Human rights offenders to be barred from Australia under Magnitsky-style laws

Human rights offenders to be barred from Australia under Magnitsky-style laws

Anthony Galloway – Sydney Morning Herald – Sunday 06 December 2020

Human rights offenders will be banned from entering the country and have their assets seized under new laws to be introduced to federal Parliament next year.

A bipartisan parliamentary inquiry will recommend the Morrison government enact laws similar to the US Magnitsky Act that would give it the power to impose visa and property-related sanctions on individuals who commit serious human rights abuses and corruption.

The move will place pressure on the government to consider imposing sanctions on Chinese government officials who are responsible for human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.

The joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade last week finalised its report, recommending Australia pass new laws based on the US Magnitsky Act enacted under US President Barack Obama. The report will be released this week and likely result in the biggest addition to Australia’s human rights laws in decades.

Senior government sources confirmed to The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age that the government would look to legislate the new sanctions regime in the new year, but stressed it needed to consider the inquiry’s report first.

It will be a dramatic change from Australia’s current sanctions regime – United Nations-enforced sanctions and autonomous sanctions – which Human Rights Watch said was “opaque, ad hoc, and does not require the government to examine human rights concerns”.

The foreign minister will have the final say over whether to sanction people under the new regime, and it will be subject to policy considerations such as national security, trade and diplomatic relations.

The parliamentary inquiry has recommended the creation of an independent oversight committee, made of experts in the field, which will make recommendations to the government on foreign individuals who should be sanctioned.

Attached to the report is draft legislation which has been developed by Australian-born human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson as an example of the kind of bill the government could enact.

The recommendations go further than Britain’s version of the laws, enacted earlier this year, which only target individuals for human rights abuses and do not extend to serious corruption.

Canada, the US and Britain have already enacted Magnitsky-style laws, and the European Union is set to legislate its own version in the coming months.

The US Act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who in 2008 uncovered a deep web of tax fraud linked to the Kremlin and later died in mysterious circumstances in a Moscow prison.

When Britain legislated, it immediately sanctioned 49 individuals and organisations accused of human rights abuses from four different countries. This included Russia’s top prosector and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, Alexander Bastrykinwho failed to investigate the death of Mr Magnitsky.

It also included six members of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner sanctum and members of Myanmar’s military responsible for the genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim population.

Billionaire-turned-activist Bill Browder, who led the push for the US Magnitsky Act and has been urging other countries to do the same, said Australia’s Magnitsky laws “couldn’t come soon enough because the world is on fire right now”.

Mr Browder said there was “a lot of low-hanging fruit” which will be easy for Australia to tackle, such as the Russian officials who were responsible for Magntisky’s death.

“But the big question is what to do about China, which will be the big challenge,” he said.

“There are obvious officials in China who should be sanctioned for Xinjiang. Australia should sanction Chinese officials but it shouldn’t by itself… It should do so in conjunction with Britain, Canada and the United States.”

The Morrison government initiated the inquiry last December into enacting Magnitsky-style laws, after a push from backbench MPs including Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, Labor MP Julian Hill and Liberal senator James Paterson.

During the inquiry, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recommended the sanctions regime be established via regulation through Australia’s current autonomous sanctions laws, but this has been rejected by the parliamentary inquiry.

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