Australia Considers Magnitsky-Style Law Like US to Sanction Human Rights Abusers

December 5, 2019 Updated: December 5, 2019
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Australia is considering a law similar to that of the United States’ Magnitsky Act that would seize the assets and ban visas of human rights violators.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has called on the Australian parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs to carry out a formal inquiry into whether Australia should introduce legislation comparable to the United States Magnitsky Act 2012. The law would target human rights violators and those “who have materially assisted, sponsored, or resourced significant corruption.”

The United States’ Magnitsky Act 2012 is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died under torture in 2009 after exposing tax fraud in his country. He was being detained for a year in a Moscow prison at the time of his death.

Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky has a human rights law named after him.
Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered the largest tax fraud in his country’s history and was subsequently detained for a year in a Moscow prison and eventually died under torture in 2009. (Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)

British-American fund manager Bill Browder was the one to initiate efforts for legislation to target the Russian officials believed to be responsible for Magnitsky’s death. He wanted to prevent them from investing in safe havens that were outside of Russia’s jurisdiction. The U.S. Congress passed the law in 2012 and then extended the original Russia-focused legislation to a Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in 2016.

Similar Magnitsky-style legislation has since been passed in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Australian MP Kevin Andrews, Chair of the Human Rights Sub-Committee, said in a statement that the inquiry would assess how Australia’s current sanctions laws regarding human rights abuses compare to other countries, and how such laws can be strengthened.

“Australia’s efforts to combat human rights abuses are broad, and the ability to impose sanctions against individuals who hold assets in Australia and commit gross human rights abuses abroad is a valuable tool in fighting such abuses,” Andrews said, referring to the possible implementation of a Magnitsky-style Act.

Politicians from the two major Australian political parties, Senators Kimberley Kitching of the Labor Party and James Paterson of the Liberal party, have publicly signaled their support for introducing such a law.

“Free countries need powerful weapons of democratic pushback in an age of rising authoritarianism. A Magnitsky-style act is the next logical step,” they wrote in an opinion piece in The Australian.

“The real power of sanctions targeting individual human rights abusers comes when like-minded democracies act in concert with tough restrictions on their finances and travel … If we act together, democracies with Magnitsky-style legislation will help reduce transnational criminality and corruption, bolstering our collective national ­sovereignty.”

Browder, who is now the head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, also indicated that he believes implementing a Magnitsky-style law should be a natural course of action for Australia.

“The Magnitsky Act currently exists in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, it doesn’t make sense for Australia not to be in that grouping because Australia works with all those countries on security issues, intelligence, and other matters, and should also work on human rights sanctions,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio on Thursday.

“Australia is a country that’s an attractive place for bad guys to put their money. It’s a rule of law country; it’s a place where property rights are respected.

“You end up getting people who’ve done really terrible things [and] make money in other countries coming to Australia, and this [a Magnitsky-style Act] is a very powerful tool, because people who do these terrible types of atrocities … they want to have some place where they can put their families, keep their money, and if that’s closed up to them, that creates a disincentive to do these kinds of things going forward,” he said.

Browder also noted that the act would apply to human rights violators across the globe, not just Russia, adding that such legislation is “particularly relevant” now, given the current issues in China, including “the Uyghurs [and] the Hong Kong situation.”

“It gives the West something to do, which causes real pain on a targeted basis to people who perpetrate these terrible atrocities, but it still allows the countries to do business with these other countries,” Browder said. “And so we can sanction Chinese officials and still have diplomatic relations with China, for example … it causes pain specifically to the people who are perpetrating atrocities.”

Elaine Pearson, Australia Director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that Australia “certainly should adopt a targeted sanctions regime against human rights abusers … good to see this inquiry is happening.”

The committee is welcoming submissions related to the inquiry up until Jan 31, 2020.

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