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US Congress Seeks to Globalize Magnitsky Act

This week, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a new bill, S.1933 (the Global Human Rights Accountability Act), that would extend across the world the targeted visa and financial sanctions on human rights abusers established by the Magnitsky Act. That law, passed in 2012, bans Russian officials who engage in gross human rights violations from traveling to and keeping assets in the United States. The new bill would extend these sanctions beyond Russia to human rights abusers in every country.

“Visiting the United States and having access to our financial system, including US dollars, are privileges that should not be extended to those who violate basic human rights and the rule of law,” Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland and author of the original Magnitsky Act, said in introducing S.1933. “Gross violators of human rights from Zimbabwe to Ukraine, and Honduras to Papua New Guinea, are put on notice that they cannot escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to act.” “Standing up for the rule of law and establishing clear consequences for abuses of fundamental human rights serves our nation’s interests and reflects our deepest values,” added Senator John McCain, the Republican cosponsor of both measures.

The extension of sanctions makes perfect sense—human rights are universal, and so should be the accountability for their abuses. No doubt, S.1933 will enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress—just like the Magnitsky Act, which passed the House of Representatives by 365–43, and the Senate by 92–4, almost unthinkable numbers in the current political environment in Washington.

The new bill, however, is unlikely to cause much enthusiasm in the Obama administration. Indeed, the administration seems to be having difficulties implementing the Magnitsky Act itself, an established US law. The mandated annual report to Congress on the act’s implementation came six days late and was far from comprehensive. Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, the original House sponsor of the Magnitsky Act, called the report “disappointing.” One congressional staffer told RFE/RL that he would “expect more from a school book report.”

Furthermore, the expansion of the actual list of human rights abusers targeted by the Magnitsky Act, which was widely expected to coincide with the report, was abruptly cancelled. According to informed sources, the expanded list prepared by the State Department included Russia’s Investigative Committee chairman and close Putin confidant Alexander Bastrykin, who is responsible for politically motivated prosecutions. No public explanation for the reversal was given. McGovern is now seeking a meeting with administration officials “at the earliest possible time” to discuss the stalling and to urge the executive branch to abide by the spirit of the law.

It has long been the policy of the so-called “pragmatists” in both Democratic and Republican administrations to try to placate authoritarian regimes and not irritate them with a focus on human rights. History has shown many times that such “pragmatism” is counterproductive. As Andrei Sakharov once said, “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic one.”

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