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Discussion Papers Series

Mr. John Prendergast’s paper, published in June 2019, makes a strong argument for the need for a multilateral approach in safeguarding and supporting democracy, and for an understanding of the relationship between protecting a healthy civil society and genocide prevention. The paper, while rooted in the contemporary context, challenges readers to consider the lessons that the Holocaust might hold in considering responses to corrupt authoritarian regimes.

A New Approach to Support Human Rights and Peace: Financial Pressure

by Mr. John Prendergast, Founding Director, Enough Project, Co-Founder, The Sentry

Any long-term strategy focused on countering mass atrocities, including genocide, must have at its center the civil society organizations working on the front lines of human rights, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption work.  International efforts must consciously find ways to support these organizations and create significant consequences for state repression of the independent sector.

The ability of civil society to exercise their fundamental rights to self-expression and assembly is increasingly under siege in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa due to the targeted violence and draconian restrictions on communication that allow autocratic rulers to suppress the voices of their people. The two interlocking and primary financial tools of pressure viz. network sanctions and anti-money laundering measures, can play a key role in creating actual consequences for repression and supporting civil society voices to press for freedoms throughout Africa, despite attempts by officials in those countries to stifle media, religious groups, rights advocates, and other civil society organizations.

The connection between the self-enrichment of elites through corruption and the repression of civil society is evident in the cases of certain sub-Saharan African countries that are rich in natural resources and economic potential but lack basic freedoms and respect for human rights.2 Oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper, and a variety of other mineral deposits and trafficked wildlife provide immense opportunity for those in power to enrich themselves at the expense of their country’s well-being.  Brutal repression of opposition is seen as the only way to maintain control of the spoils. The state is hijacked when those in power profit from having total control and unchallenged power.

The international community possesses the tools to apply financial and diplomatic pressure that can create leverage necessary to stop corrupt actors from persecuting groups and committing human rights abuses. Yet these tools have been used sparingly in sub-Saharan Africa. They have been applied to a few individuals at a time, with very little enforcement, and are rarely extended to predatory commercial collaborators, both inside and outside the continent, who facilitate and enable official misdeeds.

Civil Society Under Threat


In Sudan, the regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had a record of widespread violations of the fundamental rights of its people to free expression, association, and assembly, matched only by its systemic attacks on the freedom of religion and conscience.3 2018 brought additional evidence that the regime did not have the political will to end its attacks on the civic space, even as it engaged in aggressive efforts to normalize its strained relations with the United States, the European Union, and the international community at large.  In conflict areas - Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states - a state of no peace no war prevailed, as the two parties observed unilaterally declared cessation of hostilities. However, the government continued to impose a strict humanitarian blockade on rebel held areas in south Kordofan and Blue Nile state, punishing civilians caught in the crossfire of the decades-long civil war with hunger and denial of basic health and education services. In Darfur, government-controlled militias continued, with impunity, to terrorize civilians in targeted communities through deadly attacks, destruction and looting of property, torching their villages and forcing thousands to flee to overcrowded camps for the displaced.  

On 10 April 2018, President al-Bashir ordered the release of all political detainees held in connection with the protests in January and February against economic hardships. Many had spent more than ten weeks in detention without charge or trial, denied access to their families, lawyers and doctors. The release occurred days ahead of a scheduled monitoring visit by the United Nations’ Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan. However, Sudanese human rights organizations reported on hundreds of other victims of prolonged detention, most of whom were from Darfur, remaining in the regime’s prisons and secret detention centers. This incident illustrates the transactional behaviour of an autocratic regime that believed it could deceive the world of its real intentions, by making token concessions while remaining relentless in its repression of civil society and its people.

Mass protests resumed in December 2018 and continued into 2019. The government and security forces responded to the protestors with undue force.4 Following reports that 70 protesters had been killed, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres voiced their grave concerns.5 Secretary-General Guterres affirmed the support of the United Nations for the efforts agreed upon by the Sudanese to resolve the current crisis peacefully and urged the Government of Sudan to create a “conducive environment for a solution to the current situation and to promote an inclusive dialogue”.6 The Government extended the invitation to United Nations Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, Aristide Nononsi, to visit Sudan from 27 April to 5 May. However, on 11 April, the overthrow and arrest of President al-Bashir was announced on State television, and that a military council would govern the country for up to two years. Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of the Sudan to the United Nations, H.E. Mr. Yasir Abdullah Abdelsalam Ahmed assured the United Nations Security Council the morning after the ousting of President al-Bashir, that the military council was committed to respecting all international agreements, and “a peaceful transition”, in which it would be the “guarantor” of a return to “civilian government”.7 A week later, Jeremiah Mamabolo, Joint Special Representative for the UN-African Union Hybrid mission, UNAMID, reported to the United Nations Security Council that the daily curfew had been lifted, political detainees were due to be released, a nationwide ceasefire was in place, and the new military leader, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burnhan, had announced a “military transitional phase” which would last two year at most, before a handover to civilian control.8

