Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (H.R. 4405), a measure designed to promote human rights in Russia. The committee’s vote has important implications for both human rights and international trade.
In a few months, Russia will become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). U.S. businesses will not be able to benefit from the concessions Russia made to join the WTO unless Congress first repeals the Jackson–Vanik Amendment, a powerful tool that the U.S. successfully used to promote human rights in Soviet Russia and other countries that restricted emigration during the Cold War. Failure to repeal Jackson–Vanik could place U.S. companies at a disadvantage while other WTO members benefit from significantly increased access to the Russian economy.
Regrettably, the Obama Administration did not work with Congress to resolve these issues before agreeing to Russia’s accession to the WTO. Now, Russian accession will put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage in Russia until Congress repeals Jackson–Vanik.
However, there is a way for the U.S. to benefit from increased trade with Russia while supporting the cause of human rights in Russia and around the world. The Magnitsky Act would accommodate Russian membership in the WTO while signaling long-term American commitment to the rule of law and human rights in Russia and other countries.
Some oppose the Magnitsky Act in its current form because they fear it would make it harder for the U.S. to work with Russia and would cause the country’s current government to favor non-U.S. suppliers. These are legitimate concerns. However, the act is intended to deter “gross violations of human rights,” not to create a new barrier to international commerce or U.S.–Russia relations.
Political pressure and commercial engagement through international trade and investment are both useful tools to promote human rights. The Senate version of the Magnitsky Act or similar legislation would send a clear message that the U.S. will support the rule of law and freedom in other countries. Removing the Jackson–Vanik policy—which neither complies with WTO rules nor promotes human rights—while adopting a WTO-compliant policy designed to effectively promote human rights would be a win-win for the U.S.