The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act

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The Global Magnitsky Act is a US domestic law that authorizes the US president to sanction perpetrators of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and corruption through US-based asset freezes and visa bans. This means that designated perpetrators are publicly announced by the US government as human rights violators, are denied entry into the US, all assets they have within the US become inaccessible to them, and all US-based businesses and banks are forbidden from doing business with them or their businesses. This is a tool which can be used to target Chinese officials complicit in human rights abuses. Though many officials may not have US-based assets or travel plans to the US, sanctions are a tool to put pressure on human rights abusers by highlighting their profile as an rights violator, creating pressure to change their behaviour.

Being named on the US sanctions list is often followed by other accountability measures. For example, both US and international law enforcement may open investigations into possible criminal charges. A similar law is in use in Canada, and the United Kingdom and the European Union are also in the stages of creating and implementing similar laws. The Act is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer that died in detention due to torture as a result of his anti-corruption efforts.

Each time a perpetrator is designated, the US Treasury Department releases a statement announcing the sanction. Under the Act, the US president is required to submit an annual report to Congress every year on December 10—Human Rights Day—detailing the overall efforts of the Executive Branch to hold human rights abusers and corrupt officials accountable through Global Magnitsky sanctioning.

In 2017, the US president designated Chinese police official Gao Yan for sanctions over his role in the death in custody of activist Cao Shunli. In July 2020, the US State and Treasury Departments issued sanctions and visa restrictions against several Chinese officials, including Chinese Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Chen Quanguo, for their role in serious human rights violations in Xinjiang.

How to use it?

In 2017, the first year for designations, the US president issued an Executive Order 13818 which expanded the criteria for perpetrators of human rights violations eligible for sanctions, lowering the threshold to those responsible for or complicit in serious human rights abuses. In practice, this means the perpetrator is accused of:

  • Acts including extrajudicial killing, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and corruption;
  • Being the leader of an entity that has engaged in, or its members have engaged in such acts;
  • The violation should have occurred in the past five years;
  • The violations should be of a continuous and systematic nature, i.e. a pattern of abuse carried out over time and across a network of abusers, of which the perpetrator is a member and/or a leader.

The US government is required by the Act to accept evidence from non-governmental organizations. To submit a case, fill out the NGO template for submissions (prepared by Human Rights First).

  • Ideally, each allegation of criminal conduct should be at least double verified by independent credible sources (the United Nations, government statements, credible media organizations, NGOs, and credible victim or eye-witness testimony)
  • The US government may be more likely to pick up on cases that the US State Department has raised in press statements or in its annual human rights report, as well as cases promoted by members of the US Congress.

Official Materials:

Global Magnitsky Act (English) (Unofficial Chinese Translation from China Human Rights Accountability Center)

Executive Order 13818

US State Department page on Global Magnitsky

US Treasury Department page on Global Magnitsky

See CHRD’s work on the Global Magnitsky Act:

Renee Xia & Frances Eve, “China’s Ethnic Cleansing Met with US Inaction under Global Magnitsky Law,” May 26, 2019, CHRD

Open Letter From Non-Governmental Organizations In Support Of A Targeted, Global EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime, December 11, 2018

Justice & Accountability for Persecuted Lawyers in “709” Crackdown, July 9, 2018, CHRD

China: Free Liu Xia, Justice for Tiananmen Victims, May 31, 2018, CHRD

Small Step Toward Accountability: US Sanctions Chinese Official Over Death of Cao Shunli, December 22, 2017, CHRD

Justice for Cao Shunli: Sanctions Sought to Hold Chinese Officials Accountable for Torture, September 13, 2017, CHRD

CHRD Demands Accountability & Justice for Victims of Torture, June 22, 2017, CHRD

Other NGO Materials:

Human Rights First – Global Magnitksy Resources

Safeguard Defenders – Guide on how civil society can use Magnitsky Acts to sanction human rights violators

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