As the de facto ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) dragged on the process for handing over power to the political leadership of the protests allied in the Freedom and Change Forces (FCF), protesters staged massive civic actions, including ongoing sit-ins since April 6, the largest in front of the army headquarters in the capital, but also elsewhere in the country, demanding a rapid transfer of power to civilians.

In the first phase of the talks, the TMC agreed for the FCF to be responsible for forming the cabinet of ministers and to select 67% of members of the transitional legislature. However, the TMC continued to insist on having a majority membership in and to chair the Sovereign Council that will replace it. The TMC also maneuvered to control the powers of declaring war, engaging Sudan in foreign wars, and the peace process, while the FCF saw the cabinet as exercising these powers, albeit with the agreement of the Sovereign Council.

At the time of writing, talks are now suspended, the sit-ins and protests continue, the FCF is threatening and mobilizing for a nationwide political and civil disobedience campaign to achieve the civilian rule for which the Sudanese people have for so long fought, sacrificed, and struggled.

South Sudan

In South Sudan, civic space continues to be severely constrained by a kleptocracy. The National Security Service (NSS) has sweeping powers of arrest and detention. It has constrained the space for civil society by arresting activists and detaining them for unspecified periods without trial, confiscating their passports, and banning them from foreign travel. In addition, freedom of association is severely curtailed.

This pressure extends beyond the borders of South Sudan into the neighbouring countries. Human rights lawyer, Dong Samuel Luak and SPLM-IO member, Aggrey Ezbon Idri, both prominent critics of the government, were kidnapped in Kenya in early 2017 and subsequently killed. There must be accountability for those in the Kenyan and South Sudanese governments responsible for their disappearance and extrajudicial killing. After receiving testimony from more than ten well-placed individuals, including individuals with first-hand knowledge of detention facilities,10 the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on South Sudan concluded in April 2019, that it is, “highly probable that Aggrey Idri and Dong Samuel Luak were executed by Internal Security Bureau agents at the Luri facility on 30 January 2017, on orders from the commander of the National Security Service training and detention facilities in Luri, the Commander of the National Security Service Central Division and, ultimately, Lieutenant General Akol Koor Kuc”.11

The Report concluded that the cases of Aggrey Idri and Dong Samuel Luak, and youth activist, Peter Biar Ajak, illustrated “the ability of the National Security Service, and the Internal Security Bureau in particular, to act outside the rule of law and official state structures. These powers, and the desire of the National Security Service to retain them beyond the peace agreement, pose a significant threat to the implementation of the agreement and, by extension, to the peace, security and stability of South Sudan”.12 The Report cited the increasing financial independence of the National Security Service as another facet of its power and autonomy.13

Government and rebel attacks on humanitarian aid workers continue to threaten thousands of civilians in need of assistance.14

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

In the DRC, space for independent civil society and democratic protests is very small as government repression continues. Despite the inauguration of a new president in 2019, Felix Tshisekedi, following stolen elections in December 2018, government crackdowns against civil society, the media, and the opposition continue. While the new president released several political prisoners in January, there has been virtually no accountability for human rights abuses by government forces. Instead of being prosecuted, officials and military officers who have committed abuses against civilians are normally promoted and given access to greater resources, such as control of mining areas. According to Human Rights Watch, in the lead-up to the December 2018 elections, government forces killed nearly 300 people during peaceful protests and arrested over 2,000 political opposition members, pro-democracy activists, and journalists.15 For example, over a dozen protestors outside Catholic churches were killed by security forces in December 2017-January 2018, according to the government’s own assessment, as security forces fired on churchgoers.16 Security forces continue repressive tactics against civil society groups, as 10 people were killed in post-election protests in January 2019.17Security forces continue to arrest and beat activists from the pro-democracy movement LUCHA across the country. Although many are later released, their arrests follow clear patterns of intimidation and suggest a lack of political will to hold human rights abusers accountable. The government’s track record of violent repression against civil society, pro-democracy movements, and faith-based groups raise concerns that protests against abuses and corruption will be met with a fresh wave of violent repression.

