You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why is Obama Giving Up His Human Rights Leverage Against Russia?

At two separate events in Washington recently, Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, insisted that it should be a “total no brainer” for Congress to end the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment—which denies normal, unconditional trade to non-market economies that restrict emigration—to Russia. The waning utility of Jackson-Vanik, McFaul claimed, was entirely exhausted by the completion of WTO negotiations. Now that the deal's done, he said, “it's really hard to understand in whose interest holding [onto this] does serve.”

But in predicating his argument on the grounds of free trade—citing, for example, imports and exports of “poultry and pork” between Russia and the United States—McFaul has shown a failure to grasp the essence of the legislation he’s discussing. By ignoring the Jackson-Vanik amendment's historic significance for the promotion of human rights in the Soviet bloc and China, he is doing a disservice to Russia's current democratic opposition figures.

Conceived by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanik during the Cold War, the Jackson-Vanik bill tied trade status for communist countries to the freedom to emigrate, which Jackson saw not only as an important issue in its own right, but also as a wedge for improving respect for other human rights. That’s why it misses the point to simply note, as many have, that the Soviet Union no longer exists and today’s Russia doesn't restrict emigration (indeed, quite to the contrary, Russia is suffering a massive brain drain). The main point about Jackson-Vanik—and the reason it is still relevant to U.S.-Russia relations—is that it has always been about maximizing America's leverage on human rights and demonstrating a willingness to use it.

The legislators who wrote and passed the amendment were keenly aware of the power of its annual review and wavier process. “Every year Scoop would sit down with various Eastern European ambassadors and negotiate freedom for people whose names had become known to us,” a former Jackson staffer told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in 2011. “So he would say to the ambassador, 'If you want a waiver this year, here is the list of people who is going to have to be granted freedom to leave.' ...  Scoop was a tough negotiator—he invariably came back with promises of visas for everyone on the list, in some cases hundreds of people. Only when those promises were fulfilled would a waiver be granted.” 

Even though the Jackson-Vanik amendment was written with the Soviet bloc in mind, it also provided Congress and the administration with leverage to pressure China on human rights. After Chinese leaders ordered the massacre of students and other demonstrators in 1989, the threat of sanctions induced them to make concessions. The record reflects an internal debate between Chinese moderates who wanted to maintain good ties—and access to U.S. technology and goods—and hardliners. The moderates’ arguments eventually, if only temporarily, gained ground, with the result that Beijing continued placing orders for Boeing airplanes—and more important, began releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

Further progress on rights in China might have been achieved if Bill Clinton had not “de-linked” trade from human rights, and Congress had recognized the importance of maintaining leverage. Instead, after the Clinton administration offered Beijing the status of Permanent Normal Trade Relations, human rights never regained the importance it once had in U.S. policy toward China.

The history of Jackson-Vanik should persuade Congress to update rather than abandon American support for human rights in Russia. An alternative to Jackson-Vanik, tailored to current conditions, already exists. Introduced by Senator Ben Cardin and supported by more than two dozen senators from both parties, a bill now pending would deny visas for and freeze assets of Russian officials responsible for corruption and human rights abuses. The bill was inspired by the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer who was arrested in Russia after decrying official corruption, and subsequently died in jail from abuse.

McFaul says that the White House opposes the financial measures, and the Obama administration also claims that the legislation to deny visas is “redundant.” But it’s difficult to understand their reasoning: The bill's penalties would clearly have a deterrent effect. Russian police and other officials would certainly have treated democratic protesters better during the recent presidential election if they had to fear the prospect of international penalties or public exposure.  

None of this is to say that the Obama administration has uniformly failed to pressure Moscow: Indeed, the State Department has reportedly put officials connected to Sergei Magnitsky's case on a travel ban. The problem, argues William Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, is that such steps were only taken after sustained pressure: “The Administration didn't want to do it, it was only through a few brave souls and good people who made it happen. Why should others have to go through that same ordeal that we went through?” There have been plenty of “others”  in Russia who have suffered Magnitsky’s fate, including Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, murdered in the vestibule of her apartment house, and Nataliya Estemirova, of the human rights organization Memorial, who was kidnapped and murdered in the North Caucasus. There should be little doubt that there soon could be many more.

So long as Russia's justice system is not independent enough to hold abusive and corrupt officials accountable, the U.S. and other countries should place their territory—and their financial institutions—off limits to Russian officials and their ill-gotten gains. The Jackson-Vanik amendment may need to be phased out, but it is the government’s responsibility to replace it with something that allows it to retain its leverage on behalf of human rights.

Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.