The Magnitsky Act is Constitutionally Illiterate

Because the American Congress clearly has no power, real or imagined, to protect Russian citizens, and because it cannot be subjected to any "accountability" by them, the Magnitsky Act - like so much in US foreign policy - is a textbook case of seeking power without responsibility.

Two US senators have proposed extending the "Magnitsky list" of people subject to financial and other sanctions by the US authorities. This demonstrates two things.

First, the foreign policy of the USA towards Russia has displayed the same trend since the beginning of the Cold War. The USA has systematically deployed human rights as a foreign policy stick with which to beat Moscow when other ideas have run out of steam, or when there is a sense of failure and loss of direction at home.

When Eleanor Roosevelt pushed forward the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947, she did so specifically through the prism of foreign policy. Memories of the wartime alliance with the USSR were still fresh, while the Tokyo trials, on whose bench there was a Soviet judge, were to continue for another year: anti-Communism had not become a major theme in US politics (McCarthyism did not start until 1950) and so human rights were used instead to attack the Soviets.

In the 1970s, Gerald Ford's and then Jimmy Carter's pursuit of apparent détente with Brezhnev in fact obscured new anti-Soviet initiatives on human rights, formulated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and in the Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974. This latter imposed trade sanctions on the USSR over its policy of preventing Soviet citizens from emigrating, especially Jews from emigrating to Israel, and it bolstered the USA's innate sense of superiority as things were going from bad to worse at home.

As its full title makes clear, the Magnitsky Act of 2012 specifically replaced the measures contained in the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which the US had to drop when Russia joined the World Trade Organisation. The latest proposed extension to the Act by Senators Cardin and McCain comes against the background of the federal government shutdown last year - a sign of national collapse if ever there was one - and in the wake of the stunning public relations humiliation America has suffered over the Snowden affair.

Second, the Act and its proposed extension show that the concept of the "rule of law" has become so corrupted in the minds of the supporters of such measures that these people are now a danger to the very principles they claim to uphold. The Magnitsky "Act" is an Act only in name: it contains much rambling detail, including quotes from newspapers, about the alleged facts of the Magnitsky affair but such language precisely has no place in a properly drafted legal instrument. A law is supposed to be a document outlining the rule for the future general application of certain measures: it is not an expression of outrage voted by a student debating society.

Moreover, this so-called Act gives to the US Secretary of State the role of publishing a list of those held responsible for certain acts; the persons on that list are then subject to various punishments. Since when does a government minister have the right to decide guilt and punishment? The authors of this so-called Act have evidently not read the constitution of the United States, of which all Americans seem so inordinately proud, and which is based on the concept of the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. By this shameful document, the US Congress has transferred a power it does not have to someone who should never have it.

The "Act" also violates specific sections of the US constitution. Article 1 forbids the Congress from passing "any Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law" yet the Magnitsky Act is both because it names names and also passes law retroactively. Meanwhile, the 5th amendment says that "no person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Such measures are the very backbone of what we now call "human rights" or "civil liberties" and yet the very country which claims to be upholding them is in fact destroying them at their root. Shamefully, the US is supported by people who claim to be human rights lawyers in Europe.

The Act is also constitutionally illiterate at a more fundamental level. By seeking to impose "accountability", the US Congress is setting itself up as the legitimate authority to judge what happens in other countries. But because it has no democratic mandate to do this - it is elected by American, not Russian citizens - such arrogance violates the social contract at its most fundamental level. The right to judge and punish criminals, which is one of the core functions of the state, is enjoyed by the state only to the extent that it thereby offers protection, via the rule of law, to its law-abiding citizens. Because the American Congress clearly has no power, real or imagined, to protect Russian citizens, and because it cannot be subjected to any "accountability" by them, the Act - like so much in US foreign policy - is a textbook case of seeking power without responsibility.

This article was originally published in Russian in Известия newspaper.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.