A New Economic Approach to Human Rights

A New Economic Approach to Human Rights

Human rights violations can have severe negative ramifications for economic wellbeing and desired freedoms of various populations. One only needs to look to contemporary situations such as the Myanmar military coup and the long-lasting impacts of settler-colonialism on First Nations populations to understand these effects. Moreover, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen[1] famously conceptualised development as a set of overlapping freedoms, the achievement of which being both the end goal and means of attaining further development. It therefore follows that the inverse has substantial deleterious effects, which can result in regressions in other development metrics beyond human rights themselves.

In a broad sense, human rights discourse is one of the major lenses through which to conceptualise wellbeing. Although this is subject to criticism[2] for being ambiguous, eurocentric, only enforced on smaller nations, and being cynically used by some for geopolitical reasons. Nonetheless, human rights discourse represents a near-consensus perspective which provides utility so long as it is engaged with through a critical lens that seeks to address these limitations.

However, many countries don’t have the capacity to minimise human rights violations within their borders, which leads some to call for international mechanisms to address violations and enforce the maintenance of rights. Some of these mechanisms alongside recent developments will be evaluated in this article.

Naming and shaming

“Naming and shaming” involves condemnation of a particular act or organisation for human rights abuses. This can occur via formal processes at the United Nations in addition to condemnations made by NGOs, activist groups, individual governments, or the general public. This has the benefits of setting a collective standard to abide by while creating social pressure. It also represents a relatively low-cost means to collaborate against human rights violations. However, this approach involves no material consequences and as such may not be a deterrent for countries/actors that are willing to absorb reputational costs in order to continue their actions. Resultantly, there is mixed evidence of success[3] in the absence of other approaches.

Economy wide approaches 

In response to human rights violations within a state, conventional international approaches involve actions against an entire state, such as trade sanctions and embargoes. These measures are employed with the rationale that a punishment will incentivise an administration to reverse course in addition to being a public threat with a deterrent effect for other countries.

However, the evidence that these measures are actually successful in achieving either of these goals is mixed[4]. This is extremely problematic because if economy-wide approaches don’t achieve their stated goals, then they simply become an arbitrary punishment inflicted upon an entire population. An example of this can be seen in Iran[5], which suffered triply throughout the pandemic in part due to the economic impact of tightened sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and oil-market shocks. This notably followed the withdrawal of the US from the landmark nuclear agreement which represented a diplomacy-based achievement after years of sanctions.

Depending on the magnitude and breadth of financial sanctions, these effects can include but are not limited to:

Approaches to address this substantial downside include only employing partial sanctions or providing humanitarian exemptions. However, these can allow for[10] an economy to heavily mitigate the impact of sanctions to nullify their enforcement effect by shifting production or investment. Additionally, general populations remain impacted if mitigation strategies are nonviable.

Additional problems

Beyond those listed above, there are numerous ethical and practical considerations that inhibit economy wide approaches.

Power imbalances and politics can play a key role in these measures and can undermine their integrity. This is particularly true when they are coordinated by large powers and their alliances for political ends that are loosely connected to human rights considerations. Moreover, these actions are criticised by recipients as undermining their sovereignty, where it is an open ethical question whether this infringement is justified. 

Additionally, individual human rights violators are often wealthy individuals who can reroute their assets to wealthy countries that are not subject to sanctions. This results in the economy-wide sanctions disproportionately impacting poorer people.

Of particular concern is the potential for sanctions to worsen human rights violations[11]. As elucidated with the Iran example, punitive measures can reduce opportunities for positive engagement via diplomatic channels through worsening international relations. It is also possible that these worsened relations could trigger a trade war, which is destructive for each party and reverberates across the global economy.

Individualised approaches

In recognition of the limitations of economy-wide approaches that punish those whose rights are being violated in addition to violators, individual approaches seek to more directly target the perpetrators themselves.

Conventionally this has involved institutions such as the International Criminal Court, which has a documented history of convicting war criminals and other human rights abusers. However, the ICC and other parallel approaches have been critiqued[12] for making very few convictions and for only making convictions a substantial time after a human rights incident. Convictions can also be subject to the political whims of permanent UN Security Council members who possess veto power.

Magnitsky Sanctions (MS)

The insufficiency of all the approaches thus far have created the impetus for Magnitsky Sanctions (MS), which is a new individualised approach to human rights enforcement. Named in honour of Sergei Magnitsky, – who died in police custody after investigating alleged fraud and theft in Russia – Magnitsky sanctions apply the same logic and process of economy-wide sanctions to individuals instead of entire populations. This is a separate and distinct initiative to ICC prosecution.

MSs takes the form of freezing financial assets, implementing travel bans, and banning economic or financial exchanges with alleged human rights violators and their close associates. These sanctions are applicable both to government officials and private citizens. The goal of these sanctions are to serve as an example that deters future rights violations while incentivising a change in ongoing violations and minimising harm to non-participants. For example, Magnitsky sanctions have been applied to individual military leaders in Myanmar regarding their treatment of the Rohingya minority group[13] and the 2021 military coup[14].

To date, Magnitsky legislation has passed[15] in the UK, the US, Canada, and various European states. As recently as December 2020, the EU has passed[16] a Magnitsky measure and Australia is currently considering[17] implementing Magnitsky sanctions.


It is worth noting that MSs are an imperfect solution with limitations that warrant consideration. 

MSs don’t entirely mitigate the collateral damage resulting from conventional financial sanctions as they are usually applied to immediate family members and close contacts in addition to the targeted individual. This is a relevant consideration as close-contacts may not be involved in human rights abuses. However, this is a notably smaller negative impact relative to sector-specific or economy-wide sanctions.

