FPI Bulletin: As Congress Goes Global on Human Rights, Will the Administration Follow?

January 22, 2014

Congress often plays an important corrective role when the Executive Branch puts pragmatism before principle on human rights.  Last week, bipartisan pairs of senators did so again by introducing a new bill and pushing the Obama administration on implementing an existing one.

On January 15th, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the Global Human Rights Accountability Act (S. 1933), which would enact visa and banking bans on the most serious human rights violators around the world.  China’s Communist Party would be a prime target of this new bill.  Chinese officials responsible for the persecution of the Falun Gong, Uighurs, and Tibetans, and for the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, for starters, have turned up in the United States, sometimes even on visits to the U.S. Capitol.

The Cardin-McCain bill was inspired by the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (Public Law 112-208), a Russia-specific law enacted in December 2012, and named after a lawyer who died of abuse in jail after he exposed a massive tax fraud.  In December 2013, the Obama administration decided, without explanation, that it would not, for the time being, add names to a list compiled last April of individuals responsible for “gross” human rights abuses against Russians and who are now barred from traveling to the United States or using American financial institutions.  That list included 18 mostly low- and mid-level officials associated with Mr. Magnitsky’s persecution and death.  Two others are Chechens thought to be linked to political assassinations.  Reportedly, a classified list included Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. 

Foreseeing that the Obama administration—which opposed the Magnitsky Act—might not implement it seriously, Congress included a provision enabling members to advance the process.   On January 17th, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the committee’s ranking member, exercised their prerogative to submit names to the president for inclusion in the list.  One of the names the senators put forward was that of Alexander Bastrykin, chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.  Mr. Bastrykin is the top enforcer in the campaign of repression against Russia’s civil society and democratic opposition that includes prosecution of pro-democracy protesters, laws limiting freedoms of expression and association, and the vilification of gays and lesbians. 

The administration should reply to Senators Menendez and Corker promptly.  According to reports, Mr. Bastrykin, along with upwards of ten other people, had already been vetted and approved for sanctions by both the State and Treasury Departments before a high-level decision was abruptly made to interrupt the process in late 2013.  

The Obama administration has given no rationale for stalling on the Magnitsky List.  Certainly, there has been no sign of liberalization inside Russia.  The jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot prisoners, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, pardoned at Christmas-time, should never have been jailed in the first place and were due to be released soon anyway, in Mr. Khodorkovsky’s case after 10 years in custody.  Mr. Khodorkovsky’s co-defendant Platon Lebedev remains behind bars, as do many defendants in the trials of protesters from the May 2012 demonstrations.  Nor has there been any move to repeal a spate of repressive laws, including ones on treason, foreign agency, and homosexual “propaganda.”  Russia has also denied a visa to David Satter, an American writer critical of the Russian government who serves as an adviser to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a vital news outlet considering the Kremlin’s steady assault on the press.

The Obama administration’s stalling on the Magnitsky sanctions is a setback to Russia’s democratic opposition and human rights activists.  Its inaction will also obstruct efforts to bring about similar sanctions in Europe, where many more Russians bank and travel than in the United States.  In its report to Congress on its implementation of the Magnitsky Act, the administration claimed it was working to advance adoption of the sanctions in Europe, citing meetings with members of the European parliament.  But why would European politicians take direction from Washington on sanctions when the administration does not implement its own?

These latest developments are in keeping with a long tradition of congressional leadership when the Executive Branch places pragmatism over principle.  In the 1970s, Congress enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment over objections from the Nixon and Ford administrations.  This landmark provision linked trade to free emigration from the Soviet bloc and other non-market economies, and was embraced by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as a vital tool for advancing human rights in an era of détente. 

Since the 1990s, the United States has ceased using trade as a tool to pressure dictatorships, opting instead to establish permanent normal trade relations with China and more recently Russia.  By passing the Magnitsky Act, Congress recognized the need for a new instrument to pressure human rights violators.  Now, the Cardin-McCain bill presents Congress with an opportunity to extend those Russia-specific sanctions to the rest of the world. 

None of these sanctions can be effective unless the Executive Branch implements them faithfully and according to the Congress’s intent.  The Obama administration should act promptly to follow through on the expansion of the Magnitsky List.  It should also learn a lesson from its fruitless opposition to that bill by indicating its early support for the Global Human Rights Accountability Act.  Congress should also consider the costs associated with a global visa and banking sanctions regime, and provide funding for it. 

The Russian human rights activist Oleg Kozlovsky welcomed the new bill, but warned that its prospects, to have an impact, depend on the seriousness with which its inspiration, the Magnitsky Act, is implemented.  “Making #Magnitsky Act universal is good,” he tweeted, “but if it’s applied in the same way as the current one (i.e. not applied at all) it’s just a sham.”

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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