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.
Senate Democrats corralling bipartisan support for commonsense sanctions legislation are experiencing a bit of déjà vu. In late 2011, the Senate agreed to new Iran sanctions by the widest possible margin: 100-0. Yet the Obama administration sought to delay the sanctions, and then worked to water them down. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez finally went public with his frustration toward President Obama for working so hard to protect Iran from the sanctions everyone had agreed to.
Now Senate Democrats are facing the same obstacle–President Obama–in trying to levy penalties on major human rights violators in Russia. Called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named after one prominent victim of those rights violators, the bill was sponsored by Ben Cardin and immediately obtained broad support. But on behalf of the Obama administration, John Kerry kept the bill bogged down in committee. So the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed its own version of the bill, and the White House finally dropped its open opposition to the bill. Now, as Reuters reports, Obama is trying to work changes into the bill that would essentially render it useless:
The measure would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the U.S. assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky’s death. The bill as originally written in both the House and Senate would make public the list of offenders and broaden it to include other abusers of human rights in Russia.
A reworked draft circulating in the Senate and obtained by Reuters would allow the list to “contain a classified annex if the Secretary (of State) determines that it is necessary for the national security interests of the United States to do so.”
Backers of the Magnitsky bill want the list of human rights violators made public both to shame those on the list and to keep them from doing business with U.S. financial institutions.
“How can an individual’s assets be frozen, if his or her name cannot be disclosed to financial institutions?” the aide asked.