Central African Republic (CAR)

Sectarian violence has plagued the CAR since conflict broke out in 2012. Hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric remain widespread and stoke inter-communal and inter-religious tensions. The lack of accountability for perpetrators of serious human rights abuses, and the lack of respect for civil society, remain critical barriers to peace. The announcement of two recent arrests of war criminals by the International Criminal Court (ICC) sent a glimmer of hope to the victims of the conflict.18 However, challenges remain and threaten any peace efforts.

A new approach: financial pressures in support of peace and human rights

Serious financial pressure with meaningful consequences is not only possible but critically necessary to protect civil liberties and freedoms in sub-Saharan Africa. The key ingredients to a more effective cocktail of policy pressures are network sanctions and anti-money laundering measures, working in concert.

Network Sanctions

Critical to the success of sanctions as a source of pressure to bring about reform, is the design, implementation and enforcement of sanctions. Those responsible for perpetuating conflict and targeting civil society are likely to view sanctions as largely ineffective and an underwhelming challenge to their hold on power, if only a handful of individuals without ties to the international financial system are sanctioned. Sanctions must be levied against entire networks that enable authoritarian regimes to oppress civil society, not just the individuals committing the abuses.

Sanctions that target full networks are powerful tools for pressuring targeted individuals to alter their behaviour or come to the negotiating table. Network sanctions work because they affect not only the primary targets themselves but also those who act on their behalf and/or provide them with support, as well as entities owned or controlled by any of those primary targets. By sanctioning these networks at the same time as a primary target, or in close succession, an individual’s network does not have enough time to recover from the financial impact of being cut off from the global financial system.

Network sanctions would have a dramatic affect in protecting civil society in countries where interlocking kleptocratic networks involving political and military officials, allied businesspeople, arms dealers, and international financial facilitators use the formal financial system to profit from mayhem, and obtain technology from commercial partners, to suppress their populations.

The Global Magnitsky Act is a groundbreaking law that empowers the United States government with the authority to place sanctions on non-United States citizens and their associates across the world who misappropriate state assets, as well as anyone who attacks journalists and human rights defenders.19 The Act enhances congressional and non-governmental organization (NGO) involvement in the designation of individuals. The first round of designations announced in December of 2017 demonstrated the robustness of this tool and its ability to address corruption around the globe by targeting former heads-of-state, several billionaires and multi-millionaires, the family members, close associates, and business partners of foreign leaders, along with dozens of companies they own or control around the world.

Anti-Money Laundering Measures

The Global Magnitsky Act is significant, but sanctions are not the only piece of the puzzle.  Anti-money laundering measures can be important tools of financial pressure on corrupt and criminal regimes that target civil society. The power to disrupt money laundering should be deployed in service of protecting civil society, as well.

Corrupt leaders or their business associates take bribes or otherwise divert public funds into their private accounts, then place those funds in the formal banking system. The use of United States dollars for example, in the laundering process means that the United States government can act, whether through the issuing of public advisories to banks; requests from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to banks on specific targets of interest, or designating countries, institutions, or classes of transactions, as primary money laundering concerns.

In September 2017, FinCEN issued an advisory on the possibility that certain South Sudanese senior political figures may try to use the U.S. financial system to move or hide proceeds of public corruption. This move significantly raised the profile of South Sudanese corruption and money laundering, prompting regional and global banks to begin conducting long-overdue investigations and acting against specific accounts. In June 2018, FinCEN issued another advisory highlighting the connection between corrupt senior foreign political figures and their enabling of human rights abuses.  According to FinCEN, “the use of financial facilitators is one way that corrupt senior foreign political figures access the U.S. and international financial systems to move or hide illicit proceeds and evade U.S. and global sanctions. These corrupt senior foreign political figures and facilitators often contribute directly or indirectly to human rights abuses, which have a devastating impact on individual citizens, societies, and economic development”.20 These actions can and should be built upon and extended to other regimes that use laundered funds to target civil society.

