Today, the lame-duck Senate is considering the Russia and Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal Act of 2012. The bill’s language contains the language known as the Magnitsky Act, which for the first time punishes Russian officials implicated in serious human rights abuses.
The Magnitsky Act was named after Russian lawyer, anti-corruption crusader, and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who three years ago died in a Russian jail after being denied medical care and tortured. He could not have known that he would become a symbol of the struggle for human rights in Russia and that his name would be commemorated in an act of the U.S. Congress, making Russian President Vladimir Putin livid.
Magnitsky, who worked for Hermitage Capital, a large Western private equity fund, uncovered a brazen scheme by Russian police and tax officials to embezzle $230 million from the Russian Treasury. Sergei paid the ultimate price for his demands of government accountability. Two weeks ago, a key witness in a Swiss investigation linked to his case was found dead at a luxury estate in London. His autopsy was “inconclusive.”
Now, Congress is doing the right thing. The Magnitsky Act puts Russian officials who blatantly and systematically abuse human rights on a U.S. no-visa list and allows U.S. law enforcement to seize the grafters’ ill-gotten gains where the writ of American law applies. Other countries—including Canada, the Netherlands, and the EU—are in the process of drafting similar legislation.
American lawmakers stepped in where Russian corrupt officialdom failed so abysmally. The lawmakers drew attention to the outrages in Russian jails and contributed to a better business climate through the Magnitsky Act.
The U.S. should not juxtapose human rights and business, however. Both are important U.S. priorities and reflect our cherished values. The Jackson–Vanik legislation was an important tool for promoting freedom of emigration and other human rights issues in the Soviet Union.
In the 21st century, however, it became antiquated, as emigration from Russia is now free. And while officially Moscow may be fuming for now, its long-term interest lies in growing U.S.–Russian business ties.
The House of Representatives already passed the Jackson–Vanik Repeal Act, which grants Russia—now a World Trade Organization (WTO) member—permanent normal trade relations status (PNTR). Without PNTR, U.S. firms doing business in the $400 billion Russian market would be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis foreign firms. The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority—365 to 43—demonstrating strong bipartisan support.
Until the Senate votes on the bill with the Magnitsky Act language, trade with Russia remains subject to the 1974 Jackson–Vanik Amendment, putting U.S. firms in Russia at a disadvantage because their WTO protection mechanisms would be denied.
Today, the Senate will complete the business started by the House by passing a bill that would punish gross violators of human rights while allowing U.S. companies to compete for business