It’s time to clip the wings of jet-setting human rights malefactors

05 Dec It’s time to clip the wings of jet-setting human rights malefactors

Kimberley Kitching and James Paterson – The Australian – Thursday 5 December

Our sovereignty and democratic institutions must be preserved against the threat of rising authoritarian states. One measure worth considering is the implementation of a Magnitsky-style act, which would enhance the government’s ability to impose sanctions on state and non-state perpetrators of human rights violations. Wednesday’s announcement that this idea will be considered in a new ­inquiry by the parliament’s human rights subcommittee is welcome.

The corruption, criminality and human rights abuses characteristic of authoritarian powers should concern all Australians who value universal freedoms. But they also pose a direct threat to our national interest, values and sovereignty. History shows that regimes that abuse the rights of their citizens rarely stop there.

Their failure to respect international norms for their own citizens — and the citizens of other nations in their jurisdiction — is part and parcel of the increasing encroachment by foreign authoritarian powers in our domestic politics.

Just last week former ASIO head Duncan Lewis and Office of National Intelligence director-general Nick Warner confirmed that the threat of foreign interference in Australia is at unprecedented levels.

Around the world, many countries are implementing their own versions of a Magnitsky act. These laws allow governments to directly and personally sanction organisers, accomplices and co-conspirators of human rights abuse.

The Magnitsky act was first passed by the US congress in 2012 as a transnational response to the 2009 custodial death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was arrested, detained and tortured after exposing the theft of $US230m by corrupt Russian officials who had been paid in taxes by his client.

The first such set of laws implemented by the US, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act 2012, enabled the sanction of specific Russian individuals respon­sible for Magnitsky’s detention and death.

Renamed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, it now allows the US government to sanction or ban any mass human rights abuser from entering or operating in the US. Since then, Britain has attached “Magnitsky amendments” to its Criminal Finances Act and to its Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act. Similar legislation also has been implemented in Canada, ­Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and ­Gibraltar. Sweden, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, South Africa, Ukraine and the EU are considering their own version of Magnitsky legislation.

While Australia does have sanctioning powers under the Autonomous Sanctions Act, the parliamentary inquiry will consider whether these arrangements are sufficiently flexible and whether passage of a Magnitsky-style act would broaden the tools available to government. 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 only a handful do so, these abusers know they will be able to shop around until they find a safe haven for their typically ill-gotten gains.

Most sanctions activity typi­cally just targets foreign powers in totality; the Magnitsky act aims directly at those personally complicit in human rights abuses with visa bans, asset freezes and prohibiting the business operations of those complicit in human rights abuses.

In addition to its powers to sanction human rights abusers, the Magnitsky legislation provides augmented transparency and accountability in the public domain.

By publicly exposing the names of human rights abusers, they ­become pariahs among the international community and their crimes are rightfully documented in the public sphere. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Such widespread publicity and personal ­consequences offer a strong ­deterrent effect, signalling to other individuals working in authori­tarian regimes that they are not exempt from redress and cannot hide behind their governments.

Officials in authoritarian regimes must know that their crimes — whether on behalf of, or protected by, their superiors — are not immune from international consequences.

If we act together, democracies with Magnitsky-style legislation will help reduce transnational criminality and corruption, bolstering our collective national ­sovereignty.

A Magnitsky-style act would be an important augmentation to the bolstered legislative framework to defend our sovereignty passed on a bipartisan basis in recent years. It would join the new foreign interference laws, bans on foreign political donations and increased resources and enhanced powers for our security agencies.

Free countries need powerful weapons of democratic pushback in an age of rising authoritarianism. A Magnitsky-style act is the next logical step.

Kimberley Kitching is a Labor senator for Victoria. James Paterson is a Liberal senator for Victoria.

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