Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Pass the Magnitsky Bill

by Elliott Abrams
June 5, 2012

This week the House Foreign Affairs Committee will consider the so-called “Magnitsky Bill.” The Hill describes the bill this way:

The bill is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested on fraud charges and died in custody three years ago after accusing tax officials of a $230 million fraud. It would impose travel and financial sanctions on anyone “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture or other human-rights violations committed against individuals seeking to promote human rights or to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the government of the Russian Federation….

The bill’s purpose is to provide a way of keeping human rights pressure on Russia. Once Russia joins the World Trade Organization, the Jackson-Vanik amendment tying trade to emigration issues will be obsolete.  The new bill is a replacement.

The arguments against the bill are weak at best. Here’s one, from the Discovery Institute’s Russia Blog:

Congress is overstepping its boundaries as the State Department and the U.S. embassies abroad have the full authority, which they often use, to deny entry visas to any individual with no explanation whatsoever….Besides, attaching Magnitsky’s name to such a bill is clear proof of selective justice – something that we frequently accuse Russia of – since, sadly enough, similar cases of deaths in prisons due to denial of proper medical service happen in many other countries, including the United States….

This is silly. If the authority exists already Congress is hardly “overstepping its bounds.” The second argument recalls the old Soviet reaction when their human rights abuses were condemned: “what about the Negroes in the South?” they would say. Bad prison conditions in state prisons are irrelevant, and in any event no one is suggesting an order from President Obama or the FBI to kill a particular prisoner–exactly the kind of targeting that is suspected in the Magnitsky case.

More serious critics have objected to the targeting of Russia. Prof. Angela Stent of Georgetown said this:

What I would say is that the Jackson-Vanik amendment of course applied to many countries. It applied to all countries that, you know, restricted immigration. And the issue with the Magnitsky legislation, I think, is the question of whether it is wise at this point in our relationship with Russia to have a piece of legislation that only applies to Russia.

Fair question. But Jackson-Vanik was in essence targeted at Russia, too, or targeted at least at the Soviet Empire, so the Magnitsky bill is not a novelty. Neither, sadly, is what this case represents: the complete lack of law and justice in Russia today.

Remember the facts: Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 for investigating very high level corruption, and jailed under brutal conditions meant to elicit some sort of confession to a crime from him. By 2009 he was seriously ill with pancreatitis and gallstones. He received no treatment and was in excruciating pain. On the last day of his life, he was beaten; his body was found on his cell floor with broken fingers. In this bill Congress is expressing disgust and demanding that our country not welcome human rights abusers who happen to be Russian officials. It isn’t the least we can do, for the least we can do is say it’s none of our business and we shouldn’t insult the Russians.

Which Russians? Why assume that the Russian people want their officials to be characterized by brutality and theft? It is, I admit, possible that Vladimir Putin will be insulted, and his spokesman recently said that “If this new anti-Russian law is adopted, then of course that demands measures in response.” Demanding that Russia adhere to international human rights treaties is a risk we should be willing to take.

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  • Posted by Dmitri Daniel Glinski

    Thank you for this excellent analysis. In response to the question “Which Russians? Why assume that the Russian people want their officials to be characterized by brutality and theft?”, it is worth noting that the Magnitsky bill was endorsed by Russia’s senior and most authoritative human rights advocates, some of them members of Russia’s Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights. It is also supported by a wide range of leaders and organizations of Russian-speaking diaspora (see, e.g. http://www.demruscom.com and http://amrusrights.wordpress.com). They all share the belief expressed in the preamble to the bill that “the people of the Russian Federation, like people everywhere, deserve to have their human rights and fundamental freedoms respected.”

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