See my full report on the Australian Government's Magnitsky Inquiry, including submission analysis: 'Sanctioned Targets'.
Parliament’s Magnitsky investigation is rigged. The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade - Human Rights Sub-committee’s “Inquiry into targeted sanctions to address human rights abuses” (aka ‘Magnitsky legislation’) is a litany of biased submissions, selective witnesses and suppression of vital evidence - which revealed Magnitsky-architect Bill Browder’s lies and exposed sanctions for what they are: a coercive trade weapon that has nothing to do with human rights.
Inquiry submissions are 91% in favour of Magnitsky-type legislation. 39% express qualifications: including identifying diplomatic impact, resource requirements, or the possibility of weaponisation of sanctions (61% are pro-Magnitsky, without reservation). The Committee expressly invited some submitters - all international campaigners for Magnitsky legislation. Conspicuously absent are global leaders on targeted sanctions research: Targeted Sanctions Consortium participants, the Watson Institute, the Cato Institute and the United Nations. If they were invited, their submissions aren’t published.
The Committee’s witness lineup includes: An alleged financial criminal who has repeatedly lied under oath and his former lawyer, a celebrity human rights lawyer who has also formerly represented war criminals and human rights abusers, an anti-Putin activist, and billionaire-backed Human Rights Watch - described by independent journalist Ben Norton as a “regime change-hungry” ‘human rights’ group which functions as “a revolving door between the NGO sector and the US government.” Other witnesses include China-phobic Hong Kong and Uyghur activist organisations. All witnesses are pro-Magnitsky legislation.
Selective witnesses and submission invitations aside, the Committee appears to have engaged in intentional and timely suppression of vital evidence which challenged the testimony of Browder, and the founding premise of Magnitsky sanctions. Independent journalist Lucy Komisar is an award-winning veteran of exposing financial corruption and has investigated the Browder story for nearly a decade. Her submission was a damning expose of the lies and crimes of Bill Browder, backed up by forensic analysis and court documents. Komisar’s submission remained unpublished for weeks, Committee staff blaming their workload- which didn’t stop them publishing other submissions dated weeks after Komisar’s. The Committee gave Browder a chance to respond to Komisar’s allegations, taking six weeks to get around to it. Browder says the Committee sent him Komisar’s submission on the 17th of May (on a Sunday?), two days after the final public hearing. Delayed publication of vital evidence gave hearing participants a convenient excuse to pretend incriminating proof of Browder’s fraud didn’t exist. Committee Members ignore the Magnitsky origin story and do not challenge Browder’s narrative. Komisar’s submission is heavily redacted, hyperlinks deactivated - although all link to publicly available evidence. The Committee’s concern with protecting information applies selectively - a number of submissions alleging Chinese human rights abusers are only partially redacted - detailed employment histories and a last name remain visible. Attached to one submission is a non-profit’s report alleging human rights criminals, with unredacted photos, names and family structure.
Komisar’s submission exposes Magnitsky legislation itself: “The Magnitsky Act was political cover for a trade bill… the basic assertions of the U.S. Magnitsky Act are false, created by William Browder to cover up his financial corruption and used by its sponsors in the U.S. Congress for their own goals, to support a foreign policy hostile to Russia.” Hillary Evans, writing for the Maryland Journal of International Law: “The Magnitsky Act makes it clear that one of its main purposes… is to ensure that Russia complies with its obligations under the WTO. The first sentence of the Act declares an important purpose to be to “require reports on the compliance of the Russian Federation with its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization.”
