GS Speaker Spotlight: Q&A with Bill Browder (GS’18)

Bill Browder is the man behind the Magnitsky Act, leading the global campaign to sanction highly corrupt officials and human rights abusers around the world.

Interviewed by Hilary Miller.

Editor’s Note: Bill Browder (GS’18) is simultaneously a profile in courage and one of the most vilified men by the Russian regime. The financier turned human rights activist set out to hold the Kremlin to account following the horrific murder of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. After uncovering massive fraud committed by Russian government officials, Magnitsky was imprisoned without trial, systematically tortured, and killed in prison in 2009. Since then, Mr. Browder has championed the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign which seeks to impose targeted visa bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers and highly corrupt officials around the world. On December 12, 2020 I spoke with Mr. Browder about his growing impact, the state of the Magnitsky campaign, voids in the global justice system, and how democracies can support the fight to hold abusers to account. 

Two weeks ago, we saw that 27 EU foreign ministers adopted the Magnitsky Act, joining the US, UK, Canada, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other countries. In a tweet, you called this a “monumental and historic day.” What do you make of this development with the 27 EU foreign ministers? Does it feel different from when other countries adopted their respective sanctions policies?

It’s a huge triumph; we’ve gone from seven countries with the Magnitsky Act to 31 countries, which is gigantic. This means that when the Act is used, and hopefully used in harmony and in concert, it will have a much more devastating impact on human rights abusers. That’s the triumph. 

There are frustrations with the EU Magnitsky Act, though. First, the EU version is only half of the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act in the United States includes human rights abuses and corruption. For example, when Magnitsky was killed, he uncovered a massive corruption scheme and, as a result of that, he was killed. So, the people who participated in the corruption scheme were sanctioned, and the people who killed him were sanctioned. In the EU Magnitsky Act, only the people who killed him would be sanctioned, not the people who did the corruption scheme. And I would say that most human rights atrocities involve corruption, and therefore the fact that the EU doesn’t include corruption is a big weakness. And on the day that the EU Magnitsky Act was passed, 15 major anti-corruption organizations wrote to Joseph Borrell and told him that there was a big weakness and deficiency, and they needed to fix this.

Another big frustration with the EU Magnitsky Act is the fact that it requires unanimity—all 27 EU member states unanimously have to support any sanctions list, meaning that any little country who might be influenced under pressure, blackmail or bribery from Putin or China or wherever— like Hungary or Malta or Cyprus—can effectively block the entire will of all the European people. This explains why it took 10 years to get an EU Magnitsky Act, because Hungary stood in the way for the last three years and that’s why the EU Magnitsky lists will probably be watered-down given the ability of little countries to hijack the entire process.

On a related note, it’s one thing to adopt a sanctions policy like Magnitsky, but it’s another to impose it. For example, Canada hasn’t added a single name to its Magnitsky sanctions list since 2018. How can we ensure that governments that have already adopted Magnitsky sanctions policy impose it on a regular basis? 

This is a very new legal technology. It has only been in existence in the US since 2012, as well as in Canada and various other countries since 2018. My hope is that we start to see Western, rule of law governments coordinating. And coordinating has its vice and virtue. On the one hand, countries working together slow down the process. But, on the other hand, when you have international, intergovernmental Magnitsky conferences in the works, then it creates pressure. So, if the US, the UK and Australia wanted to sanction a human rights abuser, let’s say in Africa, and Canada is not doing anything and they are all at the same conference, then it’s going to look pretty bad if Canada chooses to do nothing when all of the other countries are acting. So, I am hoping that there is going to be some peer pressure to get some of the laggards like Canada to become more active.

You described Magnitsky as “a new legal technology.” Doesn’t the global justice system already have some form of universal jurisdiction to hold abusers to account? 

Universal jurisdiction means that if a crime is committed in one country, then you can prosecute them in another. For example, I live in the UK which, in theory, has universal jurisdiction in the legal textbooks. So, in this case, if someone commits a crime in China and it is so egregious then we can prosecute them in the UK. The Magnitsky Act doesn’t prosecute anybody, it only sanctions those people perpetrating a crime. And by definition, the Magnitsky Act does have universal jurisdiction in every country that has a Magnitsky Act. In other words, these crimes aren’t being committed in Canada, but Canada can sanction crimes that are being committed in Venezuela. 

Now, in terms of how we get every country to do this, the answer is that we will never get every country to do this. This is one of the major faults of the United Nations. You have these terrible countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and China that all sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council and they are all voting against any consequences for themselves and other bad actors. So, in a certain way, I see the Magnitsky Act as an upgrade from the dysfunction of the United Nations because it enables a subset of countries that actually believe in human rights to work together and exclude the dictators and kleptocrats of the world. When a small group of countries act together that does the trick, it proves the power of the Magnitsky Act. 

All of the bad countries want to keep their money in good countries. Russian killers don’t want to keep their money in Saudi Arabia, and they don’t want to keep their money in China. They want to keep their money in Canada, the UK, and the United States where it’s supposedly safe. So with all the civilized countries in the world having adopted the Magnitsky Act it becomes dangerous for bad countries to keep their money safe. This contributes to the overarching goal: closing off the civilized world for money and travel for all of these uncivilized people who violate human rights. 

We have multiple UN Human Rights Council resolutions stating the “illegal nature of unilateral coercive measures” and there’s even a UN expert whose mandate is to probe the negative impacts of UCM on human rights. What do you make of the UN’s framing of sanctions policy as doing more harm than good?

