For Immediate Release: June 26, 2012
Washington, DC – Human Rights First welcomes action today by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. The bill, which has strong bi-partisan support and passed out of committee by unanimous vote, is part of a three-year campaign led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) to promote accountability from the Russian government in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who exposed a case of fraud involving some $230 million and implicating members of the Russian police, judiciary, and tax officials, among others. Magnitsky was arrested in November 2008, held for nearly a year without due process, denied medical care for a serious condition, and eventually died in custody.
Specifically, the bill would establish visa bans and asset freezes on Russian authorities who are found to have participated in gross human rights violations, including, but not limited to those perpetrated against Magnitsky. The vote comes as Congress prepares to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of the Trade Act of 1974, which linked freedom of emigration to Most Favored Nation trade status during the Soviet era.
“Regardless of whether Jackson-Vanik remains U.S. law, Russia’s human rights policies should be a major concern for any government or business engaged there,” said Human Rights First’s Robyn Lieberman. “Impunity for those who committed crimes against Sergei Magnitsky and others is a fundamental institutional problem in Russia and a symptom of instability and corruption in Russia’s legal system. The bill reported out today should make clear to Russia that the United States is serious about the rampant problem of impunity for serious human rights violations.”
The Magnitsky bill finds that the treatment of Sergei Magnitsky was “an emblematic example of a pattern of disregard for Russia’s human rights commitments and impunity for those who violate human rights,” and underscores Russia’s obligations to uphold its commitments under international treaties. The bill extends the authority of the Secretary of State to issue visa bans on individuals believed to be responsible for the detention, abuse, and death of Sergei Magnitsky and those who participated in efforts to cover it up, as well as those responsible for gross human rights violations against others seeking to expose illegal activity by Russian government officials or defend basic human rights. The second part of the bill directs the Treasury Secretary to impose asset freezes on those on the State-reported list and to work through diplomatic channels with other countries to expand such sanctions.
Human Rights First notes that sanctions, such as those prescribed in the Magnitsky Act, are one important lever for the United States to press for accountability in cases of serious human rights violations. This tool should however be but one element of a broader strategy to promote respect for human rights by the Russian government.
Other elements of such a human rights strategy to address domestic and international concerns include the following:
Support Russian civil society: Congress should act quickly to resolve the holds on the Administration’s longstanding request to re-program $50 million to establish a Civil Society Fund that would provide U.S. Government support for civil society organizations, including human rights defenders, in Russia.
Continue to engage with the Russian authorities using existing mechanisms to support dialogue: The U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission and its Working Group on Civil Society has served as a forum to discuss issues such as migration, prison reform, corruption, and child protection. The U.S. government should also seek to advance efforts to combat hate crime and other forms of intolerance within the context of this working group.
Challenge Russian government policies that undermine human rights globally: Russia’s military and diplomatic support enables President Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity in Syria, and stopping these transfers should be a national security priority, pursuant to PDD-10 establishing the Atrocities Prevention Board. There are at least three steps the U.S. should take, including: a) lead an international diplomatic effort to neutralize Russia’s opposition to an arms embargo against Syria, and engage them as a partner to end the violence; b) continue to work to interrupt supply chains between Russia and Syria; and 3) prohibit any further contracts with Russia’s arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, until it ceases arms shipments of all types to Syria.
“Washington’s debate around policy toward Russia tends to center on whether President Obama’s ‘reset’ is the right approach or not,” said Lieberman. “The real debate should focus instead on developing a multi-faceted approach to human rights in Russia that incorporates engagement and dialogue with a commitment to take a stand on human rights abuses, domestic and international, for which the Russian government is wholly or partially responsible.”
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs marked up companion legislation, sponsored by Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), last month.