Magnitsky awards are named after Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and beaten to death 11 years ago by Russian prison guards after exposing a $230 million state tax fraud.
London: “When I am President, human rights will be at the core of US foreign policy”, said candidate Joe Biden during the recent presidential election campaign. This will be a welcome change to White House policy. During the past four years, human rights figured way down the list of priorities in Washington, if at all. President Donald Trump’s fawning admiration for dictators and elected strongmen, who carry out unspeakable acts of violence against their opponents, is unparalleled in American history. As if to emphasise his disinterest in the subject, Trump withdrew the US from the “biased” UN Human Rights Council on the spurious grounds that it was “hopelessly compromised” by the very same bad actors that he was busy coddling at the time. Trump’s impact has been insidious, leaving freedom and human rights without global leadership.
Donald Trump showed early signs of his lack of interest in human rights during his May 2017 speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit held in Saudi Arabia, his first overseas trip. “We are not here to lecture”, he declared. “We’re not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” The message was clear: Saudi rulers could repress their citizens with impunity—music to his host’s ears. Fast forward to October 2018 to see the true effect of Trump’s statement, when the dissident columnist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated and his body dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, an act almost certainly engineered by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration issued hardly a word about this extreme violation of human rights, apart from Trump bragging to Bob Woodward “I saved bin Salman’s ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.” An unequivocal statement of Trump’s priorities.
Few will forget the pitiful sight of Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waiting outside the Saudi consulate for her future husband to re-appear, which of course he never did. I had the privilege of meeting her last November at the Magnitsky Human Rights Awards in London, when she accepted Khashoggi’s posthumous award for “Courage Under Fire”. It was at the same awards ceremony that the Uyghur journalist, Gulchehra Hoja, received an award for exposing the oppression of China’s Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
The Magnitsky awards are named after Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and beaten to death 11 years ago by Russian prison guards after exposing a $230 million state tax fraud. They were founded by Sergei’s indefatigable former boss, Bill Browder, who has also pioneered Magnitsky Acts, used by governments to apply sanctions worldwide against those who commit human rights abuse. The US Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2012, was originally intended to punish Russian officials for the murder of Sergei, but in 2016 the bill was applied globally. It now authorises the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders worldwide, freeze their assets and ban them from entering the United States. Magnitsky Acts are now in play in a growing number of countries and will soon be adopted by the European Union.
Shining a light on human rights abuses, the Magnitsky Awards are especially designed to recognise and honour people like Sergei who have exposed crime and challenged governments in extraordinary ways. An added value of the awards, however, is to allow ordinary mortals such as ourselves to understand and even touch the souls (many are awarded posthumously) of extraordinarily brave individuals who have stood up to corruption and tyranny for the sake of their fellow brethren.
Because of coronavirus, this year’s Magnitsky awards were held virtually last week, 16 November being the 11th anniversary of Sergei’s murder. As always some remarkable stories were revealed. Take, for example, the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, who was awarded the Magnitsky Outstanding Human Rights Activist award. Loujain has been detained in a Saudi high security prison since 2018, where she had been sexually abused, tortured and threatened with rape. And her crime? Driving her car before it was allowed for women! Hathloul was arrested with ten other women in a sweep targeting outspoken women who had campaigned for the right to drive. All eleven were put on trial for “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom”! Many believe that Loujain has received particularly poor treatment in prison because of her role as a leading feminist campaigner. Her activism is seen as a slap in the face to the kingdom’s narrative that any limited change for women can only be permitted from the top.
This year’s Magnitsky Outstanding Justice Campaign winners were the three sons of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese writer and anti-corruption activist, who was murdered by a car bomb close to her home in Malta three years ago. Caruana Galizia’s particular skill was investigative journalism, where she excelled in reporting on government corruption, nepotism, patronage, money laundering and links between Malta’s online gambling industry and organised crime. She built her national and international reputation on her regular reporting of misconduct by Maltese politicians, despite intimidation, numerous threats and lawsuits. Following their mother, all three sons, Andrew, Matthew and Paul are investigative journalists and have taken up her mantle of human rights and justice, for which they won the award.
Presenting the award for this year’s Magnitsky Outstanding Opposition Figure to 23-year-old Nathan Law, Lord Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, reflected on China’s trashing of human rights and the “castration” of the rule of law in Hong Kong. As a student leader who became Hong Kong’s youngest legislator, Nathan Law pressed hard for democracy and human rights “a brave representative of a generation whose spirit the Communist Party wants to stamp out”.
So many of the Magnitsky awards over the past 5 years have been given posthumously, as testament of the high price of courage and determination of the recipients. Just as Magnitsky was murdered in a Russian prison, so this year’s winner of the prize for Outstanding Russian Opposition Activist, Sergei Mokhnatkin, was beaten so harshly by prison guards in penal Colony No 4 in Archangelsk Region, that they broke his spine from which he eventually died. Having been a successful businessman, Mokhnatkin became an opposition activist because of the extreme corruption and lawlessness he witnessed among state officials in Russia. For this he spent 6 years in prisons and penal colonies before his murder.
As Browder reminded viewers in his summing up, the award winners this year were again just a few of the many hundreds of potential worthy winners from which the Awards Committee had to choose; an almost impossible task. It remains a fact that because of Covid-19, everyone has taken their eyes off abuses around the world and as a result dictators are running rampant, doing terrible things. As most governments appear to have no interest in tackling human rights abuse, all that we have to fight with is information to highlight the abuses and the countries perpetrating them.
This chimes with the arrival of President-elect Joe Biden, who has the challenging task of restoring America’s moral authority to champion liberty, democracy and the rule of law at home and around the world. Biden has the opportunity to identify concrete steps to safeguard civil and political rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, an independent media and accountable law enforcement. With Trump’s departure from the White House, America’s future role must be to assert and defend those human rights principles which are under assault from authoritarian powers, particularly China and Russia. This is where America’s Magnitsky Act could be used as a powerful weapon.
Unlike Donald Trump, Joe Biden is a multilateralist and his efforts will be more powerful and effective than those coming from a lonely “America First” White House. This doesn’t mean, of course, that President Biden should subordinate all other US foreign policy objectives to human rights imperatives. His administration will need to weigh these concerns alongside its full array of strategic, diplomatic and economic interests. There will be times when America will have to hold its nose when working with unsavoury regimes, but unlike during the last four years, it must never remain silent about those who savage human rights.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.