Leading campaigner says Australia’s limp response to human rights violations is ‘humiliating’

Australia’s slow adoption of laws that would allow the targeted sanctioning of human rights abusers has been branded “humiliating” by a prominent activist. 

Australia is facing renewed pressure to introduce the measures – already adopted by some of its closest global allies – as concerns mount about human rights violations in the region. 

There are fears that, without such laws, Australia is becoming out of step with allies who appear increasingly willing to single out perpetrators. 

For example, the US, Britain, Canada and European Union last month launched coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials alleged to be involved in the mass internment of ethnic-minority Uighurs. 

Myanmar’s violent military coup is another example where Australia has come under pressure to take a tougher stance. 

Bill Browder is a prominent financier and political activist who spearheaded the campaign for the first Magnitsky laws in the US. 

He said it was high time the Australian government took a tougher stance against government and regimes responsible for human rights violations. 

“The government needs now to get off its backside and do something about it,” Mr Browder told SBS News.

“Otherwise its humiliating and looks stupid for Australia not to participate with the rest of the civilised world in these types of joint sanctioning exercises.” 

Hermitage Capital investment fund CEO William Browder.


The so-called “Magnistky laws” are broad laws that allow governments to sanction individuals or entities on human rights grounds. Australia does not currently have its own Magnitsky laws, in contrast to the US, UK, Canada and European Union. 

The Magnitsky laws were named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who uncovered $230 million worth of tax fraud committed by Russian government officials in 2008.

After Mr Magnitsky testified against the officials he was imprisoned, allegedly tortured and later died in jail.

Before this, Mr Magnitsky had been Mr Browder’s lawyer, prompting Mr Browder to lead a push for the US Magnitsky Act to be adopted in 2012.

“It really makes no sense why Australia would not be part of this international effort,” Mr Browder said. 

Other proponents are also stepping up their push for the laws to be introduced in Australia in the wake of increased instability in the region.  

Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said there’s concern that Australia is lagging behind global allies in targeting human rights violations through coordinated action.

“There are no excuses. This is an urgent issue and Australia really needs to stand up or we’ll be left behind,” she told SBS News.

“We want Australia to be standing there as a leader in our region on human rights and it is really through passing this legislation as soon as possible that we will be able to do that.”


Pressure mounts on Australia

In December last year a parliamentary inquiry recommended Australia move to legislate the Magnitsky-style laws, which would target sanctions against individual human rights violators or entities, including through asset freezes and visa bans.

The advice was made with bipartisan support but so far the Australian government has made no formal commitment to its findings.

In Senate estimates last month, Foreign Minister Marise Payne indicated the government was in the process of considering the new laws and she had written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to share her views.

“We will make our response public in due course,” she told estimates.

While Australia currently does have the capacity to impose sanctions in response to human rights violations – it’s understood putting in place new regulations can take up to six months.

Rawan Arraf, lawyer and director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, said Australia’s current sanctions regime is “clunky” and has been too slow to respond to pressing human rights concerns.

“The fact that Australia doesn’t have a Magnitsky law seriously impedes our ability to act quickly like our partners internationally in concert and in collective action,” she told SBS News.

“It would allow a faster, speedier route for Australia to impose and designate individuals and entities for targeted human rights sanctions.” 

Ms Arraf said a question also remains over where there is the “political will” from the Australian government to introduce tougher sanctions against China or the Myanmar military regime. 

“Words are not enough –  Australia needs to take action and it needs to act in concert with other nations around the world to take collective action,” she said.

Australia has cut ties with Myanmar’s military, but is yet to follow the US, UK, European Union and Canada in imposing sanctions against individuals involved or military-linked entities.

China ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye last week warned against moves by Australia to follow global allies in imposing similar sanctions over Xinjiang.

“We will not provoke, but if we are provoked, we will respond in kind,” he told reporters in Canberra.  

The United Nations has cited credible reports that at least one million Uighurs have been held in political re-education camps in the northwestern Chinese province.

China strenuously denies allegations of human rights violations in the region.

Magnitsky laws needed to push back against ‘rising authoritarianism’

One supporter in government believes the Magnitsky-style laws would sail through Australia’s Parliament and could become a critical tool to pushing back against “rising authoritarianism”.

“We want to be part of that action – part of that coordinated global action to punish human rights abusers,” Liberal Senator James Paterson told SBS News.

“Without Magnitsky-style legislation it’s much harder for Australia to join our allies in sanctioning those sorts of human rights abusing officials. 

“I am confident that if we had them. We would use them.” 

Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has also expressed support for the legislation saying it would  send a “strong signal” to those committing human rights abuses abroad. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government continues to consider its response to the parliamentary inquiry’s report into the laws.

“We are deeply concerned by recent human rights abuses, as we have clearly expressed through the UN Human Rights Council and other public statements in coordination with partners,” the spokesperson said.

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