Time for Canada to Implement the Magnitsky Act

Marco Levytsky, National Affairs editor.

Canada has missed an opportunity to be a leader in implementing sanctions against corrupt individuals who violate human rights, says the anti-Putin activist who spearheaded the global campaign to pass the so-called Magnitsky laws aimed originally against Russian officials who tortured and killed human rights activist Sergei Magnitsky.

“I would argue that the implementation of the Magnitsky act in Canada has been disappointing,” Bill Browder told the Globe and Mail in an article published on February 8. “Every time that we’ve tried to engage with the government it seems that there’s a bit of chaos over there – it’s not even clear what the process is for getting people added to the list,” he continued, adding: “Canada, which most people consider to be sort of the moral leader in the world, right now is actually behind the Trump administration, as far as the Magnitsky act goes.”

Canada started out on the right foot, passing the Magnitsky Act unanimously in the House of Commons on October, 19, 2017 and followed that up by sanctioning 30 Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Since then Global Affairs Canada has initiated other sanctions against officials in Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, but not against any more Russians. This despite repeated calls to do so from the Ukrainian community – especially in regard to two issues that have arisen since then. One was the 145-day hunger strike by imprisoned Crimean film director Oleh Sentsov demanding the release of about 70 Ukrainian nationals who are being beaten, tortured and held in terrible conditions in Russian jails. The second was the illegal detention of 24 Ukrainian sailors by Russian forces following a Russian naval attack on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea on November 25, 2018.

Regarding Sentsov, then National President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod (who has subsequently been elected President of the Ukrainian World Congress) stated in an August 8 press release: “Canada has taken no actions against the Russian officials responsible for the illegal imprisonment and maltreatment of Oleh Sentsov and many other Ukrainian citizens. Statements calling on Russia to release these prisoners are not enough. Canada and the international community need to significantly increase pressure through increased economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Russian regime in order to ensure that Sentsov and all other illegally imprisoned Ukrainians are returned home.”

Later that month, the Edmonton-based “Support for Political Prisoners of Russian Aggression in Ukraine” initiated an online parliamentary petition intended to spur direct action by the Canadian government in support of Ukrainian political prisoners including Sentsov and others. The petition was presented in parliament by Edmonton Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan on November 8 and on January 28, in a response signed by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, the government listed a number of occasions it has spoken out publicly on Russian human rights violations and erroneously stated it sanctioned 30 Russian individuals in the fall of 2018. That was a reference to the original Magnitsky sanctions enacted in the fall of 2017.

On December 4, Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada, appealed for more sanctions against Russia while appearing before the House of Commons defence committee regarding the detention of the Ukrainian sailors.

On January 17, Grod’s successor as UCC National President, Alexandra Chyczij reiterated the call for more sanctions.

“Russia’s continued incarceration of the 24 Ukrainian sailors is a grave violation of international law,” she stated. “Canada and the international community must significantly increase sanctions on the Russian regime to secure the release of the Ukrainian sailors and over 70 Ukrainian political prisoners taken hostage and imprisoned by the Kremlin.”

Along with sanctions on Russian state financial institutions; sanctions on Russian shipping including banning Canadian ships from docking in Russian ports in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea and banning Russian ships from Canadian ports, she urged the government to “use the tools available in the Magnitsky Act to implement sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the violations of internationally recognized human rights of Ukrainian citizens”.

So why is Canada dragging its feet on the Magnitsky sanctions? Speculation in the media centres around the conflicting interests of humanitarian values and economics – in particular when it comes to sanctioning individuals who have large business interests in Canada that could be affected. That has been the case with both the previous Conservative and current Liberal governments who have been reluctant to sanction such individuals as the Russian oil monopoly chief Igor Sechin. (Both parties, incidentally, have taken much stronger positions while in opposition.)

But the fact is that sanctions are most effective when they target individuals who are most likely to be hurt by them – mainly those who do have business interests in Canada. And if governments choose to put business interests ahead of humanitarian values when they come into conflict, then they forfeit the right to present themselves as defenders of human rights.

It’s time for Canada to take the high road. The legislation that will allow for sanctions against corrupt foreign officials who violate human rights has been on the books for over a year. It’s about time we started using it much more effectively.