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Businessman Bill Browder speaks in London on Dec. 19, 2018.


The Liberal government is facing mounting pressure from the opposition and human-rights activists to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on more human-rights violators around the world, including officials in China, Russia, Belarus and the Philippines.

Canada passed the Magnitsky act in 2017 and swiftly proceeded to impose asset freezes and travel bans on 70 human-rights violators in the law’s first year of existence. However, the government has not listed any new individuals since November, 2018, when it announced sanctions against 17 Saudi officials connected to the torture and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

After nearly two years of no new Magnitsky sanctions from Canada, Bill Browder, the U.S.-born financier who has led the international effort to establish the laws around the world, is frustrated.

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“What really frustrates me about this Canadian [Magnitsky] sanctions program is that after a really quick and impressive start … it’s gone completely dead,” Mr. Browder said. “Canada holds itself out as being a beacon of morality, human rights and hope, but it’s not living up to its reputation if it can’t take the most basic decisions on sanctions.”

Seven countries have now adopted their own versions of the law, inspired by the late Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death by Moscow prison staff in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of theft.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office said the Magnitsky law is “a useful tool for holding perpetrators of corruption and gross violations to account,” but noted it is just one of many options in Canada’s foreign policy toolbox.

“The decision to deploy sanctions is not one we take lightly, the government of Canada will always look at the most effective tool for each situation, often working in close concert with our allies and partners,” Mr. Champagne’s spokesperson, Syrine Khoury, said in a statement.

Mr. Browder said the list of individuals who should face Magnitsky-style sanctions is “long and growing.” For instance, he said governments, including Canada, should target the Russian officials responsible for the recent poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the individuals linked to the execution of Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee in July, Mr. Browder also urged Canada to work with other democracies to jointly target Chinese human-rights abusers responsible for atrocities against Muslim Uyghurs in the country’s Xinjiang province. He made the call for action shortly after the United States imposed sanctions against senior Chinese officials and a major paramilitary organization in Xinjiang with connection to abuses against minorities.

Canadian Magnitsky-style sanctions could spur retaliation from China – which Canada has already experienced. The December, 2018, detentions of Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and entrepreneur Michael Spavor in China were widely seen as retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. The Canadians are still detained today.

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The Conservatives and NDP support co-ordinated Magnitsky-style sanctions among the countries that have passed their own version of the law: Canada, the U.S., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kosovo and Britain.

“As a mid-sized power, we can’t act alone,” Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said. “I don’t think we’re as effective acting unilaterally as we are working in concert with our allies.”

Mr. Chong said the government should use its various sanctions regimes, including the Magnitsky law, to respond to the suppression of peaceful protests that followed the fraudulent election of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko last month. The party is calling on the government to reinstate economic sanctions against Belarus, which were lifted in 2016, and introduce new Magnitsky-style sanctions against some 20 key Belarussian officials complicit in the recent violence, oppression and election fraud.

Ms. Khoury said the government is closely engaging with allies as it considers “all options” to ensure human rights are upheld in Belarus. Last week, Canada announced it would join 16 other members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in invoking the Moscow Mechanism, which initiates a fact-finding mission on abuses in the country.

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, who introduced the original legislation to establish a Magnitsky act, said Canada should use the law to protect journalists and counterattacks against the media. Mr. Cotler is a member of an expert panel advising the Canadian and British governments on how to improve global press freedom. In a report this year, Amal Clooney, a former member of the expert panel and renowned international human-rights lawyer, said Magnitsky sanctions have rarely been used to ensure press freedom.

Speaking during a webinar held by World Press Freedom Canada last week, Mr. Cotler said Canada should consider targeting officials complicit in the oppression of journalists in the Philippines, including Maria Ressa, whose online news publication, Rappler, has angered President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime. Ms. Ressa was convicted of libel in June and sentenced to up to six years in prison, in a ruling that was widely seen as an attack on democratic freedoms in the Philippines. She was granted bail.

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Ms. Ressa, who also spoke during the webinar, said the effect of Magnitsky sanctions, particularly the refusal of travel visas to senior Filipino officials, is “very personal” for the Duterte regime. She recalled how the U.S.'s cancellation of Philippine Senator Ronald dela Rosa’s visa in January infuriated Mr. Duterte, who subsequently threatened to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement, a long-standing military pact with the U.S.

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