Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jacks0n-Vanik Act

Why is Obama Protecting Human Rights Violators?

Yesterday, the Russian Duma ratified Russia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) entry. The Obama administration has supported Russia’s membership from the get-go, and therefore has put is clout behind repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Act, the substance of which the WTO would make illegal. Passed in 1974 at the height of the Cold War, Jackson-Vanik tied trade to the freedom of emigration. While it was targeted mostly toward the Soviet Union’s Jewish community, it provided a broader foundation for Cold War human rights advocacy.

To replace the Jackson-Vanik Act, a bipartisan array of senators supported The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved unanimously on June 26. Named after a Russian anti-corruption lawyer tortured and killed in prison after he uncovered a multimillion-embezzlement scheme, the Magnitsky Act sanctioned Russia’s worst human rights violators by denying them visas and freezing their assets held in the United States. At least, that was the way it was supposed to be. Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) was for the Act before he was against it before he was for it again. Alas, somewhere in the flip-flopping—done at Obama administration behest so as not to antagonize Russia–Kerry got the Act watered down.

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Yesterday, the Russian Duma ratified Russia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) entry. The Obama administration has supported Russia’s membership from the get-go, and therefore has put is clout behind repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Act, the substance of which the WTO would make illegal. Passed in 1974 at the height of the Cold War, Jackson-Vanik tied trade to the freedom of emigration. While it was targeted mostly toward the Soviet Union’s Jewish community, it provided a broader foundation for Cold War human rights advocacy.

To replace the Jackson-Vanik Act, a bipartisan array of senators supported The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved unanimously on June 26. Named after a Russian anti-corruption lawyer tortured and killed in prison after he uncovered a multimillion-embezzlement scheme, the Magnitsky Act sanctioned Russia’s worst human rights violators by denying them visas and freezing their assets held in the United States. At least, that was the way it was supposed to be. Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) was for the Act before he was against it before he was for it again. Alas, somewhere in the flip-flopping—done at Obama administration behest so as not to antagonize Russia–Kerry got the Act watered down.

Not only does it not single out Russia any longer, but it also gives the State Department discretion to keep the list of human rights violators secret. So much for naming and shaming. Now, for sanctions to occur, the targets of the sanctions must be known to banks and other agencies.  If the State Department, for diplomatic reasons, refuses to divulge the list of human rights violators, not only is there no shaming, but also there are also really no sanctions. Anna Borshchevska (full disclosure, my wife) explains.

It is ironic that the Obama administration prides itself on being the standard bearer of human rights protections, but it also has done more than any other administration to protect the guilty at the expense of the innocent.

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