Magnitsky Act the Wrong Approach to U.S. Human Rights Promotion in Russia

Magnitsky Act the Wrong Approach to U.S. Human Rights Promotion in Russia

One of the principal challenges for U.S. policy toward Russia is the desire to balance the promotion of human rights with other American interests, such as security and trade. Advancing these pragmatic interests is often assumed to require shelving human rights issues. This problem is at the center of the so-called Magnitsky Act, which will come before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later this month. This bill, however, takes a misguided approach to striking this balance, addressing an individual case rather than underlying problems, and creating confrontation where none need exist.

The act seeks to punish those Russian officials responsible for the horrific abuses that led to the 2009 death of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose treatment by Russian authorities appears blatantly criminal and morally shocking. After uncovering massive tax fraud carried out by a criminal conspiracy including high-ranking officials throughout the Russian government, Magnitsky was himself arrested on charges of tax fraud and, while held in pretrial detention, tortured and denied medical care for almost a year until his eventual death of heart failure at age 37. Despite detailed investigations that appear to conclusively demonstrate Magnitsky’s innocence and the brutality of the crimes committed against him, no Russian officials have been charged in the case. The desire to punish the perpetrators of Magnitsky’s abuse is understandable. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the way the Magnitsky Act pursues this goal.

The act would require the U.S. secretary of state to publish a list of officials believed to bear responsibility in the case, and to sanction them with visa bans and asset freezes. The bill appears to have significant support in committee, and will likely reach the Senate floor in conjunction with a bill that would end the trade sanctions against Russia mandated by the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment. At first glance, the prospect of conditioning the repeal of Jackson-Vanik on the passage of the Magnitsky Act holds great appeal.

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