The Sentry

Even with new authorities and increased staffing, most governments and banks might be able to devote only the most basic levels of resources to the collection of evidence of illicit financial flows. This means that beneficiaries face little risk of getting caught.

In response to this challenge, George Clooney and I co-founded The Sentry, a team with decades of experience in law enforcement, intelligence, investigative journalism, corporate security, and policymaking. With this experience, the team follows the money “that funds atrocities and crimes against humanity”.21 The Sentry collects the evidence of illicit financial activity connected to conflict, human rights abuses, including abuses targeting civil society, and corruption. The Sentry then undertakes financial and other investigations and constructs dossiers that can be used by regulators, law enforcement, and prosecutors, who in turn can pave the way for policy change.
The Sentry aims to provide authorities and financial institutions responsible for implementing the tools of financial pressure with solid evidence of the direct connection between illicit gains and the crimes they fund.

A comprehensive strategy of using financial pressure for peace and human rights would put new wind in the sails of anticorruption and human rights activists, create real accountability for the mass theft of Africa’s resources, and finally begin to dismantle the systems that incentivize those in power to hijack the government for personal enrichment.



1 This paper reflects the dynamic situation in the countries at the time of writing. There may have been further developments since then.

2 The focus of this paper is on sub-Saharan Africa. This is not to imply that the enrichment of elites through corruption and repression only takes place in sub-Saharan Africa.

3 On 4 March 2009, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Mr. al-Bashir’s arrest on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A second warrant was issued on 12 July 2010.

6UN rights chief Bachelet appeals for dialogue in Sudan amid reports ‘70 killed’ in demonstrations”, UN News, Published on 9 April 2019. The sentiment was repeated a few days later by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kay, “Sudan: UN experts condemn excessive use of force at protests”, 11 April 2019.

8 On the 14 May 2019, Sudan's Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the opposition Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) agreed the country's transition period would last for three years.

9 SPLM-IO is the acronym for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (In Opposition).

10 Final report of the Panel of Experts on South Sudan submitted pursuant to resolution 2428 (2018), 9 April 2019, S/2019/301, 14-16.

11Interviews, confidential sources, undisclosed locations, December 2018, January 2019 and February 2019.

12 Final report of the Panel of Experts, Published on 9 April 2019, S/2019/301, 16.

13 Final report of the Panel of Experts, Published on 9 April 2019, S/2019/301, 16.

14 In June 2018, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Mark Lowcock, described South Sudan as, “the most dangerous place to be an aid worker”, having claimed 100 humanitarians since 2013. For further information, see UN News, “South Sudan suffering on ‘almost unimaginable scale’, warns UN relief chief”, Published on 24 June 2018. See also Security Council Resolutions.

15 Human Rights Watch, “Letter to President Tshisekedi: Protecting Human Rights in DR Congo”,  Published on 3 April 2019.

16 Human Rights Watch, “DR Congo: Security Forces Fire on Catholic Churchgoers”,  Published on 19 January 2018.

17 Human Rights Watch, “DR Congo: Post-Election Killings Test New President”,  Published on 14 February 2019.

18 On 11 November 2018, the ICC arrested Mr. Alfred Yekatom on the grounds of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in western CAR between December 2013 and August 2014. On 12 December 2018, the ICC arrested Mr. Patrice-Edouard Glisson for his alleged criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western part of the Central African Republic between at least 5 December 2013 and at least December 2014. See ICC Press Releases from 17 November 2018 and 12 December 2018.

19The formal name for the Act is the Russia and Moldova Jackson – Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012.

20 United States. Department of the Treasury. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Advisory on Human Rights Abuses Enabled by Corrupt Senior Foreign Political Figures and their Financial facilitators. FIN-2018-A003, Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2018.


Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. What are the two tools of pressure Mr. Prendergast proposes? What role does he argue these tools can play in supporting human rights and peace?
  2. 2. Mr. Prendergast’s article focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. Explain why he argues that the world is implicated in the corruption that plagues sub-Saharan Africa, and therefore a solution needs to be a global initiative.
  3. 3. Explain Mr. Prendergast’s argument that a country rich in natural resources and economic potential may still lack basic freedoms and respect for human rights.
  4. 4. Why is a functioning civil society important in protecting the rights of all who live in the country?
  5. 5. What is the relationship between protecting a healthy civil society and genocide prevention?

The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.