Monday, June 11, 2012

US House of Representatives Advances Controversial Human Rights Bill

On Friday, the Foreign Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives approved a bill that would impose sanctions on Russians who violate human rights. The bill, known as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (HR 4405), is named after a Russian tax advisor who worked for an American law firm. When he attempted to expose corruption by Russian tax and police officials, he was charged with a crime and later died in pretrial detention in Russia. The bill would publicly name those who are believed to be responsible and impose sanctions on them and others who commit gross human rights violations as defined by the bill.

Normally, one would expect a human rights bill of this type to receive widespread support in the US. However, in this case, the Obama Administration does not support this proposed legislation. The Administration argues that it interferes with the president's ability to manage delicate foreign relations with Russia and that the president has more effective tools at his disposal to address the situation.

In particular, the matter threatens to jeopardize Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) later this summer. The US must grant Russia permanent normal trade relations status and repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment imposing sanctions on Russia for its Cold War-era human rights record before Russia will more fully open its markets to US trade and investment. The Russian parliament, the Duma, is currently to vote on ratification of the WTO Agreement on July 4 and, if approved, Russia will officially join the WTO 30 days later. Congress will therefore have to act quickly to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment before its August recess if Russia is to join the WTO this summer.

Passage of the proposed bill will certainly complicate, if not derail, that process. It is possible that passage of the new bill could be linked to repeal of Jackson-Vanik. However, several actions must occur before the bill could become law. The next step will be a hearing on the bill by the House Ways and Means Committee scheduled for June 20.


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