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24th Oct 2020

Rutte: New EU sanctions are informal 'Magnitsky law'

  • Mark Rutte (l) with EU Council chief Donald Tusk at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

New EU human rights sanctions ought to be named after Russian activist Sergei Magnitsky, but only informally, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has said.

"Whenever we speak about it, we shall, I think, just refer to it as 'the Magnitsky law' or 'the Magnitsky initiative'," Rutte told MPs in a debate in The Hague on Wednesday (12 December).

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The Dutch, backed by France, Germany, and the UK, recently launched an EU project to impose visa bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers worldwide.

They formally entitled it an "EU Human Rights Sanctions Regime" and highlighted crimes in Africa and Asia, rather than Russia.

The project has its roots in US 'Magnitsky Acts', which blacklisted Magnitsky's suspected killers, as well as designating the son of Russia's prosecutor general, among other abusers from around the globe.

But Rutte dropped Magnitsky's name from the EU sanctions proposal, he said, because that would help it to win support in the EU Council, where member states, including Russia-friendly ones, meet.

"Some countries say: 'We want to give support, but we want a more neutral name'," Rutte said.

Naming it after Magnitsky "would lead to a little bit less support than you would like," he told the Dutch parliament.

"Under the slogan 'better a law without a name, then a name without a law', we chose to use a more neutral name for now," the prime minister said.

Magnitsky was killed after exposing a corruption scheme involving Russian tax officials, mobsters, close associates of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and top EU banks.

Putin has personally lobbied some EU leaders, such as Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades, as well as US president Donald Trump, to help him shut down campaigners for justice in the Magnitsky affair.

Magnitsky Acts threaten to undermine the Russian president's authority by holding to account people who had expected to enjoy impunity under his patronage.

The "Magnitsky" name also stamps a criminal brand on his regime on the international stage.

Rutte claimed ignorance of those issues on Wednesday, however.

"I cannot now say precisely why this would be the case, but apparently it is very sensitive to use that name [Magnitsky]," he said.

His pragmatism has annoyed politicians around Europe, 100 of whom recently signed a letter urging Rutte to confront Russia's friends in the EU Council instead of catering to their sympathies.

Bill Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, who has campaigned for sanctions in his name for the past nine years, urged the same.

"Mark Rutte presents a false choice between a Magnitsky law without Magnitsky's name on it or no law at all. He's apparently unaware of the near unanimous support in Europe for a Magnitsky law named after Sergei Magnitsky," Browder told EUobserver.

Russia pragmatism

At the same time, EU leaders extended the life of economic sanctions on Russia, imposed over its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, at their summit in Brussels on Thursday.

"Decision: EU unanimously prolongs economic sanctions against Russia given zero progress in implementation of Minsk agreements," EU Council president Donald Tusk said on Twitter, referring to the so-called Minsk ceasefire accord on the Ukraine conflict.

EU leaders also criticised Putin for his navy's recent attack on Ukrainian vessels in the Azov Sea.

"There is no justification for the use of military force by Russia," they said in their summit conclusions.

They called for "the immediate release" of captured Ukrainian sailors and for an end to Russia's economic blockade of Ukrainian ports.

They did not discuss extra sanctions over the Azov Sea attack, however.

They kept quiet on that in case it prompted a backlash by pro-Russian EU states, such as Cyprus, Hungary, or Italy, which might have prevented the extension of the economic sanctions regime, a senior EU diplomat told EUobserver.

Their approach recalled the pragmatism that Rutte used on human rights sanctions.

Disinformation

In a separate decision, EU leaders set aside more resources to fight "the spread of deliberate, large-scale, and systematic disinformation, including as part of hybrid warfare" in Europe.

They also highlighted the importance of "securing free and fair European and national elections".

The summit conclusions did not mention Russia in this context.

But Russia was clearly on EU leaders' minds, given Putin's mass-scale anti-EU propaganda campaign and his meddling in recent French, German, and US elections.

The softly-softly approach on "hybrid warfare" also recalled the EU's Azov Sea and Rutte's "Magnitsky law" pragmatism.

And for Browder, it all looked "like a Putin-appeasement exercise", rather than "a genuine concern" to do the right thing.

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