocking of individuals, entities, and government officials. From 2019 to 2021, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security had placed 48 Chinese companies on its Entity List for involvement in human rights abuses, such as the use of forced labor or providing high-tech surveillance equipment in Xinjiang specifically, and another four for similar offenses in the rest of China. Additionally, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued eight Withhold Release Orders (WRO) since 2019 to detain goods produced by firms in Xinjiang using forced labor. The most wide-ranging order, issued in January 2021, banned all cotton and tomatoes produced in the region.

The Treasury Department and other U.S. government agencies possessing legal authority to impose economic sanctions will most likely continue expanding their sanctions programs to address human rights– and corruption-related activity. As seen in the new wave of sanctions on Burma following the February 1 military coup, the Biden administration has already demonstrated its willingness to include specific language pursuant to human rights within new sanctions designations, stating that “Burma’s military should immediately restore power to the democratically elected leadership, end the state of emergency, release all those unjustly detained, and respect human rights and the rule of law, including by ensuring peaceful protestors are not met with violence.” The Biden administration will likely follow the trend of the former Trump administration in increasing its use of country-specific sanctions programs for human rights– and corruption-related designations, as opposed to strictly using the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program. However, the Biden administration has expressed intentions to seek multilateral cooperation from allies and partners prior to excluding heavy unilateral economic pressure as seen in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign.”

Methodology

The following sanctions programs were included in this Sanctions by the Numbers installment: VENEZUELA, VENEZUELA-EO13850, BELARUS, VENEZUELA-EO13662, VENEZUELA-EO13884, DRCONGO, CAATSA-RUSSIA, BURMA, BURMA-EO14014, JADE, CAR, DPRK2, DPRK3, GLOMAG, MAGNIT, HK-EO13936, HRIT-IR, IRAN-EO13876, IRAN-TRA, IRAN-HR, CAATSA-IRAN, LIBYA2, NICARAGUA, NICARAGUA-NHRAA, NPWMD, SOUTH SUDAN, SYRIA, SYRIA-EO13894, SYRIA-CAESAR, UKRAINE-EO13661, and ZIMBABWE. Not all designations under these programs were included. For example, designations under DPRK3 related to the North Korean nuclear program were not included.

The following exceptions were made when compiling data:

  1. Where an individual or entity was designated under multiple authorities, if at least one was based on a specific human rights or corruption clause, it was included under the narrow definition.
  2. Where an individual or entity was designated under both human rights and corruption clauses, they are included in both the human rights and corruption categories, though counted once for the total.
  3. If the exact section in the executive order or legislation under which a designation was made was not specified, the designation is included under the broad definition.
  4. Anti-democratic practices, such as vote rigging, imposing unfair candidate selection criteria, or refusing to concede power, were not included. Crackdowns in response to protests against such practices were included under human rights.
  5. Although they were designated under the NPWMD sanctions program, a number of Syrian persons associated with the regime’s chemical weapons program were included under the broad definition of human rights abuses because they were named in direct response to specific uses of chemical weapons against civilians.
  6. In Figure 3, designations were categorized according to country-specific sanctions programs, or if non-country specific, by where the human rights abuse or corruption activity occurred or by which government ordered the activity. For example, while Dan Gertler is an Israeli national, he was included in the total sanctions designations on the Democratic Republic of the Congo because he was sanctioned pursuant to his involvement in corrupt activities within the country. The Saudi nationals responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi were included under Saudi Arabia, even though Khashoggi was killed in Turkey.

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The CNAS Sanctions by the Numbers series offers comprehensive analysis and graphical visualization of major patterns, changes, and developments in U.S. sanctions policy and economic statecraft. Members of the CNAS Energy, Economics, and Security Program collect and analyze data from publicly available government sources, such as the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Energy, Economics, & Security

Sanctions by the Numbers

About this series Each month, the Sanctions by the Numbers newsletter and series offers comprehensive analysis and visualization of major patterns, changes, and developments ...

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Authors

  • Jason Bartlett

    Research Assistant, Energy, Economics, and Security Program

    Jason Bartlett is a Research Assistant for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at CNAS. His research focuses on global proliferation finance networks, sanctions evasio...

  • Megan Ophel

    Intern, Energy, Economics, and Security Program

    Megan Ophel is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Megan wo...

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