The bill is named after a young Russian lawyer, who was tortured and died in prison for trying to blow the whistle on government fraud. It would impose travel bans to the U.S. and financial sanctions on anyone responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of human-rights against individuals trying to defend human rights or who are seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the Russian government.
Sounds pretty important in a country that has become one of the leading murderers of journalists, and that is trail blazing the 21st century version of authoritarianism at home, and support for noxious regimes like Syria abroad. And by pinpointing sanctions against those carrying out abuse, it takes a page out of the smart sanctions book that has improved our leverage against countries by letting us target the real wrongdoers, not the general public.
But the Magnitsky bill is even more vital. The Administration wants Russia to join the World Trade Organization. To do that, we need to drop the Cold War Jackson-Vanik legislation that tied trade to allowing Jews and those persecuted by the former Soviet Union to emigrate — since linking issues that way is against WTO rules. This bill lets us get at human rights in Russia another way.
The Administration isn’t supportive — and that’s a real missed opportunity. Research on organizations like the WTO show that they allow outside countries to exercise immense leverage on domestic issues — but only during the negotiation stage. In other words, we can use the WTO to push Russia for some real reforms in its rule of law — but as soon as they are in, we lose that leverage.
Instead, the Administration wants to hand Russia the WTO as a gift for their help with sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions are crucial, and yes, we owe Russia some quid pro quo to keep them coming.
But as Syria shows us — money can’t buy us love. We can purchase one-off transactional help on this round of Iranian sanctions. But there will be future sanctions — and scores of other issues we need Russia’s help on — and we cannot buy off Russia each time. With governments that fundamentally don’t share our values, we can bribe them with things like WTO membership, but we only have so many chips to play when interests are fundamentally misaligned. When our chips run out, Putin will still be there. Thanks to his election rigging, he’ll be the longest running Russian leader since Stalin. His human rights record shows that their longevity in power is not all they share.
To have any hope of a Russia we can work with on issues from Arctic dominance to nuclear security, we actually have to empower those inside that country to make their regime better. Russian citizens are calling for our help on this. Even the Duma — long a rubber stamp organization — ran an unprecedented filibuster to try to let Russians retain the right to protest. The Magnitsky bill is a feeble lifeline we can throw those in Russia who want to look to the U.S. for hope.
Meanwhile, the Administration is throwing up all sorts of flimsy excuses to keep the bill from passing — from paperwork requirements at the State Department, to worries over the paltry trade we do with Russia, to their desire to broaden the bill to other countries rather than make it about Russia alone. That last excuse is viable. It provides a face-saving way to improve the bill by generalizing it to any country that tortures its opponents — forcing Russia to be the bad actor if they retaliate against its passage.
Short-sighted attempts to placate the Russian bear to get immediate diplomatic help mortgage our future. America should not make deals by walking over the mangled fingers of tortured, 37-year-old lawyers. We are better than that.