On Sunday, The Observer trailed new rules enabling individuals to be banned from entering Britain, on the basis of their responsibility – supported by credible evidence – for gross human rights abuses. Whilst The Observer suggested this was a Lib Dem coup, in reality it follows the House of Commons backbench business debate on 7 March, when the House voted unanimously for mandatory targeted sanctions in these cases, including visa bans and asset freezes. A US Bill along the same lines, sponsored by John McCain (R) and Ben Cardin (D), is progressing through the Senate.
I proposed the motion, but critically it was backed by five former Foreign Ministers from the two largest parties. It was inspired by the tragic case of Sergei Magnitsky, a dissident Russian lawyer tortured to death for exposing the biggest tax fraud in Russian history. In the Kafka-esque Russian justice system, it was those who Magnitsky had exposed who initiated his persecution.
The Magnitsky case is a stark reminder of what human rights were designed to protect in the post-war era, at a time when their currency has been devalued by judicial legislation from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, demanding prisoners be given a novel right to vote and blocking Abu Qatada’s deportation because we can’t guarantee him a fair trial in Jordan.
How often have we heard from NGOs and human rights lawyers that, if we ignore these rotten rulings, we will be giving Putin the excuses he needs to violate human rights? Yet it is perverse to suggest we should allow Strasbourg to run roughshod over British democratic accountability, in order to promote human rights in Russia. And it is faintly ridiculous to think that it makes a blind bit of difference to Putin, whether we give prisoners the vote or not. However, simply debating targeted sanctions in March spurred Putin’s Ambassador to intervene directly with The Speaker, opposing the motion, just as the U.S Bill has left the Kremlin well and truly rattled.
A change in the rules, to allow exclusion of those responsible for gross human rights abuses, was confirmed in the FCO’s annual report on human rights and democracy, released on Monday. In fact, visa bans in these cases should be mandatory, unless the Secretary of State publicly makes a strong justification for an exemption. They should also be backed up by mandatory asset freezes on the same individuals.
This is not about isolating or humiliating Russia. I supported her entry to the World Trade Organisation last year. Nor am I doe-eyed about the prospects of Britain – or the West – promoting democratic reform in Russia. But, as we face a rapidly changing world order, Britain ought to retain some basic moral principles. Those with blood on their hands for serious crimes like torture should not be allowed to waltz into this country and buy up property on the Kings Road, as if nothing had happened.
Such targeted sanctions should not be limited to the Magnitsky case or indeed Russia. They should be used against the henchmen of tyrants and despots across the world. It is an opportunity to take a stand against the worst atrocities, at the same time as opposing the devaluation of human rights at home through inflated claims under the Human Rights Act and in Strasbourg.