The Committee delayed publication of three other submissions until after the final public hearing. Two list examples of targeted sanctions applied with existing legislation (no Magnitsky Act required), including by the Australian government. The third was pro-Magnitsky, but unwittingly exposes the true purpose of the legislation: “Magnitsky Acts are becoming a new weapon in the West…”
There’s more behind-the-scenes coordination. Several submissions have an identical paragraph, a protectionist spiel claiming Australia’s “sovereignty would be jeopardized if agents of authoritarian states can freely settle in Australia and interfere with our domestic politics and national security.” If Australia doesn’t join other “western democracies” in legislating a sanctions scheme, “agents of authoritarian states” may invest in and “take control of vital infrastructure,” “undermine our national security” and “threaten our fundamental freedoms and human rights”. Comparing this ‘coordinated phrase’ to China-hawk MP and Committee Member Andrew Hastie’s contribution to a report recently published by regime-change cheerleaders, the Henry Jackson Society, you’d think they hired the same script-writer.
The ‘coordinated phrase’ submitters identify as Australian and Hong Kong citizens, with one intriguing exception: Washington DC-based ‘Campaign for Uyghurs’. Executive director Rushan Abbas was identified by independent news site The Grayzone as “the US national security state’s favourite “human rights activist.” Abbas’ own bio (now scrubbed) detailed her “extensive experience working with US government agencies, including Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of State, and various US intelligence agencies.” The Grayzone reports Campaign for Uyghurs is part of the World Uyghur Congress: the “US-backed right-wing regime change network seeking the ‘fall of China’.” Coincidentally, Abbas was in Canberra meeting with Australian MPs and hosted a roundtable at the US Embassy the day after the Magnitsky Inquiry was announced. The US ‘Uighur Human Rights Act’, legislation calling for sanctions against China over alleged human rights abuses (allegations the Grayzone exposed as “based on two highly dubious “studies”), passed the US House of Representatives on the 3rd of December 2019, the same date the Australian Magnitsky Inquiry was instigated by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
When asked about the effectiveness of Magnitsky sanctions, no witness can provide more than anecdotal evidence, including the star-studded international panel. Successful anecdotes include “a nervousness of criminals”, the “hostile reaction of Russian government’, an article which apparently ‘upset’ the CCP. Browder says, “the whole tone has changed… It’s hard to measure scientifically, but I can promise you that it creates a counterweight, it creates a consequence and it creates something that every bad person in the world thinks about when they consider doing bad things.” Geoffrey Robertson (Browder’s former lawyer) says Magnitsky sanctions are “not going to end human rights abuse, which comes from political motives as well as from desire for financial gain. They're not going to stop all the criminals of the world from laundering their money, but I think they do have an important deterrent effect.” Money laundering is referenced in 41% of submissions, although only one refers to Australia’s existing anti-money laundering mechanisms. Lawyer Amal Clooney says there has been no ‘definitive study’ of the deterrent impact of Magnitsky sanctions: “obviously something that's very difficult to prove. What would have happened if sanctions hadn't been in place?”
It appears witnesses may have been dodging the question. No definitive study of Magnitsky effectiveness perhaps, but ‘targeted sanctions’ were developed in the 1990s as a politically attractive solution to the humanitarian failure of conventional sanctions. In 2016, the Targeted Sanctions Consortium (TSC), a collaboration of over 50 academics and policy experts, published the first comprehensive analysis of UN sanctions implemented between 1991 - 2013. The TSC concluded UN targeted sanctions were effective only 22% of the time. In addition, the TSC identified unintended consequences occurred in 94% of all case episodes. The most frequent unidentified consequence was increased corruption and criminality (58% of cases), followed by negative humanitarian consequences (44%), strengthening of authoritarian rule (35%) and diversion of resources (34%).
Some individuals sanctioned by the UN successfully challenged the listings in court - because the targeted sanctions did not respect procedural fundamental human rights - the rights of defence and due process. The TSC identified a number of sanctions evasion techniques - using front companies or disguising identity - individuals and companies will try to evade sanctions, as they would evade a domestic legal system.
