Irwin Cotler is the Liberal MP for Mount Royal, former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada, and professor of law emeritus at McGill University. He is chairman of the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Inter-Parliamentary Group.
In March, the House of Commons unanimously adopted my motion calling for sanctions against individual human-rights violators, including those complicit in the 2009 detention, torture and murder of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. With just weeks until Parliament rises for the summer, however, the government is running out of time to act upon that expression of laudable intent.
Mr. Magnitsky was a Moscow lawyer who uncovered widespread corruption on the part of Russian officials. After testifying against them, he was jailed, tortured and killed in prison in 2009, before being posthumously convicted – in a Kafkaesque coverup – of the very fraud he had exposed.
Since his death, his former employer, Bill Browder, has been advocating for sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes against those responsible, who would otherwise not be held to account in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Indeed, many have been rewarded by President Putin for their criminality.
Yet because corrupt Russian officials tend to store and spend the proceeds of their crimes beyond the country's borders – depositing their money in foreign banks, vacationing at foreign resorts, sending their children to foreign schools – the international community has the power to impose tangible consequences by curtailing their ability to travel and trade around the world.
This approach has notably won the endorsement of the European Parliament and legislatures in Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, the United States and now Canada. As yet, however, only the United States has taken action: Congress imposed sanctions against Mr. Magnitsky's tormentors in 2012, and is currently studying a new bill that would expand those sanctions to cover human-rights violators generally.
The motion adopted by Canadian MPs – and more recently by the Senate, as well – both specifically endorses sanctions in the Magnitsky case, and urges the government to "explore sanctions as appropriate against any foreign nationals responsible for violations of internationally recognized human rights in a foreign country, when authorities in that country are unable or unwilling to conduct a thorough, independent and objective investigation of the violations."
Accordingly, Tuesday, I introduced a private member's bill that would explicitly authorize the Canadian government to impose visa bans and asset freezes on human-rights violators. Although my bill is unlikely to be adopted before the House rises, I offer it as a template for how the motion passed by the House and the Senate could be enacted in law. There is still time for the government to either take over my bill or to introduce similar legislation of its own, out of respect for the unanimous will of Canadian MPs, and out of solidarity with the victims of human-rights violations in Russia and around the world.
These victims – and the courageous activists who stand up to rights-violating regimes at great personal risk – were on my mind when I rose Tuesday in the House to present my legislation. In particular, I could almost feel the presence of my late friend Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the democratic Russian opposition who was murdered near the Kremlin earlier this year.
In 2012, I joined him in Ottawa to condemn the impunity, corruption and human-rights violations of the Putin regime, of which the Magnitsky tragedy is a case study, and to issue an urgent appeal for global Magnitsky legislation.
Mr. Nemtsov supported the sanctions that Canada has rightly imposed in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, although there remain key Russian officials who have been spared Canadian sanctions. It is time, however, for us to treat Russian domestic human-rights violations as seriously as we do violations of political independence and territorial integrity. Had we acted in 2012 against Russian violations, for example, we might have helped deter the external aggression that followed.
Ultimately, countries that value human rights and the rule of law must use the measures at our disposal to hold violators to account and discourage future violations. Otherwise, we are exposed as having far less concern for these noble principles than our usual rhetoric – including a motion unanimously adopted by the House of Commons – would suggest.