Features Australia

High time for Magnitsky

We must join the global movement to sanction human rights abusers

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that the West is finally waking up to the true nature of the Chinese communist regime. For too long, many in the West have naively believed that China was no longer communist and was on a path to a version of liberal democracy. That illusion has been shattered. The wishful thinking of past years reflects an absence of curiosity about the regime.

While many in the West continued to express a belief in some emerging nirvana in the Middle Kingdom, Xi Jinping intended otherwise. Xi’s latest book, On the Party’s Propaganda and Ideological Work collects 52 texts by Xi on Marxist ideology and propaganda from 2013 to 2020. In what is required reading for members of the CCP – and should be for policymakers elsewhere – Xi insists that China ‘is red, and this color cannot be diluted. It is necessary to tell the stories of the party, the revolution, the origin, the stories of heroes and martyrs, strengthen revolutionary tradition education, patriotic education, and youth ideological and moral education, and carry on the red gene to ensure that the red country will never change its colour’.

Contrast one of his grievances against Australia that our free media carry unfriendly reports about China with his insistence that Chinese media ‘must firmly adhere to the principle of party spirit, firmly adhere to the Marxist outlook on news, firmly adhere to the principle of correct orientation of public opinion, and firmly promote positive publicity of the Party’. Witness the campaign of the CCP mouthpiece, the Global Times, against the West.

He insists that Chinese people ‘must continue to accept the nourishment of Marxist philosophical wisdom, and more consciously adhere to and apply the dialectical materialist world outlook and methodology.’ Doubling down, he demands that ‘Chinese Communists still have to learn and practice Marxism, and continuously draw scientific wisdom and theoretical strength from it.’

Reading Xi’s writings leaves little doubt about the philosophy that underpins his internally regressive and externally aggressive regime. Ask the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, and Hong Kongers about their experience of Xi’s enlightenment.

Australia must respond to China firmly. The passage of the Foreign Relations Bill, which should be utilised to scrap Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative, is an important additional weapon to protect our sovereignty. We should also continue to call out the egregious abuse of human rights by the regime. Which is why the proposal by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs to introduce Magnitsky-type legislation is significant.

There has been a growing awareness that country- or sector-wide human rights sanctions, such as Australia currently has enacted, often impact innocent parties disproportionately and a new way to instigate consequences for unacceptable behaviour is required. It has long been the case that kleptocrats and other perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption have transferred assets to enjoy in Western countries – with safe, stable democracies and secure financial systems – such as Australia. While it would be preferable for the perpetrators of human rights abuse and corruption to face penalties in their home countries, and reparations made to victims, this is often not what happens.

Inspired by the compelling experience of Sergei Magnitsky and advocacy for justice on the global stage by Bill Browder, the efforts of international human rights experts and frontline organisations have focussed on advocating for targetted sanctions regimes with the effect of introducing tangible consequences for perpetrators and beneficiaries of serious human rights abuse and corruption.

Sergei Magnitsky was a tax accountant who died in a Russian prison in 2009, having been refused medical treatment for severe illnesses. He had been detained after investigating a $US 230 million fraud involving Russian tax officials.

Bill Browder took up the case, lobbying the US Congress to sanction the officials involved. Through the advocacy of Senators Benjamin Cardin and John McCain, the Magnitsky Bill passed the Congress in 2012 and was signed into law by President Obama. The purpose of the law was to prevent entry into the US of individuals involved in Magnitsky’s murder and their use of the American banking system.

Four years later, Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act which enables the US government to invoke a range of sanctions against foreign officials for human rights abuses. President Trump issued the first Executive Order pursuant to the legislation, sanctioning 13 individuals described as ‘human rights abusers, kleptocrats and corrupt actors.’ Since then, others have been added, including officials from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The committee heard evidence of Australians, and their families, being threatened and instances of human rights abusers investing the proceeds of their crimes in Australia, gaining access to Australian education and healthcare systems. This is simply unacceptable.

A number of jurisdictions including the US, Canada and the UK have recognised this problem. The EU has also decreed a similar law, although without reference to Magnitsky, so as to not upset Russia! Targeted sanctions legislation has allowed governments to tackle the issue. Travel bans and seizing assets have prevented perpetrators and their families from enjoying, with impunity, the proceeds of their crimes and most likely deterred other would-be perpetrators from attempting to do the same.

Implementation of the report’s recommendations will give Australia the option to impose travel bans and freeze assets. Working in concert with other countries, we will close the gap of opportunity for perpetrators and ensure there are consequences in cases where they were otherwise lacking.

The report recommended the enactment of a stand-alone, Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions Act. It proposed that the legislation provide for the sanctioning of individuals for serious human rights abuses and serious corruption. It recommended that sanctions should be applicable to the immediate family and direct beneficiaries of human rights abusers. The report also proposed that systematic extrajudicial actions that intend to limit media freedom can be considered human rights abuses and recommended a ‘watch list’ of people being considered for sanctioning. Taking swift and decisive action will allow Australia to not only play our part in the Global Magnitsky movement, but to take the lead in developing a best- practice targetted sanctions regime.

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