Witnesses Robertson, Clooney and Professor Irwin Cotler recommend an independent ‘expert panel’ or ‘tribunal’ to determine sanctions targets and provide oversight, which Clooney says will “reduce selectivity and potential abuse of sanctions powers.” Robertson suggests this quasi-judicial 'Magnitsky tribunal’ could also manage the appeal process of its own decisions, preferably acting independently of Ministerial power. Robertson inadvertently demonstrates the possibility of manipulation to pressure governments to impose sanctions: “…by having a tribunal, by having as much of the hearing in public, there would of course be pressure on the minister to accept and to explain if he or she didn’t [apply sanctions].”
Cotler recommends the expert panel be formalised in Magnitsky legislation, “[establishing] a kind of interstate coordination committee amongst the Five Eyes…” 8% of submissions reference Australia’s position in the Five Eyes intelligence network, saying Magnitsky sanctions will demonstrate solidarity and ‘strengthen the network’.
Clooney recommends sweeping sanctions criteria, including “sexual violence, corruption, persecution on grounds of race, religion or sexuality, detention on false charges and silencing of the media [and internet shutdowns],” applying to individuals, companies, government officials, business people and “the network of collaborators who facilitate their crimes.” Arguably a precedent for moving “toward a world police”. Magnitsky sanctions are a politically-motivated interventionist strategy, intended to undermine and interfere with a nation’s domestic legal system. For all the concern over ‘authoritarian interference in Australia’s sovereignty’, there’s little issue with ‘democratic’ countries doing the same.
26% of submissions referenced Australia’s human rights obligations or glorified Australia as a ‘global human rights leader’, saying advocating for human rights is in our “national psyche”. Everyone ignores the CIVICUS Monitor’s 2019 downgrading of Australia’s democracy from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’, the very day the Magnitsky Inquiry was announced. Only one Committee MP, Maria Vamvakinou, acknowledges the possibility of human rights abuses in democratic countries. Australian Lawyers for Human Rights’ submission makes the only reference to Australia’s lack of human rights protections, saying “if Australia is to properly promote human rights law internationally and protect persons within Australia, it must remedy its position as the only developed Western liberal democracy without a federal Human Rights Act or Bill of Rights.”
39% of submissions want international cooperation of “Western allies”: “It is time for the democratic countries to reunite to get the world’s order back” in the “global fight to protect human rights.” Undercurrents of self-righteous grandiosity and hostility toward an appointed collective enemy, are dangerously reminiscent of the 2003 call for a “coalition of the willing” - an illegal allied invasion over fabricated WMDs resulting in the death of a million Iraqi people. Troublingly, Clooney’s testimony refers to a “coalition of the committed.” Many submissions expressed anti-China (38%) or anti-Russia (16%) sentiments, including identifying these countries as a ‘target’ of Magnitsky legislation. Cold War vibes abound - alleged “killings by the Kremlin”, Chinese ‘gulags’, “rise of Chinese Nazism” (disregarding history- China fought with Allied Powers against the Nazis in WWII), “Chinazism” is the “hybrid of Nazism and the dark side of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” Are submitters truly concerned about human rights, or is this the product of propaganda-driven Russia/Chinaphobia? Only 21% of submissions acknowledged due process implications of Magnitsky sanctions - the human right to legal defence and procedural safeguards. Some submissions made hostile recommendations which directly contravene human rights law.
It appears the Parliamentary Committee are self-appointed narrative managers - cherry-picking submissions, witnesses and evidence. Leading research indicates targeted sanctions work only 22% of the time, usually worsening human rights conditions. Evidently irrelevant to the Committee and star witnesses, glaring omissions expose their hypocrisy: Magnitsky sanctions have nothing to do with human rights. They are a coercive foreign policy tool, a grotesque weaponisation of the fundamental rights of human beings, an interventionist workaround which bypasses the UN and international courts, undermining sovereign nations and domestic rule of law. The Magnitsky Act is for sanctioned targets - determined by regime-change warmongers, abetted by duped or complicit governments. Australia should not be one of them.
By Melissa Harrison
Originally published in the Australian Alert Service