On Election Day last week, Connecticut elected a replacement senator for the retiring Joe Lieberman, the very last Scoop Jackson Democrat. In terms of Jackson’s legacy, it was one half of the end an era; the other half begins today, as the U.S. House votes to graduate Russia from what’s known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation sanctioning the Soviet Union for its refusal to allow Jews to emigrate. The amendment is still on the books, but mostly as a symbolic measure. Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment would actually harm American companies looking to benefit from the normalization of trade relations with Russia.
But the legacy of Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s fight for human rights in Russia will go on. The bill is set to be replaced with a bill targeting the Russian government’s recognizable human rights violators. Referred to as the Magnitsky bill, it is named for a Russian whistle blower arrested and abused by Russian authorities for uncovering corruption. Magnitsky died in custody. As with the sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration had personally opposed the Magnitsky human rights bill, and dispatched John Kerry to try and kill or water down the bill. When the Senate comes back from its Thanksgiving recess to take up its own version of the bill, we’ll find out just how much contempt Kerry has for the advocacy of human rights. Vladimir Putin’s government, unsurprisingly, isn’t thrilled with being held to account:
Congress will vote on a bill named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on Friday – the third anniversary of his death in detention – which is designed to deny visas for Russian officials involved in his imprisonment, abuse or death.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia had already prepared its response but gave no more details than a Foreign Ministry statement on Thursday that warned of tough retaliation.
Many on the left opposed the Magnitsky bill as well, and many others opposed pairing human rights legislation with Russia’s graduation from Jackson-Vanik restrictions. This group includes Michael McFaul, once a prominent advocate for post-Soviet democratization but currently U.S. ambassador to Moscow and tasked with representing the Obama administration’s line.
This group was right to note that Jackson-Vanik no longer applies, but they are wrong to dismiss the Magnitsky bill as irrelevant to Jackson’s legacy. As Joshua Muravchik wrote recently in COMMENTARY, commemorating Jackson’s 100th birthday, questioning the behavior of autocratic regimes and their treatment of their own citizens was at the heart of Jackson’s work, and certainly the amendment itself:
Apart from the individuals who benefited, this amendment, like Jackson’s SALT amendment, raised some freighted questions. What kind of country treated its citizens as captives? How would such a country treat us? And why, if the Soviet regime was prepared to lay to rest its conflict with us, would it continue to give so little quarter to its own people?
Muravchik also quotes Natan Sharansky’s effusive praise for Jackson’s work, which centered on Jackson-Vanik: “For many Jews in the Soviet Union Jackson became the savior of their lives,” Sharansky said.
The Magnitsky bill is bipartisan, and reflects similar legislation taken up in Europe. Obama has apparently dropped his total opposition to the bill, perhaps in recognition that the ill-fated Russian “reset” is unsalvageable, or perhaps out of a genuine change of heart toward the importance of human rights and American global leadership. Either way, it now seems Jackson’s exemplary legacy will live on.