But the time for softball is over. The Magnitsky bill has prominent supporters: David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House and former assistant secretary of state for human rights in the George W. Bush administration, has stated that the Magnitsky bill has “done more for the cause of human rights [in Russia] than anything done” by the two previous administrations.
Yet in late July 2011, the State Department placed some sixty-four Russian officials involved in Magnitsky’s murder on a visa blacklist. This brought about some protests on the Russian side, but it was most likely a preemptive attempt by the Obama administration to stonewall the Magnitsky Act.
The bill is aimed at human-rights abusers not only in the Magnitsky case—and not only in Russia—but around the globe. Individuals guilty of massive human-rights violations would be refused visas, and their assets within the preview of the U.S. government would be frozen. Russia has threatened to retaliate “asymmetrically” if the legislation is passed. It has already banned U.S. officials prosecuting Viktor Bout, an arms trader known as the “Lord of War,” from entering Russia.
As the United States supported Russian membership in the WTO, targeted legislation like the Magnitsky Act would be a more effective way to encourage Russia to respect the rights of its citizens. As seven leaders of Russia’s prodemocracy movement declared, “Jackson-Vanik is not helpful in any way—neither for promotion of human right and democracy in Russia, nor for the economic interests of its people. . . . Much more effective are targeted sanctions against specific officials involved in human rights abuse.”
Under Magnitsky, the United States could comply with its WTO obligation to offer permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to America’s trading partners, thereby allowing U.S. firms the best chance to compete for business in Russia. Extending PNTR to Russia would also promote transparency, property rights and the rule of law.
As the world shrinks, the United States and its Western allies can and should target blatant and systematic abusers of human rights, who often spend time or keep financial resources in the West. Washington should also coordinate with allies in Europe and elsewhere who are promoting pieces of legislation similar to the Magnitsky Act. International cooperation will go a long way in deterring gross violations of individual rights, including property rights. This is the way for the United States and its allies to project their values—and make the world safer for investment and economic growth.
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation.