It’s Time for an Australian Magnitsky Act

July 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the most recent genocide in European history; the Srebrenica massacre of more than 8000 Bosniaks by Serbian forces. This massacre occurred despite the UN declaring Srebrenica a ‘safe area’ under UN protection by units of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). By the end of July 1995, the commander of the Bosnian Serbs who committed the massacre, Ratko Mladić, was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for genocide, crimes against humanity, and numerous war crimes. After being on the run for 16 years, Mladić was arrested in 2011 and extradited to the Hague to face an ICTY war crimes trial. After a marathon 6 years, in November 2017 he was convicted of 10 of the 11 charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. The time between crime and conviction for Mladić was 22 years, but at least we can say that he faced justice. In 2020, there are ongoing ethnic cleansings and genocides worthy of the attention of organisations such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), however there are cases in some states that will never go to trial in the Hague. Why?


The late 1980s and 1990s marked a high-water mark for democracies, with an ever-increasing number of nations overthrowing their former authoritarian despots and embracing democracy. Since the mid-2000s, however, that shift has inverted, and authoritarianism is on the rise once more, with nations such as Russia, Hungary, Turkey and Cambodia falling prey to authoritarian regimes. War criminals in the former Yugoslavia were able to face justice in the ICTY only because the territories in which they resided had overthrown the former despots which they had served. An incumbent regime is hardly going to hand over their own subordinates. Therefore, in the context of addressing genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes of authoritarian regimes, a new framework is needed.

Enter Bill Browder; at one stage the single largest foreign investor in Russia via his Hermitage Capital Management investment fund. In his investing, Browder discovered incredibly brazen and abundant corruption in companies which his fund had invested in. Seeking to root out these oligarchs which were simultaneously looting Russia of its wealth and taking his fund’s money, Bill named and shamed the oligarchs. However, by 2005 Browder had incurred the ire of Vladimir Putin, who ruled in the name of the oligarchs and security services.

Expelling Browder from the country, the Russians then allegedly committed a massive fraud and awarded three companies, which had no assets and that Browder had owned in Russia, the largest tax refund in Russian history of $230 million US. But it was only when Browder hired the young Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to audit his remaining assets in Russia that this would be discovered. In his investigations, Magnitsky discovered that the police, security services, the Russians Mafia, judiciary and tax service had all colluded to make this possible and that they and the oligarchs had been the beneficiaries of this massive tax fraud. Nine years later in the release of the Panama Papers, it would be revealed just how accurate this accusation had been, but it was too late for Magnitsky. After being imprisoned on false charges by Russian authorities, Magnitsky was brutally beaten to death by prison guards after being transferred to another prison to seek medical treatment, but wasn’t equipped to treat him.

Bill Browder has since then made it his life’s mission to bring justice to those who profited from the tax fraud and were involved in the death of Magnitsky by pushing for targeted sanctions against these individuals. This has subsequently evolved into the Magnitsky Act and is designed to bring justice against perpetrators of genocide, ethnic cleansing, corruption and other criminal acts by authoritarian regimes. The Magnitsky Act and similar acts are now in place in a number of jurisdictions including the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, Canada, Lithuania, Latvia, Gibraltar, Jersey and Kosovo.

The Magnitsky Act is perhaps one of the most successful human rights sanctions programmes in history, with nearly 100 individuals sanctioned under the US legislation alone and 47 in the UK announced just this year. This legislation has ruffled many feathers across the world and in doing so has punished those involved in human rights abuses and corruption. It’s time for Australia to do its bit in the fight for justice.

It’s time for an Australian Magnitsky Act. In a world of mutually assured destruction and authoritarian states unwilling to cooperate with international organisations, where there is no way to imprison and try those responsible for human rights abuses and corruption, it is legislation like this which will bring some small justice to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Luke Kennedy is a member of the Young LNP.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia.