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Opinion Bill Browder hoped Ottawa would lead on sanctions. He’s disappointed

Bill Browder poses for a photo in Toronto, on Feb. 7, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov

There’s a population of large men trying to look inconspicuous, as well as some uniformed police, sprinkled about the crowd at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel this afternoon. Yet after the middle-aged businessman, bespectacled and bald-pated, walks in without a bodyguard and joins me by the fire, he dismisses any threat. “Nobody’s going to kill me in a crowded hotel lobby in Toronto.”

This is what passes as small talk for Bill Browder, who has spent the past dozen years talking to anyone who will listen about the people who are trying to kill, capture or destroy him and anyone associated with him.

It is far from an abstract threat. Seven months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood on a podium in Helsinki and said his condition for answering questions about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was to have Mr. Browder, an American-born British citizen, extradited to Moscow for interrogation (along with a former U.S. ambassador). U.S. President Donald Trump, standing beside him, declared this “an incredible offer.”

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Russia has placed six Interpol arrest warrants on Mr. Browder, who became very wealthy running an investment fund that profited from Russia’s awkward postcommunist transition. None of those warrants are considered credible by Western countries. And, of course, it was officials tied to Mr. Putin who arrested Mr. Browder’s tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on bogus charges in 2008 after Mr. Magnitsky had uncovered enormous acts of fraud by Russian officials, tortured him in prison for a year, then chained him to a jail-cell bed, pulled out batons and beat him to death.

Mr. Browder’s quest for vengeance led him to develop what are now known as Magnitsky laws. These allow countries to place sanctions on specific individuals in foreign states, preventing them from banking, travelling abroad or engaging in business abroad. Half a dozen countries, including the United States and Canada, now have Magnitsky laws.

He could not have predicted that these laws would help solve a big problem in international relations: How to restrict the actions of a regime that has transgressed the bounds of human decency or justice, without punishing its citizens (as conventional sanctions do) or completely severing relations. They are amazingly effective.

But Canada, he says, has missed an opportunity to be a leader.

“I would argue that the implementation of the Magnitsky act in Canada has been disappointing,” he says. At first, Canada was impressive. In late 2017, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland introduced the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, subtitled the Sergei Magnitsky Law, and it was passed unanimously in the House of Commons. A week later, Ottawa produced its first list of officials to be sanctioned, including those considered responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death. Last year, it added seven Myanmar officials responsible for the mass murder of Rohingya people, and then 17 Saudi officials linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (although not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, believed to have ordered the killing).

But those additions have generally followed the lead of the United States – and Canada’s plan to have a staff devoted to identifying and sanctioning international offenders, has not materialized, the $22-million earmarked for this office apparently unspent.

“Every time that we’ve tried to engage with the government it seems that there’s a bit of chaos over there – it’s not even clear what the process is for getting people added to the list,” says Mr. Browder, who is in Toronto to be honoured by the Canadian branch of the International Commission of Jurists (he was introduced onstage by Ms. Freeland, who he has known since 1998, when she was the Financial Times Moscow correspondent). This frustrates him: “Canada, which most people consider to be sort of the moral leader in the world, right now is actually behind the Trump administration, as far as the Magnitsky act goes.”

It’s a bit embarrassing that Canada’s most effective tool of international justice had to be the work of one wealthy individual. It’s even more embarrassing that Ottawa doesn’t seem to take it seriously.

The Liberal government appears locked in a tug-of-war between a desire to project humanitarian values on the world, and a desire to protect the interests of Canadian companies that have contracts in corrupt countries and employees in electorally important ridings. As allegations this week about possible interference in justice affairs by the Prime Minister’s Office may have shown, those business interests often appear to take priority over larger matters of principle.

Which is too bad, because it’s one place where Canada’s lack of clout isn’t a limitation. “Even if Canada were to sanction somebody and no other country did, the world’s banks are all going to have to pay attention – these actions create a network effect,” Mr. Browder says. Ottawa just needs to decide which networks really matter.

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