It’s all total nonsense being driven by dictators and kleptocrats. The Magnitsky sanctions are all very narrow and target only the people committing the crimes. So, I believe that the Magnitsky sanctions are what I call “smart sanctions.” Instead of sanctioning a whole country, you sanction the perpetrators of the crimes very narrowly. And there’s nobody that can make an argument about how it would be bad to create consequences for the perpetrators of an atrocity. Nobody can make that argument. The only argument they can make is that there should be due process and, in most countries that have Magnitsky Acts, there are due process provisions written in the law. If you think you were unfairly sanctioned, you can appeal in the courts against your sanction.

Beginning January 1, 2021 Russia will join the U.N. Human Rights Council along with other serial rights abusers like China, Pakistan, and Cuba. What kind of a message does the UN’s election of these countries send to rights activists and dissidents who resist their oppression?

It shows that the UN is not fit for purpose anymore in the area of human rights.

Over the last 11 years you have become a leading human rights activist going after one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. You were just nominated to receive the Sakharov Prize—Europe’s top human rights award. Did you ever imagine human rights advocacy becoming a focal point in the arc of your career? What do you make of your global impact?

I started my professional life at Stanford Business School and among my classmates, I was probably the least likely person to become a human rights activist. I was a narrowly-focused finance specialist with ambitions to run investment funds and focus on the financial markets. It was only through a terrible human tragedy—the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, who worked for me—that upended my life and caused me so much grief and guilt that I had to find a way to assuage that guilt. I searched to get justice for Sergei Magnitsky through whatever methods I could find. 

As I canvassed the world for mechanisms for justice, I discovered that there sort of were no mechanisms for justice. For example, the European Court for Human Rights doesn’t issue judgments against individuals but only against a country, and in the most egregious cases, the state gets a €50,000 award, which means nothing. In fact, the Magnitsky family pursued that and got their €50,000 reward, but then Russia has refused to pay. The ICC requires 100,000 dead—not one dead, or five dead. The universal jurisdiction laws all exist in the books but are never applied. And governments don’t generally do anything other than issue statements of condemnation which mean nothing to dictators. So, that was the background when I was beginning my battle for justice for Sergei Magnitsky, and the idea that I was just going to have to accept that these torturers and murderers were just going to get away with it was something that was too much for me to live with. 

And so, I figured that if no mechanisms for justice exist, then we need to create those mechanisms for justice. And this is where my finance background came in because this was a crime about money. And the money that people stole—which was exposed by Magnitsky—is not kept in Russia because as easily as they stole that money, it could be stolen from them. They keep that money in America, London, Switzerland, and France. So, as a finance guy, I thought that if we could freeze that money and cut off their ability to operate in the West it might not be true justice, but it is better than total impunity, which is what they were enjoying. And that became the Magnitsky Act. 

I could have never imagined that my fight for justice for Sergei Magnitsky would turn into a global movement. I could have never imagined that it would become a tool that other victims could use all over the world. I am proud that Sergei’s name is on this legislation, and that his death was not a meaningless death. His death became a rallying cry for all victims. And at the moment, the Russians refuse to acknowledge what they did to Sergei. But, I am hoping that when there is a new government in the distant future and they do acknowledge this tragedy, they will build monuments for Sergei. In the meantime, the Magnitsky Act is a legal monument for Sergei Magnitsky. 

You mentioned how becoming a human rights activist and an outspoken Kremlin critic has impacted your life. In what ways? What were the restrictions, limitations or fears you have doing this work that you didn’t have before? 

Most importantly, the Russian government has issued death threats against me, and they have carried out many extraterritorial executions so it’s not a low-probability event. They have issued orders to have me illegally kidnapped and brought back to Russia. They have issued eight arrest warrants to have me arrested through interpol. And I have been arrested twice—once in Madrid in 2018 and the second time in Geneva. So, I have to be extremely careful about the countries I travel to. I have also been convicted twice in Russian courts in absentia for various trumped-up crimes, so I am a fugitive from Russian justice with an 18-year sentence. Basically, I can’t travel to any country that I don’t believe has a robust rule-of-law, which limits my countries to about seven or eight. Russia has sued me, made movies about me, and are trying to disparage me and issue disinformation about me. If you look on Twitter, every time someone says something nice about me, there are some Russian trolls and Russian supporters saying terrible things about me. But, none of these things have dissuaded me from my mission, which is fighting for justice.

You mentioned Twitter. What role has the platform played in your advocacy? 

Twitter is my main source of interacting with the world. Two years ago when I was arrested on a Russian warrant in Madrid two years ago, if it hadn’t been for tweeting out that I had been arrested and all the outrage that came from that, I would probably be extradited from Russia right now. So, Twitter has been a really important part of my life. And even though I haven’t had any formal training on Twitter, it’s extremely useful for communicating very complicated things in a simple way with few words. I have an educated follower base that is interested in Magnitsky and human rights, so it works for those people tracking the news; you can look at my Twitter just in the last week and see updates about an EU Magnitsky Act, an Australian Magnitsky Act and a Norwegian Magnitsky Act, all in the scope of ten days.

Most of the world’s leading democracies have adopted the Magnitsky Act. That said, how else can democracies pressure Moscow or other ruthless regimes, whether it be to improve their human rights record generally or to support pro-democracy movements? 

The key is to take the Magnitsky Acts, which have now just recently come into existence, and aggressively apply them to many individuals who are doing bad things so that it’s no longer an exceptional thing for somebody to be added to the Magnitsky list, but it becomes an expected thing. If you do something terrible, then you should expect to be added to the Magnitsky lists around the world. So, if this becomes a pattern, if this becomes a pedestrian consequence, then over time people are not going to follow the orders of their dictator because they are not going to want to ruin their lives, their ability to travel and their ability to spend their ill-gotten gains in the West. The dictators will become hamstrung, because the loyalty of their executioners will be in question.