US lawmakers, media advocates, discuss human rights sanctions to protect journalists globally

Washington/12.02.19/Turan: Lawmakers, former senior State Department officials, and journalists in Washington are discussing the growing need for the use of human rights sanctions to protect journalists around the world, TURAN's U.S. correspondent reports.

"Authoritarian governments around the world are most vulnerable when we go after them for stealing from their people, even more than when we go after them for abusing and oppressing their people," Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), former assistant Secretary of State in the Obama administration, said on Monday at the National Press Club.

Luckily, he added, the U.S. has a powerful tool for accountability: The Global Magnitsky Act.

Passed by Congress as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Global Magnitsky is "giving the [U.S.] president the authority to impose individualized sanctions on any individual around the world who is responsible for gross human rights abuses and very importantly, for serious acts of corruption," he said calling the act "a profoundly effective and important tool, particularly if we learn to use this new anti-corruption prong of it."

There is reason for cautious optimism surrounding the future of the Global Magnitsky. "If we use strong human rights tools against Saudi Arabia, it would be a good message that we put our values before our relationships," Malinowski said referring to the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident.

For Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, and former deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, the Khashoggi case captured popular attention for a variety of reasons while the message that the murder seems designed to convey appears to have been directed not just at Jamal 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."

Under the Magnitsky Act, the U.S. 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 Khashoggi.

Given Azerbaijan and other Middle Eastern countries' gross human rights violations especially against journalists, Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, it is disappointing that no one from those countries has yet been sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. However, "it is important to realize that we are still in relatively early days figuring out how and if the Magnitsky Act can have an impact on protecting journalists."

In the meantime, around the world in 9 out of 10 cases, there is no justice for murdered journalists. And when there is justice, it rarely includes the mastermind, - she said, adding, often this is due to a "lack of political will and institutional capacity. The Magnitsky Act addresses the issue of political will.

Sanctions, she added, should target the interest of the high level officials both both in the U.S. and in Europe: "It will improve and strengthen the impact [of sanctions] if we can see this globally... The goal is not to just get the low-level officials but to get those with the power and influence. I hope that is where we're headed".

For Berschinski, coming up with credible cooperated evidence is essential both on the advocacy side {when it comes to countries like Azerbaijan) and on the [U.S.] governmental side to achieve a designation, but "ultimately this is a political choice and a matter of political will, application, and discretionary and has to have the political will to take effective action."

"Even when there is political will to take action within a particular country context the State Department, Treasury and Justice Departments need to be very smart about not only are they making a designation, but at what level and what message does that send it," he added.

Since it passed, the Magnitsky law has gained popularity, with Canada, the United Kingdom, and Estonia passing similar laws.

Alex Raufoglu

Washington D.C.

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