The rift between Canada and Russia is widening in response to Canada’s passing of the so-called Magnitsky Act, which targets internationals accused of human rights violations.
But rights advocates are saying the new legislation will be particularly helpful in going after human rights abusers in other locales, particularly in China.
As US President Donald Trump continues his 12-day tour of Asia, while many are keeping an eye on how Trump’s visit to Seoul, Korea, will impact the stormy relations between the United States and rogue nation North Korea, human rights advocates are at the same time concerned about the US Administration’s lack of effort to engage with leaders in countries like China and Cambodia on the issue of human rights abuses, a topic which politicos say is low on the radar of Trump’s “America First” agenda.
“We think US government departments and especially the President at the top should express their concern,” said Chiu Yi-ling, a representative from an alliance of more than 10 Taiwanese rights groups following the case of Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che who is being held in China on charges of subverting state power. “The president should express his views.”
Yet even with Trump’s silence on this and other human rights issues, supporters see a growing international interest in Magnitsky-type laws as a step in the right direction, one that will allow advocates in countries like Canada to strike back against rights abusers, even as the initial thrust behind Magnitsky laws was less about human rights and more about money.
Back in 2012, the US Congress passed a bill with a unique agenda, aimed at hitting back against a particular group of Russian officials who are held responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax accountant who exposed a widespread scheme of tax frauds and money laundering in Russia. The sanctions imposed on the original 18 individuals barred them from entry into the United States and from using the US banking system, effectively freezing their assets held outside of Russia.
Four years later, that US law was expanded to include human rights abusers in any country, creating the Global Magnitsky Act, which has since been followed by similar legislation in Canada and has ushered in a new era for human rights advocacy, say its proponents.
“This is a really significant move,” says Bill Browder, who sponsored the original Magnitsky Act in the US, to CBC News, “Canada has really opened up the floodgates for more Magnitsky Acts around the world.”
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has lashed out by accusing Canada of playing “unconstructive political games” that could cause irreparable harm to Canada-Russian relations.
But the real target may be elsewhere.
In the US, eyes are on China, with Senator Benjamin Cardin, another sponsor of the law, saying, “There is well documented evidence that Chinese officials routinely commit gross violations of human rights against dissidents and human rights defenders,” said Senator Benjamin Cardin, to the Guardian. “Those officials responsible for such violations should be investigated under the act.”
And the rhetoric from Canada is similar, with former Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who introduced the Magnitsky law as an MP, seeing China as a focus.
“It’s not because they’re Chinese, it’s not because we’re targeting the Chinese government,” says Cotler, to the Epoch Times. “We’re saying we don’t want the spillover of any cultures of corruption and criminality in any country which does not bring their violators to justice, to have it happen in Canada,” he said.
Conservative MP Rob Nicholson agrees, saying that Magnitsky adds a new tool for Canada to crack down on individuals connected with illegal activity.
“It’s not a question of whether we have a trade relationship,” says Nicholson. “Everybody has to comply with the standards, whether it’d be Russia or China or anyone else.”