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Opinion Why the proposed Magnitsky law is not a threat to diplomacy

Bob Rae is senior partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, teaches public policy and law at the University of Toronto, and is the author of What's Happened to Politics

Political leaders and scholars have long debated whether "realism" or "idealism" should direct foreign policy. In fact, both are required. A country such as Canada, espousing values such as rule of law and protection of human rights, can't park its beliefs at its own border. Nor can it remain unaware of how its criticism of other countries, many more powerful than us, will be interpreted. What we do, or don't do, will have consequences.

A British judicial report in January detailed how a Russian dissident was poisoned by agents working for the Russian government, and how it was "probably approved" by President Vladimir Putin. The Russian government denounced the report. This month, a Russian doctor responsible for the country's anti-doping policy insisted that there had been an elaborate program to promote the use of drugs in sport, and that it had been deliberate government policy. Again, Moscow denounced the report.

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Both these alarming reports follow the well-documented actions of Russian officials to imprison and torture to death Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who had the courage to challenge the trumped-up case Russian authorities had taken against American investor William Browder. The U.S. Congress passed a law naming the Russian individuals responsible for the crimes against Mr. Magnitsky with carefully crafted economic sanctions against them, after a successful campaign led by Mr. Browder, despite opposition to such measures from the U.S. State Department.

Mr. Browder has continued his efforts to expose the nature of Russian power and politics in Europe and Canada. Two years ago, the House of Commons unanimously agreed with Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's resolution to bring a Magnitsky law to Canada, aimed at naming Russian wrongdoers, preventing their travel to Canada, and freezing any assets they might have in this country. The Liberal Party promised to bring in such a law if it won the most recent election, but two weeks ago Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion rejected an all-party bid to do just that.

A private member's bill has now been tabled in Parliament, but there are those who aren't convinced that such a law is necessary or wise. They argue that it would make engagement with the Russians more difficult and might have a negative effect on trade. Some note that Canadian border security already has the power to deal with people deemed inadmissible. This misses the added sanction of asset freezing, and the need to address bad behaviour more directly.

With the controversy surrounding the arms sale to Saudi Arabia, and the debates that will undoubtedly accompany the Trudeau government's efforts to deepen engagement with Iran and China, it is more necessary than ever for Canada to square its desire for stronger diplomatic and commercial ties with the compelling need to present an articulate case for pluralism and the rule of law.

Mendacity, corruption and the wanton abuse of power exist around the world. To refuse to engage with countries where these forces are alive and well might make Canadians feel better, but would abandon the reality that effective diplomacy requires us to deal directly with governments whose practices are often abhorrent.

The proposed Magnitsky law does not require us to break off diplomatic relations with Russia, or disengage from any other dialogue. It does mean we draw a line where it is clear that officials have been directly involved in wrongdoing. What is required now is engagement with no illusions, and eyes wide open. The proposed Magnitsky law allows that to happen, and Parliament should adopt it.

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