But Trump isn’t the only one who has shied away from publicly maligning MbS, as the crown prince is commonly known. Around the world, Western leaders have offered muted criticism of the Saudi government’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s killing, opting instead to call on Riyadh to provide a more credible response for what happened to the journalist. More extreme repercussions, such as halting arms exports to Saudi Arabia, have been widely rejected by the U.S., Britain, and France for fear of upsetting a strategic ally.
This is where targeted sanctions come in. Through the Global Magnitsky Act and laws like it, governments have been able to inflict reprisals against human-rights-offending countries by imposing targeted sanctions against those directly responsible for the abuses. The initial version of the act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012, was created as a means to punish the Russian officials responsible for the death of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky by freezing their assets in the country and banning them from entry. Since then, the U.S. has passed an updated version allowing targeted sanctions against officials in countries other than Russia. Other governments, too, have implemented their own versions of the Magnitsky Act, enabling them to name and shame human-rights abusers in ways that their geopolitical interests may have otherwise prohibited.
“The old technology for dealing with atrocities was to sanction the country,” Bill Browder, the human-rights activist behind the Global Magnitsky Act, told me, noting that statewide sanctions rarely reach their intended target. “The average person in the country would end up suffering, and the elites, the people who actually committed the crime, would … live exactly how they were living before. It didn’t really work.”
Read: Why does the Kremlin care so much about the Magnitsky Act?
Targeting individuals directly, as Canada and others have done in the case of Saudi Arabia, ensures that those directly responsible for the crime face the consequences. And while such sanctions don’t necessarily result in conviction or imprisonment, they do hit targets where it counts: their wallets. Indeed, assets frozen as a result of such sanctions have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.
But perhaps most important, targeted sanctions allow governments to save diplomatic face. By going after specific individuals, rather than a broader government, countries imposing sanctions don’t have to worry about the political ramifications of the decision, nor of diplomatic reprisals. This is particularly true for those seeking to respond to Khashoggi’s death without upsetting the energy, security, and regional cooperation that underpins certain countries’ relationship with the Saudi government. By imposing sanctions, “it doesn’t mean one can’t continue to be allies with Saudi Arabia,” Browder said. “It just means you’re going to punish the individuals who committed the crime.”