Dealing with Dictators

President Of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaking into a microphone

In response to recent events in Venezuela, where democracy has crumbled along with the economy, the U.S has moved to impose sanctions on nation’s increasingly oppressive President Nicolas Maduro and his cohorts.

Unlike Ottawa, Washington is empowered to act against foreign-based human rights abusers by a law with a long name: the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012,

Better known as just the Magnitsky Act, the law was put in place in response to abuses suffered by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested and died in jail under mysterious circumstances after exposing tax fraud and graft linked to the Kremlin in 2008. As reported in The Washington Post, independent investigators found “inhuman detention conditions, the isolation from his family, the lack of regular access to his lawyers and the intentional refusal to provide adequate medical assistance resulted in the deliberate infliction of severe pain and suffering, and ultimately his death.”

Expanded in 2016, the Magnitsky law is currently used to impose U.S. sanctions on more than 40 suspected human rights abusers worldwide. Canada doesn’t have anything like it, which is why we have not adequately responded to events in Venezuela.

But Canada doesn’t need a U.S.-style Magnitsky Act to deal with putative dictators like Maduro, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or others.

With a few tweaks to Canada’s Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA), Ottawa could easily deal with any situation involving the trampling of basic human rights and democratic principles.

SEMA was passed twenty-five years ago in 1992, and hasn’t been updated since. And as spokespersons at Global Affairs have said, the legislation doesn’t allow Canada to apply sanctions as the States has done in response to recent developments in Venezuela.

Reflecting the international context of a bygone era, section 4 of SEMA says:

The Governor in Council may, for the purpose of implementing a decision, resolution or recommendation of an international organization of states or association of states, of which Canada is a member, that calls on its members to take economic measures against a foreign state, or where the Governor in Council is of the opinion that a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred that has resulted or is likely to result in a serious international crisis,

(a) make such orders or regulations with respect to the restriction or prohibition of any of the activities referred to in subsection (2) in relation to a foreign state as the Governor in Council considers necessary; and

(b) by order, cause to be seized, frozen or sequestrated in the manner set out in the order any property situated in Canada that is held by or on behalf of

(i) a foreign state,

(ii) any person in that foreign state, or

(iii) a national of that foreign state who does not ordinarily reside in Canada.

Section 4 was worded that way because, at the time, the international community didn’t believe there was a need to counter actions within countries that were offensive or abusive but not peace-threatening.

As a result, because the Venezuelan situation isn’t a “grave threat to international peace and security,” SEMA doesn’t allow the cabinet to impose sanctions or asset freezes on Maduro and his cohorts as the U.S. has done.

A simple change to section 4 could be made, bringing into the 21st century by giving the federal cabinet the power to sanction persons (individuals or entities) in cases where the Governor in Council (in legal parlance) is of the opinion that unacceptable acts – such as corruption, criminal behaviour or human rights violations – have occurred or are likely to occur within foreign countries.

A few words – such as “…or serious human rights abuses, corruption or infringement of democratic principles…” – inserted in section 4 would do the trick. Easily done.

Last May, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously supported changes to SEMA along these lines. It’s not clear why the Trudeau government hasn’t followed through with a draft bill.

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