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Don’t take the spotlight off of Russia

Magnitsky grave


Washington, November 21, 2012 - Major trade and human rights legislation on Russia easily passed the House on Friday. It should go to the President’s desk immediately, without a provision being pressed in the Senate that would weaken the bill.

The House bill accomplishes two priorities. First, by repealing a no-longer relevant Cold War-era law, it ensures that U.S. exporters stay in the game. With Russia joining the WTO in August, Moscow was forced to cut tariffs for every country but the United States. The repeal of the 1974 "Jackson-Vanik" trade restrictions was smart economics.

Second, the bill includes important human rights sanctions --named after slain Moscow whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky-- to focus on the systemic corruption and abuse of power in Russia today. Russian killers and torturers are named and shamed, and denied U.S. visas and U.S. banking access. As one Russian opposition leader said, these human rights provisions are "pro-Russian. It helps defend us from the criminals who kill our citizens, steal our money, and hide it abroad." That's a guy we want to help.

But the Senate bill takes the spotlight off Russia, instead hoping to sanction human rights abusers around the world. Senators are well intentioned in pressing for a global focus. I want to go after the abuser in Zimbabwe or Venezuela too.

But when considering any legislation, we have to figure how a new law will be implemented by the Executive Branch. In this case, my fear is that the "everyone is important" approach pushed by the Senate gives the Obama Administration an "out" – where nothing is important.

The Administration – which has fought hard against the Russian human rights provision, not wanting to offend the Putin government – would surely use its "universal" application to pick the low-hanging (rotten) fruit around the world. My bet is that the Senate provision would produce a stock list of human rights abusers previously subjected to some sort of sanction – a North Korean general, Iranian IRCG member or Sudanese a hooligan. Indeed, a year or so ago when the Obama Administration sanctioned a company for violation of Iranian energy sanctions, it dinged a Belarus company already subject to various other sanctions. Impact nil. After hearing testimony in the House Foreign Affairs Committee that "Obama has been virtually silent on Russia’s deteriorating political situation," this isn’t a case where the diplomats get the benefit of the doubt.

The House bill passed 365-43. The Senate should take up that bill and pass it to the President immediately. It is the best way to liberalize trade while staying true to Russian human rights champions.

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