Why the US should fully enforce human rights sanctions on Russia
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U.S. sanctions on Russia clearly are a sore point with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime.

With Congress expected soon to pass a bill curtailing President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE’s authority to lift sanctions on Russia, Putin has failed to derail U.S. measures to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea and meddling in the U.S. elections.

And while the human rights sanctions brought about by the Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2012 will remain in place, Putin may seek to weaken their enforcement. That would be a mistake.

Feeble enforcement of this law would remove effective U.S. leverage over the Russian government and set a poor precedent for global human rights sanctions enacted last year.


The Magnitsky Act imposes U.S. visa bans and asset freezes on targeted Russian officials responsible for gross human rights violations.

To date, the U.S. government has placed 44 Russian officials on the Magnitsky sanctions list. Initially the list included mostly low-level officials, but in its waning days, the Obama Administration added powerful figures, such as the Chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin, a close confidant of Putin. There are more who should be added.

When the law was passed, the Russian government reacted angrily by banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans.

Repeal of the Magnitsky Act remains a priority for Putin’s regime, as evident in the revelations about Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya’s meeting last summer with Donald Trump Jr. and about Putin’s conversation with President Trump about “adoptions” at G-20 summit earlier this month.

Putin maintains power largely by allowing corrupt officials to enrich themselves at the Russian public’s expense in return for their loyalty.

They enjoy impunity at home and literally get away with murder, such as the beatings and denial of medical treatment that precipitated Sergei Magnitsky’s death, the killings of journalists, and the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

The Magnitsky Act introduced some measure of accountability by calling out human rights abusers and barring them — and their money — from the United States. As Russian officials tend to send their ill-gotten gains outside of their country, the Magnitsky Act imposes tangible consequences on targeted officials and puts others on notice.

It thus limits the protection Putin can provide to officials who carry out his dirty work.

The more senior the officials on the sanctions list, the more effective it will be.

The U.S. can prevent targeted Russian officials from taking advantage of our legal protections while they deny such benefits to the Russian people and undermine the rule of law in their own country.

The targeted sanctions begin to push the Russian government toward respecting the rule of law and away from functioning like a protection racket.

The Sergei Magnitsky Act provided the precedent for the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which extends similar U.S. visa bans and asset freezes to officials worldwide responsible for gross human rights violations and large-scale corruption.

The Administration is currently putting together the first list of foreign officials to sanction under this new measure.

The global sanctions give the U.S. government the opportunity to extend its influence further. It could, for example, add pressure on Venezuelan officials who have driven their country into crisis and, most recently, ordered the violent crackdown on protests that resulted in dozens killed and more than 1,000 injured.

Sanctions could also target Chinese officials responsible for cruel abuses, such as the denial of medical treatment that led to the death of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

The Russian government’s effort to gut human rights sanctions shows that they work. And their impact grows as they reach beyond the foot soldiers who carry out abuses to the senior officials who issue the orders. Targeted human rights sanctions give the U.S. government a powerful tool to defend American values and interests. The U.S. government should use this tool fully.

Daniel Calingaert is executive vice president of Freedom House.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.