By Bryce Klehm
Bryce Klehm is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying History.
Tags: Russia, International Relations, Lobbying, Trump
The Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed into law in 2012, has proven to be one of the United States’ most effective tools for fighting human rights abusers. The story behind the act began when the largest foreign investor in Russia, William Browder, hired Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to investigate possible corruption and extortion in various Russian companies in 2007. When Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million corruption scandal directly linked to the Kremlin, he was harassed, arrested in front of his family, imprisoned, and beaten to death.  His death was a blatant example of corrupt policing within Russia. A July 2011 report by the Human Rights Council also found a conflict of interest because Magnitsky’s captors were the same police officers he had exposed for corruption. 
William Browder vowed to avenge Magnitsky’s death and expose deep-rooted corruption within the Kremlin. The story of the Kremlin’s endemic corruption begins in 2003, when President Vladimir Putin began to control Russia’s oligarchs. Putin dramatically imprisoned the richest oligarch in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then demanded payments from the rest of Russia’s richest men. Since then, the wealthy in Russia have been unwaveringly linked to the Kremlin, creating a massive corruption system.  Though Browder’s efforts to expose corruption within Russia were effective, he felt he needed to do more to punish Sergei Magnitsky’s murderers.
Browder began lobbying the U.S. Congress which eventually passed the Magnitsky Act. The act replaced the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, a Cold War version of human rights legislation that made trade with the Soviet Union dependent on the numbers of Jewish émigrés allowed to leave the USSR.  The Magnitsky Act imposes financial and travel sanctions on those deemed to be human rights abusers through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). With little leverage over US elite, Putin responded two weeks later by banning the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans deemed to be human rights abusers, despite the fact that Russia currently has more orphans than it did following World War II. 
The sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act created a massive headache for the Russians officials involved. For example, Gennady Timchenko, a long-time Putin ally and close friend, reportedly said in an interview with the state news agency, TASS, that he “ basically can’t leave the country.”  To the vast amount of Russian elites who hold both their families and assets overseas, this act strikes at the core of their life. The act serves as a constant reminder to human rights abusers that their crimes do not go unnoticed. It’s also an effective way of holding those responsible for Magnitsky’s death accountable while not punishing all Russian citizens for the actions of bad characters in positions of power.
Another great feature of the Magnitsky Act is its global applicability. For instance, on December 21, 2017, the Treasury Department added 39 human rights abusers to the “Magnitsky list.”  Among them was former president of the Gambia Yahya Jammeh, Balkans arms dealer Slobodan Tesic, and notorious human trafficker Dr. Mukhtar Hamid Shah.
Russia has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to repeal the Magnitsky Act. Their lobbyists in Washington (including lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya, whom Donald Trump Jr. met with during the campaign) have tried various tactics from disinformation to a retelling of Magnitsky’s story. Due to the recent investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Bill Browder was asked to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee this past July. As he succinctly put it, “The Magnitsky Act created real consequences outside of Russia and this created a real problem for Putin and his system of kleptocracy.”  Combining this problem for Russia with Donald Trump Jr.’s assurance to reconsider the act after the campaign paints a clearer picture of Trump-Russia relations.  Whether or not Donald Trump Jr. truly meant the administration would actually reconsider the sanctions is irrelevant; he clearly captured the attention of the Russian elite and incentivized them to act on Trump’s behalf. Nevertheless, despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric, the United States government has continued to enforce the Magnitsky Act sanctions.
The international community has also followed the United States’ lead in sanctioning human rights abusers. So far, Britain and Canada have created similar Magnitsky Acts. While it is not surprising that the United States’ closest allies would implement a similar act, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have also implemented Magnitsky sanctions as of last month.   The three Baltic countries banned 49 individuals associated with Magnitsky, an extraordinarily symbolic move given their geographical proximity to Russia. In the current climate of uncertainty about American leadership, the Magnitsky Act serves as one example of legislative power expanding justice beyond the borders of the United States.
 Horton, Alex. "Analysis | The Magnitsky Act, Explained." The Washington Post. July 14, 2017. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/07/14/the-magnitsky-act-explained/?utm_term=.7eb350e9d159.
 "Q&A: The Magnitsky Affair." BBC News. July 11, 2013. Accessed February 06, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-20626960.
 Ioffe, Julia. "Why Does the Kremlin Care So Much About the Magnitsky Act?" The Atlantic. July 27, 2017. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/magnitsky-act-kremlin/535044/.
 Gray, Rosie. "Bill Browder's Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee." The Atlantic. July 25, 2017. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/bill-browders-testimony-to-the-senate-judiciary-committee/534864/.
 Quinn, Melissa. "Russian Lawyer: Donald Trump Jr. Said Magnitsky Act Could Be Reconsidered If Trump Won." Washington Examiner. November 06, 2017. Accessed February 06, 2018. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/russian-lawyer-donald-trump-jr-said-magnitsky-act-could-be-reconsidered-if-trump-won/article/2639744.
 "U.S. Department of the Treasury." United States Sanctions Human Rights Abusers and Corrupt Actors Across the Globe. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm0243.
 "Lithuania Bans Entry to 49 Russians under 'Magnitsky Act'." The Baltic Times. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.baltictimes.com/lithuania_bans_entry_to_49_russians_under__magnitsky_act_/.
 "Latvia's Decision on Sanctions against Persons Involved in Magnitsky Case Could Bring up Russia's Response - Rinkevics." The Baltic Times. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.baltictimes.com/latvia_s_decision_on_sanctions_against_persons_involved_in_magnitsky_case_could_bring_up_russia_s_response_-_rinkevics/.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Russian Council
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