Typical news of U.S.-Russia relations this past year has centered on trade and human rights. For those who need a refresher, I’m talking about whether or not the U.S. should drop demands for improved human rights in Russia in order to reap the benefits of their upcoming entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). (I think the WTO should be making those demands!) Clearly the U.S. isn’t planning to budge. If anything, they’re taking an even harder line.
Known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act – which we will shorten to the Magnitsky Act, named for a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died due to suspected abuse in prison – the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), requires the U.S. to deny visas to human rights abusers, as well as freeze their assets. While the focus is on Russian officials, especially those involved in Magnitsky’s case, it would apply to abusers around the world.
This is a rare bill with broad bipartisan support in Congress, which makes me happy not only for that reason, but because this is the type of policy that should have been enacted years ago. The White House, however, is not quite as enthusiastic:
The administration . . . says it understands the concerns about rights abuses, but that the bill is unnecessary as the administration has already imposed visa restrictions on some Russians thought to have been involved in Magnitsky’s death.
Take a look at the bill, conveniently posted on Cardin’s Senate website, specifically Section 4, subsection 2, paragraph B. That’s the part of the bill that has nothing to do with either Magnitsky or Russia. It would apply to perpetrators of “other gross violations of human rights.” While there might be overlap between this bill and existing restrictions, this bill has just left the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has time to be edited.
It would be nice if the administration could voice some support for the non-overlap. I am not about to accuse President Obama and Co. of being ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of the problem of human rights abuses. However – and Cardin is equally to blame for this – they are far too fixated on the Magnitsky issue. The bill sends more of a message of “Fuck you, Russia” than “Fuck you, human rights abusers in general,” and the administration is running with it.
Broad congressional support is great, but broad international support will come when the U.S. takes a hard line on human rights, period. No American person or group should be permitted to profit off unchecked abuse. Anyone who is thinking about ways around legislation like this needs to find their soul.