Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

Russia, human rights, and the WTO

Recently, my colleague Daniel Hanson outlined the mounting problems of the WTO system. He uses Russia’s 18-year accession negotiations as a case in point. I can’t speak to the WTO’s broader defects but I can echo his frustration with Russia’s prolonged exclusion from an organization that supervises global trade liberalization. Russia was finally inducted into the WTO on Friday.

Over the last 18 years, Russia’s WTO membership bid has faced two hurdles from U.S. opponents: trade issues (high tariffs, subsidies, intellectual property rights, etc.) and human rights. The former was largely settled by 2006 when the Bush administration signed a bilateral agreement on Russia’s entry into the WTO. But the issue of human rights continues to pose an impediment to U.S.-Russia trade relations. Even though Russia is now formally a member of the WTO, the United States will have to exempt Russia from WTO rules and regulations (and Moscow will respond in kind) if it doesn’t grant Russia permanent normal trade relations status. This requires repealing antiquated Cold War-era congressional legislation—known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment—that makes trade contingent on emigration rights for Soviet Jews. In short, unlike their counterparts throughout the WTO, U.S. businesses won’t benefit from Russia’s long overdue accession to the organization unless Congress takes swift action to graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik.

But some argue that Jackson-Vanik should be used to highlight Russia’s poor human rights record, which in itself should preclude Russia from reaping the benefits of WTO membership. There are a few problems with this approach. First, misapplying legislation on Jewish emigration adopted 37 years ago against a country that no longer exists dilutes very justifiable concerns about human rights in Russia. Second, neither Russia’s exclusion from the WTO nor Congress’s refusal to excuse it from Jackson-Vanik have persuaded the Kremlin to improve Russia’s human rights record. If anyone has evidence that suggests otherwise I’d love to see it. Finally, as Daniel notes, countries with human rights records far worse than that of Russia have been admitted to the WTO in recent years—China being the most obvious example.

Trade liberalization and human rights promotion aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re objectives that can and should be pursued simultaneously. To achieve this with respect to Russia, Congress should replace Jackson-Vanik with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act (opposed by the Obama administration), which would punish Russian officials suspected of being involved in the torture and murky prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. This would send a much clearer signal about the U.S. commitment to human rights in Russia. However, it wouldn’t do so at the expense of preventing discrimination against U.S. businesses and subjecting Russia to the rules, regulations, and norms of the WTO.

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