How Magnistsky Legislation Can Hold Russia Accountable For War Crimes In Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed to the world that some countries are still willing to use aggression and military power to achieve their geo-political aims. This is a rejection of the principles of sovereignty, diplomacy and the rule of law that requires a strong response from the international community.

While Russia’s actions are in clear breach of international law, credible reports from inside Ukraine reveal that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed against innocent civilians. Both targeted and indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure is taking place, causing untold suffering for those trapped in besieged cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv. It has been reported that, so far, over 800 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, with schools, hospitals and civic buildings targeted by Russian missiles and bombs.

The international community has so far reacted strongly to Russia’s actions by providing military aid to Ukraine and imposing heavy economic sanctions. Australia, Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom have imposed sanctions targeting the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle over the past weeks. These sanctions on prominent Russian individuals have frozen billions of dollars in foreign bank accounts and physical assets.

Still, more needs to be done. Vladimir Putin’s regime needs to be put pressured by the international community and Russia needs to be economically and politically isolated to ensure that the conflict ends with Ukrainian sovereignty intact and civilians are safe, per their rights under international law. Russian individuals also need to be held to accountable for any war crimes and crimes against humanity committed, which are unacceptable in any situation.

However, prosecuting individuals for these crimes has been notoriously difficult, with the International Criminal Court reliant on arresting alleged perpetrators within its jurisdictional boundaries. Russia is not party to the ICC statute, meaning that, while the ICC is currently investigating Russia for alleged war crimes, there is little chance that Putin or his inner circle will be tried and imprisoned for their involvement in Ukraine.

Magnitsky legislation can help provide a solution to this. Legislation of this type enables governments to impose targeted economic sanctions on individuals who commit or are complicit in human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is not beholden to jurisdictional boundaries, meaning that penalties on individuals, such as the freezing of assets or travel bans, can be performed outside of a country’s jurisdiction.

The name of the legislation is derived from Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, who was murdered by the Russian state after exposing tax fraud by multiple Russian companies in 2009. After his death, the U.S. passed the world’s first Magnitsky legislation in 2012 to penalize those involved in his death, including Russian politicians and lawyers.

The Magnitsky legislation’s effectiveness is that it is targeted. Individual perpetrators, not entire populations, are punished by severe economic sanctions, meaning that sanctions do not act as a collective punishment. Sanctions are also not limited to frozen assets, as families of those responsible can be targeted, including travel bans, which prevent families from having foreign assets, living abroad or attending prestigious schools in the U.K. or the U.S. This allows countries to put extreme pressure on individuals by isolating them internationally, reducing their net wealth and their influence at home and abroad.

In what is a positive step, numerous countries have already passed Magnitsky legislation, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K. and the European Union. This legislation is, in effect, a global sanctions framework that allows country’s to effectively punish perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity extra-territorially with precision.

However, the success of the framework is dependent on more members of the international community passing Magnitsky legislation in a consistent manner that allows for individuals to be punished quickly and systematically. This, in effect, would be an internationally recognised sanctions regime for violators of human rights.

A truly global Magnitsky legislation framework would be a statement for the importance of universal human rights, regardless of where they are from, and would enable the international community to have a vital tool to prevent war crimes from being committed in the first place but to also punish individuals when they are committed.

There are two reasons why Magnitsky legislation would be a success against Russia in particular. Firstly, Vladimir Putin is attempting to portray sanctions against Russian economic institutions and the withdrawal of foreign assets as an attack against the Russian people to stir up nationalistic feeling that will keep him in power. Magnitsky legislation is direct and precise, meaning that only those involved in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity would be punished. This would provide a clear distinction between those that are responsible and the Russian people. Secondly, Russia has historically reacted with extreme anger to Magnitsky legislation, predominantly because it works so well. With Putin’s inner circle’s wealth based on systematic corruption, Russia’s powerful are reliant on hiding money abroad, which would be impossible under targeted sanctions through Magnitsky legislation.

Additionally, Magnitsky legislation needs to be part of any negotiations whenever war crimes and crimes against humanity are a likely scenario. Threatening countries and individuals with targeted sanctions before illegal action takes place is an effective preventative tool, particularly when the wealth of powerful individuals is at stake. Furthermore, these sanctions need to be long-term, regardless of what happens in Ukraine. War crimes and crimes against humanity should not be quickly forgotten and, for that reason, targeted sanctions against Putin and other Russian individuals need to be long-term and escalate over time, to further increase pressure on the regime.

The international community has already been galvanized in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is evident in the billions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid sent to Ukraine to enable it to stall the Russian advance and care for its citizens. Most countries within the United Nations have also recently voted to condemn Russia’s aggression in the General Assembly. However, with diplomacy so far failing to prevent atrocities committed in Ukraine, Magnitsky legislation can provide a valuable tool for the international community.

The world needs to go a step further and enact an international sanctions framework that makes is abundantly clear to Russia, and future potential perpetrators, that war crimes and crimes against humanity are not tolerated in the 21st century.


This Month In Ukraine: More Reasons For Peaceful Negotiation

Rather than provide an exhaustive history of the decade long conflict between the West and Russia in Ukraine, this report serves to orient the reader as to why this conflagration no longer serves the purposes of democracy, human rights or freedom if it ever did. The greatest interests served by the continuing tragedy in Ukraine are the interests of the defense industries, investment firms and US hegemony. Ironically, as the United States becomes more entangled in Ukraine, governance under President Zelensky becomes increasingly less democratic and the United States becomes less and less powerful as a global hegemon. 

Read More »

Leave a Reply