After the end of the Cold War there was a widespread perception both in the West and Russia that the time of ideological animosity and human rights problems had passed into history. Nevertheless, the adoption of the Magnitsky Act, passed recently by the US Congress and by the EU in 2011, sees human rights used as a weapon in international relations once again.
The proponents of the Magnitsky Act believe that it is supposed to replace the Jackson-Vanik amendment adopted by the US in 1974 in order to punish the then Soviet Union for forbidding Jewish emigration. But the two are not practically comparable.
The Jackson-Venik amendment covered the whole of the USSR and affected the nationwide economy while the Magnitsky Act includes a list of about 60 officials, accused of being involved in the imprisonment and death of anti-corruption whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who are banned from entering the US and the EU and whose assets are frozen.
Although the act only affects a tiny minority of officials, it has attracted public attention in the country, both for and against. A survey in November by the Levada Center in Moscow found that 39 percent of Russians agreed with the law, while 14 percent were opposed to it, and 48 percent said they were undecided.
From the critical point of view, the criteria making up the list are not transparent and it is not clear how and why people were put on the list. The list is not final. It is open and more people can be added. Critics also questioned the lack of a court process to prove the guilt or innocence of the people involved. And the number of the countries which adopted the Magnitsky Act is growing.
This course of events caused a negative reaction in Moscow. One of the basic principles of international relations is reciprocity and the Russian Parliament began to work out a Russian version of the Magnitsky Act aimed at imposing similar sanctions on US officials.
What is not clear for critics is why the Magnitsky Act was adopted since there are other countries, for example in the Middle East, where the situation of human rights can hardly be called acceptable by Western standards, but they are not targeted by the Western parliaments.
How can the adoption of the Magnitsky Act be assessed and what are the possible consequences? The act will only worsen relations between Russia and the Western countries which have adopted or will adopt the act. Speaking at the International Parliamentary Forum on December 10, 2012 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed, "The role of Parliaments is not to teach each other. These efforts only bring intolerance and conflicts in international affairs."
The Russian approach is that human rights issues should be discussed on an equal and mutually respectful basis. The principles of state sovereignty should be observed and national, cultural and historic traditions should be taken into account.
Lavrov also stated that "These actions run counter to the tasks to deepen cooperation between Russia and the USA, between two nations bearing special responsibility for ensuring international stability."
There are several negative consequences as a result of the situation with the Magnitsky Act. The situation may turn into an ongoing process with unpredictable consequences. Russian-US relations are poisoned and the "reset" of relations will be endangered. These consequences may go beyond the humanitarian area and affect other fields of Russian-US relations.
Some experts assess the ban on the import of US beef containing food additive to Russia as Russian retaliation and the beginning of a trade war between the two countries. Russia and the US have positive results in such areas of global cooperation as fighting terrorism, arms control and non-proliferation of WMD. The Magnitsky Act may hamper further cooperation in this field and the international community will suffer as well as Russia and the US. In this case only terrorists and proliferators of WMD will benefit.
As Russia and China have a common position that sovereignty and non-interference into domestic affairs must be a guiding line in international relations, the adoption of the Magnitsky Act brings Russia and China closer and makes it possible to strengthen their cooperation.
The author is a professor at the Diplomatic Academy, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed in the article belong to him and do not reflect the official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. firstname.lastname@example.org