The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted with sweeping bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress over opposition from the Obama administration, set a groundbreaking precedent: for the first time, responsibility for human rights abuse was assigned where it was due -- not to an entire country, but to specific empowered individuals “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” “All the infamies of the [Putin] regime -- lies, cruelty, miscarriage of justice, thievery, bigotry result from impunity,” wrote Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was instrumental in convincing the US Congress to pass the law. “The Magnitsky list is the most pro-Russian decision taken in the West in many years. It is harmful to Putin’s thieves, murderers and scoundrels, and it is beneficial to the country.”
The reason this law is so harmful to Putin’s system is the well-known preference of Kremlin officials and Kremlin-linked oligarchs for Western lifestyle. Like their Soviet predecessors, they preside over a system that suppresses the most basic rights and freedoms of their citizens -- but unlike members of the Politburo, they opt for the West when it comes to storing their own (ill-gotten) money, buying their houses, and educating their children. Losing that privilege was unthinkable, and the Kremlin was ready to use any methods -- from Putin’s order tasking his foreign ministry with stopping the law to using blackmail and conditioning Western adoptions of Russian orphans on the non-passage of the Magnitsky sanctions. As Moscow columnist Valery Panyushkin commented at the time, “I know of only two organizations in the world that harm their own children in order to scare their enemies -- they are Hamas and [Putin’s] United Russia party.” Putin continues to publicly condition US-Russia cooperation in strategic areas -- such as the revival of a bilateral agreement on the disposal of plutonium -- on the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. As Veselnitskaya’s mission shows, unofficial proxies also continue to be used for the same goal.
As of today, 44 people have been sanctioned by the US government as human rights violators under the provisions of the Magnitsky Act. They include Putin’s top law-enforcement official, General Alexander Bastrykin, responsible for a slate of politically motivated prosecutions and for personally threatening the life of an investigative journalist. At his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged that the Trump administration will continue to apply the Magnitsky Act. So far, it has not added any new names to the list of individuals sanctioned under this law. There would be no better way for the administration to back up its assertion that the meeting with Veselnitskaya was “such a nothing” than to demonstrate its commitment to the continued implementation of one of the noblest pieces of legislation passed on US soil.
It took six years of work, tireless public advocacy, and overcoming powerful interest groups -- both within and without -- but a crucial milestone was finally reached in Canada this week. On October 18, 2017, the country’s Governor General, Julie Payette, gave royal ascent to Public Bill S-226, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, better known as the Magnitsky Law, making Canada only the third country in the world to enact what should seem like a straightforward principle: that foreign government officials who abuse and steal from their citizens should not be allowed to take advantage of the freedom and opportunities of Western societies.
Following similar measures in the US and Estonia, Canada’s Magnitsky Law -- passed unanimously in both chambers of Parliament -- provides for asset freezes and travel bans on foreign nationals responsible for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and “acts of significant corruption.” “A triumph for human rights and [the] rule of law,” tweeted Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj; his Conservative colleague James Bezan affirmed that human rights abusers will no longer “be able to use Canada as a safe haven.”
For the many similarities between the Soviet regime and Vladimir Putin’s system -- political repression, media censorship, fixed elections -- there is at least one important difference: unlike their Politburo predecessors, the present-day rulers want to steal in Russia, but spend in the West. They violate the most basic norms of democratic society, but want to use the privileges and opportunities offered by democratic society for themselves and their families. They opt for Western countries to buy real estate; Western schools to educate their children; Western banks to keep their money -- the money they are stealing from the Russian people.
For too long, the West has enabled this hypocrisy. In at least three countries now, no longer.
When the US Magnitsky Act was enacted in 2012, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov called it “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign parliament.” That same year, he traveled to Ottawa to urge Canadian lawmakers to adopt a similar measure. “It is time for personal responsibility for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms -- and plunder the resources -- of Russian citizens. Targeted sanctions will end impunity for crooks and abusers, and will introduce a measure of accountability otherwise unachievable in today’s Russia,” Nemtsov and the author of this blog wrote in an op-ed for Canada’s National Post. “The task of democratic change in our country is ours and ours alone. But if Canada wants to show solidarity with the Russian people and stand for the universal values of human dignity, the greatest help it could give is to tell Kremlin crooks and abusers that they are no longer welcome.”
This message has now been sent by Canada. It will be sent by other democracies -- despite bureaucratic resistance; despite the pressure from Putinversteher and proponents of realpolitik; despite powerful interest groups; despite hysterical reactions from the Kremlin and its mouthpieces. For all the criticism of modern Western politics, it seems that principles and values still mean something.