May 16, 2019

Cardin Says Russia Continues to Impede Human Rights

Mr. CARDIN.  Mr. President, I rise today to address the continuously abusive nature of the Russian government impeding on the human rights of its people and the people across the globe. From interference in democratic processes around the globe to its malign influence in Syria, to its continued aggression against Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s regime must be held accountable for its crimes.

As we all know, Vladimir Putin has been openly and willfully attacking democratic institutions and processes to corrode good governance and our values. His tools are drawn from a Soviet-era playbook, but are constantly being updated with improvements. He is a pusher – constantly pushing the limits of acceptable international behavior and then going over the line. We cannot overlook the phenomenon that is unfolding across the European continent, the wider region, and now, yes here, in our Western Hemisphere.

Just a few weeks ago, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released to the public a redacted version of his report on Russia’s interference in our 2016 Presidential Election, revealing another one of Mr. Putin’s plots to interfere and tarnish the democratic process of a strong nation. Special Counsel Mueller described the Russian effort as taking place in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” a pre-meditated attack by the Kremlin.

Russia’s aggression on the international stage continues to grow and is deserving of global condemnation. The United States is just one of many nations targeted by the Putin regime whose democracy was and is systematically targeted and attacked.

It certainly was not the first nation to be targeted. Reflect back to its illegal invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea. Look at Russia’s role in ongoing hostilities in Eastern Europe. Consider Mr. Putin’s role in Syria’s civil war and support to dictator Bashar al-Assad – and he murdered hundreds of thousands citizens and assisted to collapse the country’s infrastructure. Russia has shown us time and time again its disdain for international laws and norms under Mr. Putin’s leadership.

After the trifecta of Russian interference in Ukraine, Syria, and our democratic Presidential election here, I partnered with nine bipartisan colleagues within the first week of the 115th Congress, in January of 2017, to introduce the Countering Russian Hostilities Act, comprehensive sanctions legislation on Russia in response to its cyber intrusion, aggression, and destabilizing activities in the United States, Ukraine, Syria, and worldwide.

Over time, we learned that Mr. Putin’s increasing aggressive behavior abroad is directly related to his need to maintain power at home.

In January of 2018, I released a Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Member Report that documented Mr. Putin’s pattern of asymmetric warfare against democratic institutions, universal values, and the rule of law in Russia, and across Europe, over the last twenty years. The report details the tools the Russian government has repeatedly deployed and perfected as well as its techniques to attack democracies both internally and abroad.

Among many other takeaways, we learned that Mr. Putin will continue to simultaneously step up his attacks on democracies around the world while also acting to maintain power in Russia.

We have also learned that it is ultimately the Russian people who bear the brunt of Mr. Putin’s international decisions. We have an obligation to support human rights around the globe – as both individuals and as a nation. Part of that obligation is ensuring that violators of international human rights are held accountable for their actions and are not given the resources they need to continue in their nefarious actions.

In an effort to address these obligations, I was fortunate to work closely with the late Senator from Arizona, John McCain, on the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. As you may know, Sergei Magnitsky was a Moscow-based lawyer who bravely uncovered deep-rooted, high-level corruption in Russia over a decade ago. Like any good lawyer, he reported his discoveries to the authorities. For doing his job, he was arrested, jailed, tortured, and killed in prison. When I learned about Sergei’s life and work, and the complete violation of his basic human rights and the rampant impunity that met the perpetrators of these crimes, I was shocked.

Originally, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act provides that anyone involved in Sergei’s imprisonment, torture, or death who has not been brought to justice in Russia would be denied access to our financial systems or the ability to travel to our country. This bill also targets those who have abused their power in the country to violate the human rights of anyone in Russia who disagrees with Mr. Putin’s corrupt regime.

Senator McCain and I wanted to send a signal to Mr. Putin and his co-conspirators that there will be consequences for their actions and their inactions. The Sergei Magnitsky Act was, is, and will continue to be an effective tool at doing just that.

Senator McCain and I agreed that the United States must lead the world by using the power of our financial and legal institutions to hold human rights abusers and corrupt individuals across the globe accountable for their crimes. That is why we continued to work together to author the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which was signed into law in 2016. Senator McCain and I shared the critically important belief that the value of American leadership in enforcing human rights worldwide transcends party lines.

Mr. President, I might point out that following the U.S. example, other countries have enacted similar laws to make sure that we have a blanket protection against those that commit these human rights violations.

In the past year, Global Magnitsky designations have targeted individuals around the world responsible for acts of genocide, violence, and significant corruption. My colleagues and I have called for numerous sanctions under this Act, and I am pleased that the Administration has acted, particularly in issuing Executive Order 13818, which expanded Global Magnitsky authorities. Freezing the financial assets of perpetrators and denying them visas to the United States sends a clear message: we will not stand by while individuals are stripped of their freedoms and their rights.

Unfortunately, while the Global Magnitsky legislation has proven hugely successful, we continue to witness human rights violations around the world and, more specifically, at the hands of Mr. Putin.

In recent reports, human rights groups have noted that the number of political prisoners in Russia has risen at a rapid rate over the past few years. Many of these groups are calling on the United States to impose sanctions on more Russian officials, to hold them accountable for the inhumane treatment of over 250 reported political prisoners. Unfortunately, this issue of Russian political prisoners has not been at the forefront of the U.S.-Russia discussions. That needs to change.

President Trump continues to treat Mr. Putin with the utmost respect, despite the Russian President holding almost 300 individuals hostage as political prisoners in Russia. Most recently, the President has scheduled another formal meeting with Mr. Putin next month during the annual G-20 Summit. And of course, Secretary Pompeo just met with Mr. Putin on Tuesday. Human rights must be on the agenda of such talks. 

In 2016, Russian human rights activist and prisoner dissented of Mr. Putin, Vladimir Kara Murza, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressing how the United States can help Russian rights defenders 

He stated, “Our friends in the West often ask how they can be helpful to the cause of human rights and democracy in Russia, and the answer to this is very simple. Please stay true to your values. We are not asking for your support. It is our task to fight for democracy and rule of law in our country. The only thing we ask from Western leaders is that they stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him as a respectful and worthy partner and by allowing Mr. Putin’s cronies to use Western countries as havens for their looted wealth.” That is exactly what the Magnitsky Act is all about: to deny that legitimacy.

I ask that we take these words to heart. The threat that Russia poses to our global community has never been more evident. But we must remember the distinction between Mr. Putin’s regime and the Russian people. The Russian people are good, freedom-seeking people who want economic security and stability for their families just like we do in the United States.  This is an important distinction for us to keep in our minds and our hearts as we continue to pursue effective tools to counter Mr. Putin’s threat to the international order and the values we hold so dear.

So as we work to shape U.S. policy and diplomatic strategies towards Russia, I urge my colleagues to keep in mind the aspirations of the Russian human rights defenders who risk their lives in order to advocate for a Russia free of authoritarianism and abusive leaders.