Foreign Service Journal - June 2013 - page 30

JUNE 2013
Policymaking on human rights issues is sometimes
hindered by poor relations between State and Capitol Hill.
Fortunately, there are ways to improve cooperation.
uman rights activists wel-
comed passage of the Ser-
gei Magnitsky Rule of Law
Accountability Act at the end
of 2012, hailing it as a lever for
the United States to press Rus-
sia on its obligation to be a bet-
ter global citizen and respect
the rights of its citizens. The
act requires the executive branch to bar travel to the United
States by top Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer
Sergei Magnitsky, who was detained and died in custody after
blowing the whistle on a massive tax fraud with reputed links
to the Kremlin, and to seize their U.S. assets. (On April 12, the
State Department published the names of 18 Russian officials
whose names have been added to the sanctions list overseen
by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Con-
Although President Barack Obama ultimately signed the
measure into law, his administration had actually opposed the
measure over concerns that it compromised the president’s abil-
ity to manage a crucial relationship through a rough phase. But
members of Congress said human rights trumped such con-
cerns, and asserted that the bill “fills many of the gaps in Presi-
dent Obama’s policy toward Russia,” as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah,
the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, put it.
Robert McMahon is editor of, the Web site of the Council on
Foreign Relations. Before that, he was director of central news for Ra-
dio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and has been writting about human
rights in transitional societies since 1995.
The mixed messaging from Washington on the Magnitsky
Act marked another familiar chapter in a sometimes tense
debate between the executive and the legislature over human
rights policy. The State Department, of course, is the admin-
istration’s standard-bearer on global human rights issues,
monitoring and reporting on each country and articulating
the administration’s policy on the international stage. But for
nearly four decades, Congress has also been a major player on
human rights. It requires annual reporting on each country’s
performance, establishes special mandates, and sanctions
nations and individuals seen as rights abusers.
In a period when bipartisan initiatives are increasingly
rare, human rights causes can still unite lawmakers from both
parties on subjects like halting human trafficking or sanc-
tioning repressive regimes. “There are many issues where
Congress is paralyzed and dysfunctional, but on the issue of
human rights, there are people from [one] end of the spec-
trum to the other who have an interest,” Michael Posner, a
former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human
rights and labor, told a Council on Foreign Relations meet-
ing in March. “So the challenge is just to figure out what’s the
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