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By Sabrina Brasey
On the 16th November 2017 the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to welcome to Parliament, William Browder, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Marcus Kolga and James Bezan for a discussion on the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign. This fight for justice was spurred on following the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, who had been targeted by Russian authorities for exposing a 230$ million tax fraud involving high-level Russian government officials.
William Browder is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, however following the murder of his lawyer in November 2009 – Sergei Magnitsky – he has spent the last couple of years fighting for justice. Vladimir Kara-Murza is Vice Chairman of Open Russia, an NGO which promotes civil society and democracy in Russia. Marcus Kolga is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and political activist, focusing on regional European and Russian issues. James Bezan is a Canadian Member of Parliament and has been very outspoken on the issue of Ukrainian sovereignty, democracy and human rights, and as a result, was one of the thirteen Canadian officials sanctioned by the Russian Government in 2014.
By kind invitation of Ian Austin MP, all four members of the panel discussed the importance of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, what the UK can learn from Canada and other countries that have adopted legislation and the role the campaign can play in bringing about change within Russia.
At the start of the event, Mr Browder declared that today marked the 8th anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s murder by Putin’s regime. Since then, he has put aside his business activities to focus all his time, resources and energy on seeking justice for his former lawyer Sergei. At the beginning of his campaign Mr Browder researched what could be done when a corrupt regime committed a murder against a whistle-blower. He discovered rather quickly that no international legal mechanism were functional. He stated that “the best you could do in 2009 – if a person like Sergei Magnitsky was killed – was for the US government to issue a short statement condemning such an act”. Browder went on to state that he could not accept this “maximum consequence” of simply issuing statements. He eventually said to himself that if no mechanisms existed then it was his responsibility to create one.
Mr Browder explained that Sergei was killed because he uncovered 230 million dollars of tax rebate fraud that was committed by Russian government officials. The 230 million dollars that they benefited from was not kept in Russia but in the West. He pointed out that if you walk down the streets of Knightsbridge in London or Fifth Avenue in New York, you will hear Russian being spoken among very well dressed, wealthy individuals that are keeping their money from Russia in the West. This was the seed of his idea: to ban visas and freeze the assets of people who killed Sergei and others under similar circumstances.
Mr Browder originally went to Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Senator John McCain of Arizona in order to shine a light on the Magnitsky case and request a piece of legislation to be put together. These two senators put forward the Magnitsky Act in October of 2010, despite the United States trying to re-establish relations with Russia at the time. The Act was very popular amongst senators and consequently in November 2012, the Magnitsky Act passed 92-4 and was signed into law on December 14th 2012 by President Obama.
Mr Browder argued that this piece of legislation clearly affects the Russians because “Putin has told us so”. For example, in an act of retaliation the Russian government has now banned American adoptions of Russian children. In order to make the Magnitsky Act not solely an American piece of legislation, a similar process began in Canada and finally in October 2017 the Canadian Parliament passed the Bill into law, after a unanimous vote in the House of Commons. He pointed out that the Russians retaliated against Canada’s decision by putting out an Interpol arrest warrant against him for the fifth time.
Mr Browder concluded by listing other countries which have passed Magnitsky Acts, including Estonia and the UK. He highlighted that several hours prior to this event, Lithuania became the fifth country to pass a Magnitsky Act in Parliament.
Vladimir began by shedding light on an annual report published last month by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, considered to be one of the most authoritative voices on human rights in Russia today. A section of the report highlighted the issue of political prisoners. Vladimir argued that even according to the Memorial Human Rights Centre – which uses very restrictive criteria to designate someone as a political prisoner – the report concluded that 117 people are in Russian prisons today, for no other reason than having crossed the path of the current government.
Vladimir went on to draw similarities and parallels between the Soviet and Putin regimes. He argued that Russia today still has government driven propaganda, censorship of the media, does not have free and fair elections and people who speak out against the regime are declared enemies and traitors. However for all these many similarities, there is one major difference: “Members of the Soviet Union did not keep their money in Western banks or send their children to study in Western schools or buy high class real estate in Western countries”. Vladimir argued that the same cannot be said regarding the people who rule Russia today.
The same people who undermine, attack and violate the most basic norms of democratic society want to use the privileges and opportunities of democratic societies for themselves. They want to steal in Russia but spend in the West. Vladimir claimed that for far too long Western countries have been enabling this behaviour by providing human rights abusers the opportunity to use their financial sectors to keep their wealth. Finally, the United States of America put an end to this double standard by passing the Magnitsky Act – a law which laid down basic principles. For example, if you engage in corruption or abuse human rights you will no longer be able to use the financial and banking sectors in the United States.
