In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian lawyer, uncovered $230 billion in tax fraud. In a parody of justice, the Russian government arrested him for tax fraud. In November 2009, after being abused and neglected, Magnitsky died in prison.
Deploring the injustice, Magnitsky’s boss, William Browder, the CEO of London-based Hermitage Capital Management, began a campaign against the Russian government. His biggest success has been the Magnitsky Act, which passed the U.S. House 365-43 on Nov. 16, and the Senate 92-4 on Dec. 6. The act attempts to punish the officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death by banning them from entering the United States and imposing financial restrictions on them. Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has called the act “one of the most important new developments in human rights,” insisting that “it is a way of getting at the Auschwitz train drivers, the apparatchiks, the people who make a little bit of money from human rights abuses and generally keep under the radar.”
When the act was under consideration, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak gave the Russian government’s opinion of the bill: “We are a serious country,” he said. “We do not want to be told what we need to do within the limits of Russian law.” He warned: “If anything of the type is adopted, there will be significant reaction.”
The Russian response was drastic. On Dec. 28, President Vladimir Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev Act. The act responded to the Magnitsky Act by imposing sanctions on the United States, including a ban on U.S. adoption of Russian orphans. There are some 650,000 orphans in Russia. Over the past 20 years, Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children. In 2011, Russian families adopted only around 7,400 children. Other parts of the act imposed restrictions on U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia and sanctions on U.S. officials the Russian government deems guilty of human rights violations.
In addition to punishing those guilty of humanitarian abuses, the Magnitsky Act was supposed to help bring “back liberal democracy as an attractive alternative to the authoritarian model.” Instead, it has poisoned already troubled U.S.-Russian relations and worsened the lives of thousands of Russians. Though it may make Americans feel good, the Magnitsky Act is simply inconsistent, both within Russia and in the world more broadly. Four-thousand people die each year in Russian prisons. Magnitsky’s case has only become a cause celebre because his boss was the CEO of an investment fund worth $4 billion. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is preparing to behead and crucify seven people, at least two of whom are “child offenders.” Their confessions, it is alleged, were exacted through torture. Yet, since the Saudis are a strategic partner, the United States continues to sell them billions of dollars worth of weapons. American human rights intervention, accordingly, appears not to be the beneficent action of a disinterested nation, but the hypocritical action of an aggressor.It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time in U.S. history when peace and good relations trumped futile and baneful intervention in the domestic politics of other nations. Prior to the Civil War, John Quincy Adams’ dictum to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” defined U.S. foreign policy toward Russia - and our two nations generally had a positive relationship. Early in our history, Russia generated much U.S. good will by declaring itself neutral in the struggle between Britain and the American colonies. Trade with Russia during these years expanded, and by 1800, some 400 U.S. ships had docked in Russian ports. Cordial relations between both nations continued in the 19th century, with President Thomas Jefferson and Czar Alexander I exchanging a series of enlightened letters, and with the Russian mediation of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. During this period, Russia was no benevolent liberal democracy: With his army of a million men, Czar Alexander exerted his influence in 1821 to crush liberal revolts in Italy. In 1825, Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, extinguished the liberal sentiments of the Decembrists through arrest, imprisonment and execution. John Quincy Adams, who was then president, raised no protest. This was not because American’s didn’t know about the events: In the campaign of 1828, Adams was accused of “pimping for the czar.” It was rather the result of a deliberate policy of prudence and restraint - for America recognized the limits of its power to achieve good.Attempting to promote concord through coercive measures often has unintended consequences. To minimize these consequences, U.S. leaders should recall at least one maxim of the “just war” tradition: a reasonable chance of success. In the Magnitsky case, it never existed.There was a time in our storied past when our leaders recognized the limits of national power. Unless limits are once again acknowledged, good intentions will continue to produce bad results.
Jared McKinney, 21, is a graduate student in defense and strategic studies at Missouri State University.