On June 12, 2017, Russia and Canada marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. The relationship has rarely been worse. The two nations spoke even at the height of the Cold War. Now there is almost no dialogue, especially since Canada joined the US and EU sanctions on Russia in 2014.
On October 4, the bilateral relationship received another heavy blow. The Canadian House of Representatives, the lower house, unanimously passed the bill (S.226) that aims to punish Russian officials said to be responsible for the death of an accountant and auditor Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009. The legislation calls for the freezing of assets and visa bans on officials from Russia and other nations considered to be “guilty of human rights violations”.
The "Law on Victims of Corrupt Foreign Government" would prevent Canadian firms from dealing with foreign nationals who are “responsible for, or complicit in, extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” The legislation aims Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Vietnam and Myanmar. The Special Economic Measures Act in force does not allow the freezing of assets of human rights violators in Canada. The Magnitsky bill would allow this.
To become law the bill will now go to the Senate for final approval and then on to Governor General Julie Payette for royal assent. "Should [the bill] be passed by the Senate and receive royal assent, it will enable Canada to sanction, impose travel bans on, and hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights violations and significant corruption," Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said after the vote.
The United States passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 with similar sanctions for Russia. In 2016, US Congress passed an annual defense-policy bill that included the Global Magnitsky Act, which built on the original Magnitsky Act. Great Britain passed UK Magnitsky Sanctions legislation in February, 2017, as part of the Criminal Finances Bill.
Russia has repeatedly warned Canada against the adoption of the law. After the vote, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa issued a statement saying that the parliament's decision “was a deplorably confrontational act blatantly interfering into Russia’s domestic affairs.” The statement said the “hostile move” will be met with “reciprocal countermeasures,” although it was not specific. The embassy emphasized that “it runs against common sense and Canadian national interests isolating Canada from one of the key world powers.” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned on October 4 that “any anti-Russian actions by the Canadian authorities will not be left without an adequate response.” According to her, "To a large extent, it (the bill) simply copies the odious American 'Magnitsky Act' and is set to further undermine Russian-Canadian relations."
Former Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion argued that the Magnitsky Act should not apply in Canada. He stated that adoption of a ‘Magnitsky Act’ would hurt the interests of Canadian businesses dealing with Russia and would thwart his department’s plans to reopen a dialogue with Moscow. Indeed, the legislation does not promote an environment conducive for Canadian businessmen pursuing a welcoming atmosphere in Russia. It will negatively affect the prospects for cooperation in the Arctic and elsewhere.
S.226 was tabled by Senator Raynell Andreychuk. The legislation is supported by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland – both Ukrainians by origin with close ties to the influential Ukrainian lobby. It makes one think that the bill is not about rights abuses, but rather part of a campaign motivated by ethnic animus towards Russia. In 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented on the contacts with the previous government led by former PM Harper Stephen Harper “We were surprised by the total lack of any pragmatism in the impulsive actions taken by the previous government, which took the course, as you can understand, of blindly following the demands of rabid representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada.” The right-wing Ukrainian-Canadian Congress (UCC) has been the driving force behind the Canadian government’s anti-Russian policy. Canada has actively pushed for Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
Does Canada have moral ground to rebuke Russia for human rights violations and use sanctions as a weapon of foreign policy? The government faces important human rights challenges, including violence against indigenous women and girls, the rights of indigenous peoples, the impact of Canada’s extractive and garment industries abroad, and children in detention.
Canada has been condemned by the United Nations for human rights violations. In 2015, the UN human rights committee report examined Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. It expressed deep concerns about Canada’s anti-terrorism bill, C-51, saying that it doesn’t have enough safeguards to protect civil liberties, and could lead to “mass surveillance and targeting activities’’ by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
The report also decried a “lack of adequate and effective’’ oversight mechanisms in the bill to ensure oversight and review of the activities of bodies such as CSIS. The paper devoted much attention to the plight of indigenous people in Canada, and the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. It said had failed to provide adequate responses to the latter.
In 2016, EarthRights International (ERI), MiningWatch Canada and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre Human Rights Clinic at the University of Ottawa submitted a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), charges that Canada has been supporting and financing mining companies involved in discrimination, rape, and violence against women in their operations abroad, when it should be holding those companies accountable for the abuse.
The Canadian military killed Iraqi civilians during an airstrike against Islamic State forces in 2015 to keep this information under wraps for seven months. The defense officials said they were under no obligation under the Geneva Conventions to probe what happened. The Canadian military provided training to the Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary militia Azov Battalion.
The list can go on. The harangues in Canadian parliament about human rights’ violations in other countries are acts of hypocrisy. The pot calling the kettle black. Should Canada come under sanctions for violating human rights?
No sanctions and other acts of pressure have influenced Russia’s foreign policy. The punitive measures bring about no results but they fire back. Canada is blindly following the United States and its own Ukrainian diaspora in another openly hostile move against Russia at the time the relations are not experiencing the best of times. It’s hard to see how this policy meets the interests of Canadian people.