Vladimir concluded by highlighting that despite the Magnitsky Act passing into law in now a handful of countries, more Western states need to adopt this piece of legislation. The West needs to send a clear message to the crooks and the human rights abusers: “They are no longer welcome!”
Marcus made clear in his opening statement that Canada’s Magnitsky Act is a global human rights law which does not target specific states but on the contrary specific individuals. These individuals are deemed to have abused the rights of their fellow citizens and profited from such abuses.
He went on to describe the process which took place when Canada decided to bring forward to Parliament the Magnitsky Act. He stated that Canada’s efforts to pass this piece of legislation was a challenge which took over seven years. The first attempt came from former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who first introduced the private members motion to ask the Canadian government to adopt this legislation back in 2011. Furthermore, several human rights activists – including Vladimir – visited Ottawa to petition parliament to enact the law.
Marcus went on to speak about Canadian values and national identity. He declared that when Canadians look into the collective national mirror, they see a defender of global human rights and a voice for peace and stability. Much of this Canadian self-image is rooted in Canada’s contributions in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which still remains deeply ingrained in their national identity. However, in regards to the Magnitsky Act the former minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion greatly opposed it. At the time, Canada was seeking to re-engage with Vladimir Putin and the Magnitsky legislation would further complicate that effort. Luckily, last January a new Foreign Affairs Minister was named – Chrystia Freeland – who’s positioned aligned with the overwhelming pro human rights consensus in Ottawa.
As the support for the Magnitsky Act gained momentum, the Kremlin’s objections intensified. In March 2016, the Kremlin lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya publicly attacked Canadian efforts to adopt the law. Veselnitskaya triggered a ripple effect of criticism from Russia’s pro-Kremlin media and even prompted a call from Russia’s lower house to open an official investigation into the Canadian movement. The attacks against the Canadian Parliament eventually lost all mainstream credibility.
On October 19th 2017 – after numerous challenges – the bill passed into law, after a unanimous vote in Canada’s House of Commons, with 277 for and none against. In a statement released days after the passing of the Magnitsky Act, the Kremlin said: “Canada’s decision to extend its anti-Russia sanctions under the false pretext of championing human rights is absolute pointless and reprehensible”.
Marcus concluded that Canadian’s have universally embraced this new law and reclaimed their role as a human rights leader. Other nations now need to follow in Canada’s footsteps and work towards adopting their own global human rights legislation.
James began by speaking on the importance of standing up against human rights abusers. He stated that it is critical for parliaments around the world to put forward the right message and to sanction individuals who grossly violate human rights. He went on to discuss how Canada went about adopting their own Magnitsky Act.
As previously mentioned, Stéphane Dion – the former Minister of Foreign Affairs – was adamantly opposed to this bill. The government in 2016 was completed committed to an appeasement policy with Russia. James went out to argue that those who work in Foreign Service have a policy of “let’s go along to get along”. However this appeasement policy has done nothing to uphold the key principle of safeguarding human rights and the principle of stopping corruption. However, the Cabinet reshuffle which led Dion to change position resulted in great progress for the bill. Important witnesses were called into Parliament to put forward strong recommendations, such as Bill Browder. Furthermore, several communities in Canada got on board, including the Ukrainian and Venezuelan communities as well as the Iranian community who want to hold to account the theocracy in Iran. This type of support highly resonated with parliamentarians.
Due to the change in leadership, the government announced that it would support the bill. A couple days after the passing of the Magnitsky Act, Canada was able to immediately sanction fifty two individuals, including President Maduro Moros of Venezuela. It is important to highlight that there are several different nationalities on the list and is not simply restricted to Russians.
James concluded by emphasising that it is critical for other countries to adopt this type of legislation because we cannot allow Western countries to be taken advantage of and to be used as safe havens for the illicit wealth generated through corruption.
The event concluded by underlining the importance of denying corrupt individuals and human rights abusers the opportunity to benefit from strong financial systems, strong property value and to stop them from taking advantage of free trade, free economies and free societies. Furthermore, all speakers acknowledged that the Magnitsky Act is a pro-Russian legislation, pro-Democracy legislation and pro-Society legislation.
The Henry Jackson Society would like to thank all four speakers for their deeply insightful and fascinating talk on the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign.