Sanctioning individuals sounds like a good idea, but it's proving complicated
The closer to home the injustice, the more we seem to care. But every once in a while, human rights are so flagrantly breached that the world sits up and takes notice. The Rohingya genocide, a few years ago, had that effect. At the moment, Xinjiang is shorthand for the Chinese state’s moral shortcomings. And yesterday the White House warned that there will be “consequences” if Alexei Navalny dies in prison.
But what can we actually do?
A decade or so ago, Geoffrey Robertson QC was asked by Anglo-American financier Bill Browder to advise after the death, in Russian jail, of Browder’s 37-year-old tax adviser Sergei Magnitsky. Browder’s campaigning led, in 2012, to America’s Magnitsky Act, which authorised sanctions — visa bans and asset freezes — on the public officials believed to have been responsible. In 2016 the Act was expanded to allow sanctions beyond Russia and the Magnitksy affair, and others — including Canada, the UK and the EU — have since made similar moves. This is the burgeoning Magnitsky movement, and the subject of Robertson’s latest book, Bad People, And How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B for Human Rights.
Plan A included International Criminal Courts and state-wide sanctions. The former move at a glacial pace. The latter have occasionally been useful, as with apartheid South Africa, but the downsides can be profound, and may include the impoverishment of innocent citizens.
Far better, Robertson argues, to focus on individual human rights abusers, whose sudden inability to swank around Mayfair creates serious personal problems — which might serve as a deterrent. The Magnitsky Act certainly infuriated Putin, who responded by banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans, and Robertson paints a vivid picture of Carrie Lam frustrated by her cancelled credit cards following last year’s US sanctions, and her $672,000 salary having to be paid in cash. But whether Lam, or Putin’s subordinates, would act differently next time is surely open to question.
Robertson has visions of a global Magnitsky Network. Nations would agree to sanction as a bloc, keeping Bad People out and banning them from using financial, and other, institutions. He suggests this “may contribute to a resurgence of liberal democracy” and quotes the assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the prospect of a European Magnitsky law: “If Putin can’t shield the crooks from the Europeans … all his power would simply disappear”.
One can’t help but wonder if all this isn’t slightly overly optimistic. The baddies might miss London and Paris, but they’d at least have half the world to enjoy. And we might suffer a bit from the bifurcation.
A more immediately concerning problem, though, with this plan to rid the world of bad people is that they too can play the sanctions game. In January this year four barristers from the elite commercial chambers Essex Court gave a written opinion that there is a “very credible case” that the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang amounts to genocide and a crime against humanity. Three weeks ago, Essex Court — consisting of some 90-odd self-employed counsel — was placed on a sanctions list by the Chinese Government. No Chinese company may do business with them.
This act of collective punishment has not so far met with the volume of collective outrage that most of us would hope for, despite near-universal dismay in the profession. It is thus not infeasible that barristers will be forced to organise themselves into sets of chambers according to China’s attitude to the legal advice they provide. Which tells you something about the shifting balance of the powers involved.
On one view this is all the more reason for democratic nations to co-operate on a Magnitsky Network, and worry about any global bifurcation later. With more sanctioning clout than the other side, might we not be able, finally, to uphold human rights around the world, so that even genocidal nations might think twice?
Well, co-operation would require agreement. How do we determine whether a suspect has breached human rights? Robertson favours a panel of experts. But this only raises the question familiar to students of the messaging around Brexit and Covid: who chooses the experts?
Half way into the Magnitsky movement, we’re only just discovering where it will take us.