2020 Emerging Leaders

Monica Ager Jacobsen

Played a crucial behind-the-scenes role shaping the complex legal and policy issues involved in imposing sanctions against dozens of human rights abusers worldwide.

Listen to Monica Jacobsen discuss her work:

In 2019. the U.S. government-imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top military commander and three of his highest-ranking generals for atrocities carried out against Rohingya Muslims, one of dozens of financial penalties and travel bans meted out against individuals worldwide for serious human rights abuses. Others who have been sanctioned include the former president of The Gambia and 17 individuals involved in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  

Monica Ager Jacobsen, a 34-year-old State Department attorney adviser, has worked behind the scenes on all these cases, addressing the complex legal and policy issues involved in imposing sanctions against countless bad actors under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. 

“Monica has played a central role identifying and making determinations as to whether human rights abuses have been committed,” said Benjamin Kraut, the State Department’s coordinator for the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program. “Whether it is using the law to address ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya or looking at a single instance, such as a Pakistani doctor harvesting kidneys from indentured workers and selling them on the black market, she has been a key figure in ensuring that U.S. foreign policy objectives are achieved.” 

Jacobsen started her current role in 2016, just a few weeks before Congress passed the Global Magnitsky law, and she has been involved in shaping its definition and implementation. 

The law initially allowed the U.S. to apply sanctions against individuals engaged in “gross violations of human rights or acts of significant corruption.” A year later, an executive order significantly broadened its scope to “serious human rights abuse.” This allowed much more flexibility in how the law could be applied and enabled the government to act faster. Additionally, terrorist organizations and other non-state individuals or entities could be targeted, in addition to countries. 

“Monica was very involved in laying out the language and ensuring maximum flexibility under the executive order,” said Haley Shellito, a colleague in the Office of the Legal Adviser. “She’s also very skilled at taking legal and technical expertise and explaining that to people who are not lawyers and doing it in a way that is friendly and not intimidating.” 

Understanding that a sanctions package must be legally defensible, Jacobsen added an additional layer of legal review for screening potential targets, thereby streamlining the State Department’s entire sanctions nomination process. 

“Without this process, clients would spend all their time putting together facts that don’t meet legal standard, which is very frustrating,” Shellito said. “Monica allows for open lines of dialogue from the beginning to make everything go faster.” 

Jacobsen’s expertise and institutional memory has made her an indispensable part of the program, according to Kraut. 

“Monica is a limitless resource of information and has an unqualified mastery of her area of practice,” Kraut said. “She often is faced with the challenge of sharing that expertise with an unending multitude of policy officers and other attorneys and educating them on what does and does not qualify as a serious abuse of human rights, and then substantiating that position.”  

“To say that she is a key pillar of the program is almost an understatement,” Kraut added.  

Jacobsen, who clerked for a federal appeals court judge out of law school, said her work at State has helped her understand that the legal process can be “meaningfully used to put down a marker on the U.S. government’s position on human rights abuse.” 

“This promotes accountability and provides real, tangible consequences for human rights abusers,” she said. “My work gives me a sense of personal accomplishment and pride in the U.S. government.”  

She added that through her job, she talks to people from every region of the world, on a wide array of human rights issues. “The opportunity to collaborate with such a range of people who are focusing on different things that aren’t on my radar and learning from them is really rewarding,” she said. 

From 2017 through 2019, the U.S. government designated 198 individuals and entities under the Global Magnitsky sanctions program, with Jacobsen deeply involved in these cases. 

One example involved the sanctioning of Gao Yan, the Beijing Public Security director. During his tenure, human rights activist Cao Shunli was arrested and died in 2014 from organ failure, her body showing signs of emaciation and neglect.   

“I view Gao’s sanctions as particularly important because of the rising concerns regarding China’s human rights record, including their treatment of those in detention centers,” Jacobsen said. “Because the U.S. does not have a country-specific sanctions program for China, the Global Magnitsky program created a new tool we could use to promote accountability and press China on human rights.” 

Publicly “naming and shaming” human rights abusers is a key element of the act, Jacobsen said, adding that “this can be very meaningful for imparting change and promoting accountability.”  

Jacobsen’s efforts are resonating globally. 

“Not only is this something the U.S. is going to use for a very long time, Monica is setting up a program that will be modeled around the world,” Shellito said.