Magnitsky Act Could Help Curb Rights Abuses, Says Lawyer

June 1, 2017 Updated: June 1, 2017

With the government preparing to table its amendments to the Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act, a renowned international human rights lawyer says such legislation could help mitigate rights abuses in the world.

Bill S-226 would establish Magnitsky-style sanctions on human rights violators not only in Russia but worldwide, denying them visas and seizing their assets.

Winnipeg-based David Matas says one of the greatest promoters of rights violations is impunity, and the bill “shows that there is a penalty or cost for violating human rights, and it might discourage people from continuing the violation. It might help end the violation.”

He says it is important the bill “applies globally”—which it does in its current form.

“It undercuts the very notion of respect of human rights if you are going to promote the respect for human rights in one country not the other,” he said.

The legislation is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered the largest tax fraud in his country’s history and was subsequently detained for a year in a Moscow prison and tortured. He died in November 2009 after being beaten by eight guards while handcuffed to a bedrail. He was 37.

It undercuts the very notion of respect of human rights if you are going to promote the respect for human rights in one country and not the other.
— International human rights lawyer David Matas

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said on May 17 that the government would support the bill after “some technical amendments” have been made. Those amendments will be tabled on June 15. The bill passed the Senate in April.

Under the legislation, the individuals responsible for Magnitsky’s death—none of whom have been brought to justice—could be sanctioned. The bill would also allow Canada to impose sanctions on foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights or significant acts of corruption in a foreign country.

In the House on May 29, Conservative MP James Bezan presented an e-petition supporting Bill S-226. He said passing the legislation would put Canada on par with other countries that have a Magnitsky Act.

“This puts us in line with the United States, with the United Kingdom, with the European Parliament, Estonia, and a few other countries that have made the measures to have global Magnitsky legislation,” he told NTD Television.

Thirteen years ago, Matas presented to Canada’s War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity Unit a list of 45 names of Chinese officials who were instrumental in the campaign of persecution against the Falun Gong spiritual discipline in China. The aim was to have them barred from entering Canada or investigated or even prosecuted if they came here.  

The list includes former Chinese Communist Party head Jiang Zemin, who initiated the ongoing persecution in 1999; then-governor of Liaoning Province Bo Xilai; and former Public Security Bureau chief Zhou Yongkang. Both Zhou and Bo are currently imprisoned for corruption in China.

The list also includes officers from the Party organ set up to oversee the persecution as well as some of the most violent guards at the Masanjia and Wanjia forced labour camps at the time.