Under The Guise Of 'Human Rights,' Russia And U.S. Pursue Tit-For-Tat Blacklisting
by Avi Jorisch
In mid-April, Washington and Moscow each published blacklists of suspected human rights violators in the other's jurisdiction. The moves were rife with symbolism, and clear signs of a deteriorating bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Russia. But while it is clearly essential to make real efforts to promote human rights, using what appears to be politicized sanctions to secure them might not be the best strategy.
The current round of recriminations began in December 2012, when the Obama administration signed into law the Magnitsky Act, imposing a sanctions regime against individuals connected to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower who uncovered the largest known tax fraud case in Russian history, while in official custody. On April 12 of this year, the United States also imposed travel bans on eighteen Russians linked to the case—including senior Interior Ministry officials, prosecutors, judges, prison officials and tax officers—and froze any assets they hold in the United States.
Others not tied to the death of Magnitsky were also blacklisted by Washington, including people implicated in human rights violations in Chechnya and the killing of journalists. According to the U.S. State Department, no officials close to President Putin were on either list, and political considerations were "not a factor" in composing the list. Yet with rampant corruption in Russia and the implication of high-ranking officials in the Magnitsky case, it is hard to reconcile the State Department's declaration with reality.
When the Magnitsky Act was passed, Moscow reacted by enacting a law that punishes U.S. officials "implicated in human rights violations" and bars the adoption of Russian children by Americans. At the time, President Putin justified the legislation as a need to respond to a "purely political, unfriendly act" that has "sacrificed Russian-American relations." An enraged Moscow called the Magnitsky Act an "absurd" law that "intervenes in our domestic affairs" and "delivers a strong blow to bilateral relations."
In a clear tit for tat, Russia also placed eighteen Americans on a so-called "stop-list" for their alleged roles in the use of torture at Guantanamo and involvement in human rights abuses in the cases of Russian citizens. The list includes two Bush administration political appointees, two Guantanamo Bay prison chiefs and officials involved in the prosecution of the infamous Victor Bout, a convicted international arms smuggler.
These moves, however, aren't likely to be effective. Governments generally use travel bans and blacklists to influence or constrain the behavior of corporations, individuals and countries. Sanctions have traditionally had an impact in three areas: slowing foreign investment in designated jurisdictions; curbing the ability of illicit actors to gain access to global financial markets; and providing a clear statement of concern. They have been especially effective against rogue regimes, transnational crime syndicates and terrorists, although their efficacy is often difficult to determine with precision. The United States and Europe have in recent years relied heavily on sanctions to push their national security agendas, especially in regard to Iran and North Korea.
But if lawmakers in Washington and Moscow aimed to accomplish any of these three goals, they have certainly failed in two of these areas, and perhaps all three. Neither power, especially the United States, has wanted to comprehensively tackle the issue of human rights for fear of complicating other foreign policy agendas in which each has an important role to play in the national security of the other. These include Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, and issues such as curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and transnational crime.
The best way to promote human rights is not entirely clear. Sergei David is, a member of Russia's opposition Solidarnost movement, has concluded that "the method chosen by US lawmakers is one of the few effective ways to influence official behavior in Russia." However, by focusing so narrowly on Russia and failing to include the many other regimes that are gross violators of human rights, the Obama administration has politicized the blacklist without furthering the cause of freedom sufficiently to justify damage to its relationship with Moscow. Washington should consider broadening the scope of the Magnitsky Act and promoting a law—either an Executive Order or a Congressional Act—that pursues human rights violators around the globe.
Addressing human rights abuses and fostering a public debate on the best way to secure freedom is critical. Blacklisting a few public officials raises limited awareness, but it antagonizes the country whose officials are blacklisted and does not have a sufficient impact. If the White House and Kremlin do wish to deal with the issue comprehensively, they will need to issue sweeping blacklists and take a firm stance on the importance of freedom and human rights.
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