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A Human Rights Dialogue With Congress

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
June 2013
Foreign Service Journal


Human rights activists welcomed passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act at the end of 2012, hailing it as a lever for the United States to press Russia on its obligation to be a better global citizen and respect the rights of its citizens. The act requires the executive branch to bar travel to the United States by top Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was detained and died in custody after blowing the whistle on a massive tax fraud with reputed links to the Kremlin, and to seize their U.S. assets. (On April 12, the State Department published the names of 18 Russian officials whose names have been added to the sanctions list overseen by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.)

Although President Barack Obama ultimately signed the measure into law, his administration had actually opposed the measure over concerns that it compromised the president's ability to manage a crucial relationship through a rough phase. But members of Congress said human rights trumped such concerns, and asserted that the bill "fills many of the gaps in President Obama's policy toward Russia," as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, put it.

The mixed messaging from Washington on the Magnitsky Act marked another familiar chapter in a sometimes tense debate between the executive and the legislature over human rights policy.

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