Making sense of sanctions: ANU Law scholar researches impact of Global Magnitsky Act

Dr Anton Moiseienko holds a copy of his report, 'A Journey of 20: An Empirical Study of the Impact of Magnitsky Corruption Sanctions'
Dr Anton Moiseienko is the lead author of an empirical study examining the impact of sanctions targeting 20 individuals implicated in corruption-related crimes. Photo: Tom Fearon/ANU

One of the major contributions of this report is demonstrating the wide variety of different forms of impacts that can occur. They go far beyond the amount of property frozen, which can be scant by itself.

Since the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act came into force in 2016, multiple countries, including Australia, have expanded their sanctions regimes to include individuals accused of corruption. Now, a landmark study led by Dr Anton Moiseienko evaluates the regime’s impact with novel results.

Sanctions are one of the most diverse – and, potentially, severe – tools in a country’s foreign policy arsenal. They can involve diplomatic, economic or military pressure in a bid to end human rights abuses, disrupt terrorist networks and curb nuclear ambitions under the overarching objective of bringing ‘rogue’ states back into the fold of international law and norms.

But how effective are sanctions when the targets are individuals accused of corruption?

A first-of-its-kind empirical study led by Dr Anton Moiseienko, a lecturer and transnational criminal law expert at The Australian National University (ANU), aims to answer this question.

The study examines 20 corruption-related designees targeted under the Global Magnitsky Act, named after a lawyer killed in a Moscow prison for exposing corruption by Russian officials.

The report adds to Dr Moiseienko’s other ongoing work on sanctions, including a recent article that explores circumstances when sanctions can be used instead of, or in addition to, criminal prosecutions.

The idea for the study came about during a conversation Dr Moiseienko had in 2021 with co-author and senior director of the International Lawyers Project, Eva van der Merwe.

 “We realised that more than five years had passed since the United States introduced its first corruption-related sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act,” he said.

“The project took shape by its own initiative because it was just so obvious that this was something that was worth doing.”

Using open source research, the researchers set about collecting data across diverse platforms and languages covering the dozen host countries – including Israel, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, Russia and more – of those targeted.

This was complemented by nearly 30 interviews with country and subject-matter experts to evaluate the broader implications of the sanctions.

Among the 20 individuals studied are Artem Chayka, the son of a Russian Prosecutor General who according to the US government leveraged his father’s position to unfairly win state-owned assets and contracts; Yahya Jammeh, former president and military general of The Gambia; and Jose Francisco Lopez Centeno, president of a Nicaraguan state-owned oil company.

“Importantly, a lot of the designees have never been found guilty by a court of criminal wrongdoing, and so we're very clear in our study that we're not endorsing any of the allegations based on which the sanctions have been enforced,” added Dr Moiseienko.

The study found 10 types of impacts across four distinct categories from the sanctions, ranging from increased media scrutiny to the loss of political influence or employment. Travel bans and asset freezes accounted for the most common impacts, although the study found enforcement of the latter measures relies on the availability of information about the targeted individual’s corporate network.

“One of the questions I had was, ‘How many cases are we going to see where there is no obvious impact of sanctions?’ I think this is something that probably keeps policymakers up at night,” noted Dr Moiseienko.

While there was no obvious impact on one-third of the case studies and critics of the sanctions regime are quick to point to their ineffectiveness, the study sheds light on the broader impacts of sanctions beyond frozen property assets that, in and of itself, is a flawed measure of effectiveness.

“No one would say that corruption-related sanctions are a ‘silver bullet’. There are people who would argue that they are generally not effective and there is quite a bit of skepticism around corruption-related sanctions, potentially sanctions writ large,” he said.

“One of the major contributions of this report is demonstrating the wide variety of different forms of impacts that can occur. They go far beyond the amount of property frozen, which can be scant by itself.

“In two-thirds of the cases that we studied, there has been some form of impact. Now, whether or not that is enough to say that corruption sanctions are worth the trouble is a difficult question, but I think that this sort of analysis contributes to a more nuanced, more even-handed discussion of the contribution that sanctions can make,” Dr Moiseienko added.

Another key finding of the study is that the impact of sanctions on individuals is significantly enhanced when governments and the private sector work together to identify corporate networks and potential nominees associated with the people targeted.

Individuals with links to the global financial system or engaged in business activities around the world are far more vulnerable than those “who are perfectly happy to hunker down in their home country," said Dr Moiseienko.

“Few of those people would hold property in their own names and so to enable effective sanctions compliance, it helps tremendously when governments designate additional companies and individuals associated with the primary perpetrator that makes sure that sanctions evasion is a much more difficult task for the people who are on receiving end of sanctions,” he said.

The study, which was launched on 29 June 2023 at a roundtable event in London by the International Lawyers Project, has received positive feedback civil society and human rights activists. Dr Moiseienko added that diaspora groups and human rights organisations engaged in monitoring corruption stand to benefit from the report.

Closer to home, he said there are also key lessons for Australia to learn from the report.

“Australia has so far been very careful in using corruption- and human rights-related sanctions. I think the first order of business would be for Australia to start taking those sanctions seriously as part of the overall arsenal that it has when it responds to corruption and human rights violations around the world,” said Dr Moiseienko.

“For Australia to simply ‘copy and paste’ European designations, such as freeze the assets of someone with villas in Europe but no property to speak of in Australia, does not necessarily add all that much value beyond a symbolic approval. Conversely, there may be people in the Asia-Pacific region that will have strong access to Australia. If Australia prioritises those people for its sanctions program, then that program has the chance to be its most effective.”

A Journey of 20: An Empirical Study of the Impact of Magnitsky Corruption Sanctions can be accessed here.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team