Op-ed

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Stéphane Dion is right: Magnitsky-style sanctions make no sense for Canada

by Chris Westdal

The Globe and Mail
May 27, 2016

Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is taking a lot of flak for resisting financier Bill Browder’s high-powered campaign to have Canada (and others) enact some echo of the 2012 U.S. Magnitsky Act. That act imposed sanctions on Russians who were deemed responsible for abusing Mr. Browder’s Hermitage Fund lawyer, whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, leading to his 2009 death in custody (six years after Mr. Browder and his large fortune had fled the country).

The latest salvo is from Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife, Mr. McFaul makes it all seem simple: “Do you stand for human rights or not?” he asks. “If this is an important value, then this [version of a Magnitsky Act] is something that should be done.”

“When a regime [sic] supports the violators of human rights and then violates international law,” Mr. McFaul said, “there is only one response, which is strength.” Not imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions might enhance Canada’s current relations with Russia, he concedes, but “in the long term, that is a sign of weakness.”

The former U.S. diplomat was reported to be “astonished” that our minister thought a Canadian Magnitsky law might jeopardize Russia-Canada re-engagement, such as our recent welcome to the International Syria Support Group (with the concurrence of Russia, its co-chair). For Mr. McFaul, that was “weird logic.” After all, the U.S. “hadn’t been kicked out of that meeting because we have this [Magnitsky] law.” Why would Canada think it would be?

The answer is that Canada is not the United States. Canada is not the world’s leading superpower. For every dollar Canada spends on its military, the United States spends at least 50. And however beneficial their net effect, U.S. economic sanctions, leveraging global U.S. corporate power, bite hard. Canada’s don’t. So Washington can have the Magnitsky Act and still participate in ISSG with Russia. Ottawa can’t.

The sanctions Mr. McFaul promotes may or may not have made sense for the U.S. in 2012, when there was a call for justice led by an aggrieved former American citizen. They make no sense whatever for Canada now.

We seek re-engagement with Russia not to be nice, but to serve major, compelling Canadian national security interests in Eurasia, the Middle East and far beyond. We do so to try to turn the rising tide of a new Cold War, to try to stop the ruinous tug of war for Ukraine. We do so to try to co-operate in the Arctic and elsewhere. We do so as well to try to do business – to invest, to trade, to make jobs.

We might not succeed in improving relations with Russia, but we can’t win if we don’t play. Our active presence might be noticed, to good effect. Our absence would simply be ignored, to no effect whatever.

Quite apart from the fact Mr. McFaul brings a thoroughly U.S., one-size (ours)-fits-all perspective to a Canadian foreign policy issue, there are other serious problems with his proposal, not the least of which is that it’s highly selective. It specifically applies to Mr. Magnitsky’s Russian abusers, the targets of Mr. Browder’s passionate campaign. But what about countless other human-rights violators around the world? Oh, not to worry, the law could be broadened to cover them too.

In a recent Ottawa Citizen opinion piece, Errol Mendes, president of the International Commission of Jurists, Canada, writes that “the U.S. is on the verge of being the first state to bring this new global weapon against torturers and killers into being.” Mr. Mendes goes on to fancy that a full-blown Magnitsky law might have prevented war in Syria – and avoided Europe’s migrant crisis.

Nonsense. The U.S. Magnitsky Act, its procedures and its possible replication are all rife with problems. When its proponents seek to punish “those deemed responsible for human rights violations,” just who does the “deeming”? By what procedure, beyond well-financed lobbying? Who will wield this new “global weapon” – and against whom?

No, in aid of human rights, multiple, broadened Magnitsky laws would be bizarre contraptions indeed, not part of any accepted, coherent system, and likely to do more harm than good – on account of simple resentment, if nothing else.

Mr. Dion has it right. The major costs a copycat Canadian Magnitsky law would impose on our security, economic and other interests in Russia would far outweigh the highly questionable human rights benefits on offer.

Chris Westdal is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia and current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia. He is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. 

Image: Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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