Additionally, MSs don’t involve the same level of scrutiny as an ICC case. This can result in greater potential for their abuse as a political tool and/or greater levels of Type 1 errors. 

Moreover, MSs are only maximally effective when they are applied in a unified and consistent way. For example, being sanctioned in Canada isn’t particularly difficult to overcome if you can still open bank accounts, travel, and trade stocks in the US, UK, EU, Nigeria, Brazil, Australia, Japan, and Switzerland.

It is also worth acknowledging that evidence for or against the effectiveness of MSs has yet to be comprehensively established as a result of the policy being particularly new. Although there are a number of aforementioned theoretical justifications to justify attempting them until more evidence is gathered.


In light of these limitations, many organisations have begun to explore more nuanced approaches that address these critical concerns. For example, there has recently been a comprehensive inquiry[18] into Magnitsky sanctions within an Australian context.  Of particular importance is the need for legislation to include measures that allow for the right to appeal decisions, while guaranteeing transparency and impartiality.

Additionally, to circumvent the limitation of easy avoidance, there must be global collaboration and a commitment to passing Magnitsky legislation in all jurisdictions. This should occur in tandem with ongoing studies into their continued effectiveness as they are implemented.

Final Thoughts

Human rights enforcement is a complex field that requires multiple approaches. In recognition of the limitations of conventional approaches, Magnitsky Sanctions are emerging as a positive alternative pending effective implementation. However, it must be noted that enforcement-based approaches are often reactive and magnified by global power imbalances. It is therefore important to also engage in proactive approaches, positive engagement to improve human rights, explore alternative perspectives, and build institutions that robustly improve and maintain rights in a participatory way.


[1] Griffiths, B., 2021. ESSA’s Monthly Highlights: April. Amartya Sen recommendation. [online] Economics Student Society of Australia (ESSA). Available at: <http://economicstudents.com/2021/04/essas-monthly-highlights-april/>.

[2] Posner, E., 2014. The case against human rights. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights>.

[3] Hafner-Burton, E., 2008. Sticks and Stones: Naming and Shaming the Human Rights Enforcement Problem. [online] jstor. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/40071894?seq=25#metadata_info_tab_contents>.

[4] Krain, M., 2016. The effect of economic sanctions on the severity of genocides or politicides. [online] Hosseinsartipi.com. Available at: <https://hosseinsartipi.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/The-effect-of-economic-sanctions.pdf>.

[5] World Bank. 2021. Iran Economic Monitor, Fall 2020: Weathering the Triple-Shock. [online] Available at: <https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/iran/publication/iran-economic-monitor-fall-2020>.

[6] Afesorgbor, S. and Mahedevan, R., 2016. The Impact of Economic Sanctions on Income Inequality of Target States. [online] Diana-n.iue.it. Available at: <http://diana-n.iue.it:8080/bitstream/handle/1814/40604/MWP_2016_04.pdf?sequence=1>.

[7] Habibzadeh, F., 2018. Economic sanction: a weapon of mass destruction. [online] The Lancet. Available at: <https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31944-5/fulltext>.

[8] Neuenkirch, M. and Neumeier, F., 2015. The Impact of UN and US Economic Sanctions on GDP Growth. [online] Fiw.ac.at. Available at: <https://www.fiw.ac.at/fileadmin/Documents/Publikationen/Working_Paper/N_138_NeuenkirchNeumeier.pdf>.

[9] Andreas, P., 2005. Criminalizing Consequences of Sanctions: Embargo Busting and Its Legacy. [online] Jstor. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/3693517>.

[10] Gordon, J., 1999. A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy: The Ethics of Economic Sanctions. [online] cambridge.org. Available at: <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs/article/abs/peaceful-silent-deadly-remedy-the-ethics-of-economic-sanctions/94DEA3ED067DCB5B522CE8956324B8A1>.

[11] Peksen, D., 2009. Better or Worse? The Effect of Economic Sanctions on Human Rights. [online] Citeseerx.ist.psu.edu. Available at: <https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=>.

[12] Felter, C., 2021. The Role of the International Criminal Court. [online] Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: <https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/role-international-criminal-court>.

[13] Lewis, S. and Psaledakis, D., 2019. U.S. slaps sanctions on Myanmar military chief over Rohingya atrocities. [online] reuters.com. Available at: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-myanmar-sanctions-idUSKBN1YE1XU>.

[14] Biden, J., 2021. BLOCKING PROPERTY WITH RESPECT TO THE SITUATION IN BURMA. [online] Govinfo.gov. Available at: <https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CDOC-117hdoc13/html/CDOC-117hdoc13.htm>.

[15] Ochab, E., 2020. On Targeted Sanctions To Address Attacks Against Journalists And Media Freedom Violations. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2020/03/17/on-targeted-sanctions-to-address-attacks-against-journalists-and-media-freedom-violations/?sh=55f9f8ad1b39>.

[16] Boffey, D., 2020. EU to use Magnitsky-style law to impose sanctions on human rights abusers. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/27/eu-to-use-magnitsky-style-law-to-impose-sanctions-on-human-rights-abusers>.

[17] Dziedzic, S., 2021. Countries that commit ‘egregious acts’ to face travel bans, financial sanctions from Australia. [online] Abc.net.au. Available at: <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-05/magnitsky-act-reforms-to-impose-sanctions-human-rights-abuse/100353604>.

[18] Parliament of Australia. 2020. Criminality, corruption and impunity: Should Australia join the Global Magnitsky movement?. [online] Available at: <https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/MagnitskyAct/Report>.