Ukraine’s parliament is slated to pass a law entitled “On Measures to Protect National Interests, National Security of Ukraine and Keeping Human Rights Abusers Accountable.” If passage occurs, Ukraine would become the seventh country to adopt this so-called Magnitsky legislation, named after the Russian accountant and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was found dead in his Moscow jail cell in 2009, after having been tortured and denied medical treatment.
Magnitsky had discovered a massive tax fraud scheme in which alleged high-level Russian government officials were involved. After his death, in 2012 the U.S. Congress passed a bill in his name, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials believed to be implicated in serious human rights violations; froze the U.S. assets they held; and banned them from entering the United States. Based on the original 2012 Magnitsky law, Congress enacted the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016, which allows the Executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights abuses or engaging in widespread corruption. Estonia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Lithuania, and Latvia have since followed suit and adopted their own Magnitsky legislation. Pursuant to these laws, lists of foreigners – so far only Russians – involved in large-scale corruption, money laundering, or human rights violations have been created and their entry to these countries banned.
Last December, legislators Serhiy Kiral and Olena Sotnyk of the Samopomich Union, a Christian democratic, center-right party, introduced a draft Magnitsky bill to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Although focused on human rights, the draft bill has a very strong anti-Russian ring to it. As the bill’s explanatory memorandum states: “Sergei Magnitsky’s murder is the most appalling example of utter disrespect of Russian authorities to rights of their citizens, characterised by cynicism and impunity.”
According to Human Rights Watch’s latest annual report, Ukraine itself is failing in its human rights commitments, must address torture and enforced disappearances, and take steps to protect journalists and anti-corruption activists from being attacked. Until he fell into disgrace with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko earlier this year, the country was also harboring Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had left his home country to escape charges of embezzlement and abuse of authority. Saakashvili is currently facing a three-year prison term in Georgia for these crimes.
Magnitsky Acts are an important tool to hold (foreign) officials accountable for endemic corruption and human rights abuses. They should, however, not distract from addressing domestic human rights abuses or be used for politically-motivated purposes.