Aleksei Navalny and the Importance of Human Rights Sanctions

Last month marked my one-year anniversary with the Jackson Foundation. One aspect that particularly drew me toward the Foundation is its human rights’ focus, particularly regarding Russia. The Foundation has sponsored events with leading Russia experts and has supported the Global Magnitsky Act, a key element for human rights, which we see in action right now.

Aleksei Navalny and the Kremlin

In October, the Foundation sponsored a Seattle World Affairs Council event with Catherine Belton. Belton published a meticulously researched book about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, his KGB roots, and corruption in the Kremlin. When asked what might weaken Putin, Belton’s response focused on Aleksei Navalny.

Navalny has presented the biggest threat to Putin for some time, and Belton suggested that Navalny’s recent poisoning demonstrates the fear he’s generating in the Kremlin. He chose to return to Moscow last month, and his team released a two-hour video on Putin’s corruption and his $1.3 billion Black Sea estate – a brave and dangerous move. After his immediate arrest, Navalny received a two-year sentence to a labor camp on trumped-up charges.

Putin doesn’t typically respond to allegations, so it’s notable that he denied ownership of the estate. Now over the past several weeks, with hundreds of millions having watched this video, we’ve seen the biggest protests in Russia in years as citizens demand Navalny’s release and an end to the corruption.

Why does this concern the Jackson Foundation?

Our involvement in human rights is rooted in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which tied the Soviet Union’s economic trade status to the freedom for Soviet Jews to emigrate. Freedom of emigration is a tenant of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Jackson-Vanik Amendment secured this freedom for millions of Soviet Jews.

Decades later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Congress passed the 2012 Magnitsky Act to succeed Jackson-Vanik. This act – named for Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who exposed corruption in Russia and subsequently died in jail – was created to penalize individuals involved in Magnitsky’s arrest and death. In 2016, Congress expanded the legislation into what’s commonly called the Global Magnitsky Act. This sanctions program holds individuals accountable for human rights abuses and gross corruption worldwide, by freezing their assets in the U.S. and blocking their ability to obtain U.S. visas. And by targeting individuals, these sanctions do not punish an entire country for government corruption and abuses, as Michael McFaul recently noted.

What continues to surprise me is that, despite serious human rights failings in our own country, the U.S. can still set a positive example. Other countries have been using the Global Magnitsky Act as a model for their own legislation. And the Foundation has partnered with Human Rights First as it gathers and submits evidence for use by the U.S. government in leveling sanctions. Human Rights First also informs other countries interested in developing Magnitsky-like programs. In direct response to Navalny’s arrest, several more countries may enact their own version of the Magnitsky Act.

What now?

On Jan. 29, Navalny’s nonprofit, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, urged President Biden to apply sanctions to 35 Russians who are known as key figures in the Kremlin’s corruption scheme, as well as human rights abusers and persecutors of Navalny and his supporters. This letter underscores the importance of the Global Magnitsky Act: “Sanctioning these individuals – freezing their assets, barring them from entering the U.S. and from doing business with American companies – would create a substantial cost for their actions and serve as a deterrent to other members of the political and business elite. It would be a powerful way to encourage change.”

The Jackson Foundation recently adopted a set of strategic goals that includes a specific outcome: the reauthorization of the Global Magnitsky Act, which is due to sunset in December of next year. In fact, a bipartisan bill was just introduced in the U.S. Senate to achieve this. We are heartened to see this first step toward strong, effective legislation that will remain in place as long as needed. And we invite you to join our efforts to uphold human rights around the globe.

Katy Terry

Executive Director

3 thoughts on “Aleksei Navalny and the Importance of Human Rights Sanctions

  1. Excellent update and explanation about one of the objectives of the Foundation. Who are the sponsors of the Senate legislation?

    1. Thank you! Sen. Cardin (D-MD) is the sponsor and Sen. Wicker (R-MS) the original co-sponsor. This week, Sen. Coons (D-DE) and Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) have joined as cosponsors, as well.

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