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Globe editorial: Senate’s proposed Magnitsky bill badly needs a rethink

The Trudeau government's announcement that it will support a Senate bill that establishes a mechanism for imposing sanctions against foreign government officials involved in human-rights abuses against their citizens should be greeted with applause for the principle – and skepticism about the mechanism.

The bill, as currently written, is an open-ended grant of power to the federal cabinet, allowing it to freeze the assets of any official in any country. How, exactly, will the members of the cabinet decide when and where to do this?

Will they limit themselves to Russian abusers, and in particular those who were involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in a Moscow prison after he alleged that government officials were stealing millions from the state, and for whom the Senate bill is partly named?

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Or will they target officials of other states? They will, for example, undoubtedly be pressured to go after Chinese government officials who have persecuted Chinese human-rights activists and religious dissidents.

The Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law) would allow, and to some extent oblige, the cabinet to pick and choose among the multitudes of human-rights violators in countries around the world.

What about Saudi Arabia, where human-rights activists are flogged publicly, and people accused of blasphemy are beheaded? Should the cabinet order financial institutions to freeze the Canadian assets of Saudi officials complicit in these acts, even if that includes members of the governing royal family?

Many would say, yes, they should. And in principle it is hard to disagree. No country should be a haven for corrupt and brutal foreign government officials or their money. These "Magnitsky-style" laws are popular and spreading – the United States was the first to get one, and the U.K. is in the process of adopting its own version.

But the laws in those countries are more carefully drawn than Canada's. In the U.S., the Magnitsky Act of 2012 only applied to Russia, but it was extended to cover all countries in December. And while the U.K. bill covers all countries, it hands the job of seizing assets to an existing agency that uses civil measures to go after the proceeds of crime, and which answers to Parliament, not cabinet.

The Canadian version is not those laws. It has every country in its sights, and it politicizes the seizure of assets by putting the decisions in the hands of cabinet ministers.

In future, cabinet ministers will feel the heat from human-rights activists to use their powers unsparingly, while also feeling pressure from trade partners like China to back off. It is easy to foresee them deciding that the "reliable and appropriate evidence," as the bill puts it, that allows them to go after one foreign official is inadequate in another, less politically convenient, case.

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The Senate bill is well-meaning, and we support the principle behind it. But to empower those principles, the legislation must be much more carefully drawn.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the U.S. Magnitsky Act of 2012 only applied to Russia. In fact, the law was extended to cover all countries in December. This version has been corrected.
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