When Donald Trump Jr. sat down with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last June, he hoped to receive information from the Russian government that would, in the words of an intermediary, “incriminate” his father’s political opponent Hillary Clinton, according to his recently released emails.
We don’t know exactly what was discussed, as details about the meeting are still emerging, and Don Jr. and the Trump administration have been less than forthcoming. We do know that in addition to Veselnitskaya, the president’s son (plus his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and his campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort) met with Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet military officer. For his part, Akhmetshin has told the Associated Press, “Veselnitskaya brought with her a plastic folder with printed-out documents that detailed what she believed was the flow of illicit funds to the Democrats.”
But Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin had something else on their agendas too: A sales pitch for why Donald Trump, if elected, should gut a previously little-known 2012 law, called the “Magnitsky Act,” which holds human rights violators accountable for their actions.
As investigators are no doubt examining, it’s possible that the Russians raised lifting Magnitsky Act sanctions in a quid pro quo related to helping Trump win the election. We don’t know yet. But putting the lurid details and explosive ramifications of the Don Jr. meeting aside, the episode points to the power the United States wields in standing up for human rights and the rule of law, and the lengths to which repressive governments will go to evade accountability. Given that Congress recently expanded the Magnitsky Act to apply globally, the import behind the law that brought the Kremlin to Trump Tower is one worth detailing.
Both versions of the Magnitsky Act—the original 2012 law, which applied only to Russia, and a new, globally applicable version enacted in late 2016—are named in honor of a murdered Russian whistleblower named Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky was a tax lawyer who was imprisoned, beaten, and denied life-saving medical care in 2009 by Russian authorities after exposing the largest tax fraud scheme in the country’s history, a ploy aided and abetted by Russian officials.
Following Magnitsky’s killing, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers led by Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin championed the legislation that would carry his name, empowering the president to freeze the assets and restrict the travel of persons deemed responsible for his murder and the criminal conspiracy surrounding the firm he represented. Importantly, Congress also authorized the president to levy similar penalties against Russians involved in other serious forms of human rights abuses.
Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he detests what he has labeled “a purely political and unfriendly” law, though the real reason for his ire is almost certainly that the Magnitsky Act penalizes those he otherwise enables to act with impunity. In recent years, Putin has made compelling the United States to revoke the law a top foreign policy priority, going so far as to retaliate against it by prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by American parents.
Fortunately, the United States has not yet bowed to Putin’s wishes, and instead has moved in the opposite direction.
In December, Congress expanded the Magnitsky Act to penalize significant forms of corruption as well as human rights violations, while at the same time expanding its geographic scope to cover every country on earth.
“Global Magnitsky,” as the new law is known, is a potentially revolutionary tool. If implemented as designed, it provides the United States with a means to incentivize foreign governments to sideline individual human rights abusers and corrupt actors, and to advance domestic forms of accountability. It very well may have a significant deterrent effect, forcing would-be kleptocrats, and those that use violence to silence dissent, to think twice before committing their crimes, lest they lose access to international financial markets. And finally, it has the potential to empower victims who cannot achieve justice at home, while providing the United States diplomatic leverage, which is beneficial across a range of other issues.
The only way for the United States, and those standing up for human rights worldwide, to benefit from the new law, however, is if the Trump administration chooses to act on the tool it has been given by Congress.
That’s why our organization, Human Rights First, has banded together with dozens of other of human rights and anti-corruption watchdogs in a coordinated effort to document cases from around that world that we believe satisfy Global Magnitsky’s stringent requirements. Our goal throughout this process has been to gather and organize evidence in a way that will assist the U.S. government in making timely, meaningful sanctions designations, if it can find the political will. The cases we are compiling come from every corner of the globe, and involve horrific stories of torture, disappearances, murder, sexual assault, and extortion. In cases dealing with acts of significant corruption, victims often include wide swaths of entire societies.
The Trump administration’s record to date of standing up for human rights and the rule of law through policy and the power of example has been, to put it plainly, abominable. Might implementation of the Global Magnitsky Act mark an important and much-needed departure from the trend? It’s too early to tell, but signs to date leave us cautiously optimistic. In April, as required by law, the Trump administration submitted to Congress an initial report detailing its commitment to Global Magnitsky’s thorough enforcement. In a cover note to the report, President Trump went so far as to indicate his personal commitment to “hold perpetrators of human rights abuses and corruption accountable.”
As the adage goes, the wheels of justice grind slowly, and the new administration still has plenty of time to put Global Magnitsky’s power to good use. In so doing, President Trump should take a hint from Veselnitskaya. We don’t know if she gave Don Jr. the intelligence he desired, but in lobbying against the Magnitsky Act, she revealed information infinitely more valuable to advancing American interests and universal values. Thankfully, not every government is likely to respond as Russia’s has to sanctions imposed on human rights abusers. But the lengths to which the Kremlin is prepared to go to rid itself of the law demonstrate in vivid detail the opportunity presently before the administration.