President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Russia says Canada is showing a “sign of weakness” by not pushing ahead with a promised U.S.-style Magnitsky Act that would punish Russians deemed to be human-rights violators with visa bans and asset freezes.

Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. envoy to Moscow from 2012 to 2014 and before that was Mr. Obama’s special White House adviser on Russia, said Canada should follow the U.S. lead even if it infuriates the Kremlin.

He expressed disappointment with Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion for rejecting all-party calls for a Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act.

“Do you stand for human rights or not? If this is an important value then this is something that should be done,” Mr. McFaul said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Dion argues such a law – which the Liberals pledged to enact during the election – would complicate his efforts to re-engage with President Vladimir Putin’s regime and harm Canadians seeking to do business in Russia. Mr. Dion has argued that current laws are adequate to deal with human-rights abuses.

The Foreign Affairs Minister has been under fire over policies that prioritize business interests over human rights, especially since he signed export permits last month for the bulk of a $15-billion deal to ship combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia, despite its poor record.

Mr. McFaul said the Obama administration heard some of the same arguments Mr. Dion is using against a Magnitsky law from U.S. business interests and bureaucrats before the President signed the bill into law in 2012. The law is named after Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who was allegedly tortured and beaten and died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after exposing a massive tax fraud involving Russian officials.

“When a regime supports the violators of human rights and then violates international law there is only one response, which is strength,” Mr. McFaul said. “This idea that somehow if we don’t pass a law like this we are going to get better treatment from the Russians – which may be true in the short-term, but in the long-term that is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.”

Mr. McFaul was astonished that Mr. Dion’s office pointed to Canada’s invitation to join the International Syria Support Group in Vienna, which is co-chaired by the United States and Russia, as proof that Canada’s re-engagement policy with Moscow is working.

“It is weird logic to me. We are there and we have a Magnitsky Act and we weren’t kicked out of that meeting because we have this law,” he said, noting the Russians always try to link issues to get their way.

Mr. McFaul said he favours the type of legislation first proposed by former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler that would broaden the Magnitsky Act to target human-rights abusers worldwide.

Conservative MP James Bezan has tabled a private member’s bill, based on Mr. Cotler’s legislation. A U.S. congressional committee approved similar legislation last week.

However, Mr. Dion’s communications director, Joseph Pickerill, said Canadian legislation isn’t necessary because Ottawa already has the tools to punish human-rights abusers.

“We already have the ability to ban individuals involved in the Magnitsky murder from entering Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” he said. “We also have a strong sanctions regime under the Special Economic Measures Act” (which imposed sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea).

Mr. Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister, said he personally urged Mr. Dion to do the right thing and enact the legislation proposed by Mr. Bezan.

“I said to him that the government has made human rights the centrepiece of our foreign policy … and the Magnitsky case and cause is the centre of what a human-rights policy should be,” Mr. Cotler said.

The House of Commons unanimously endorsed a Magnitsky Act resolution presented by Mr. Cotler last year and all parties vowed to pass such a law. The Bezan bill tabled in early May is supported by the NDP and Conservative caucuses and by many Liberal MPs, including Borys Wrzesnewskyj and Anthony Housefather.

“I am encouraging Liberal backbenchers to talk to cabinet ministers to try to convince the cabinet that this is the right bill and the right time,” Mr. Bezan said.

Russia has launched a campaign to undermine support for the Magnitsky-related sanctions in Brussels, Washington and Ottawa. The Russian embassy warned last week that if Parliament adopted a Magnitsky law it could lead to “yet another unnecessary complication for Russian-Canadian relations.”

Russian officials and Kremlin-controlled media in recent months have sought to discredit Mr. Magnitsky and Anglo-American financier William Browder, who has led a global campaign to enact Magnitsky laws in Western countries.

The Russian embassy in Ottawa called Mr. Browder a “fugitive carpetbagger wanted for financial fraud” in Russia. Mr. Browder was expelled from Russia and later convicted in absentia in what human-rights experts say is an attempt to discredit him.

Globe editorial board: Stéphane Dion answers questions on Saudi arms deal (The Globe and Mail)

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, May 23, 2016 9:15PM EDT
Last updated Monday, May 23, 2016 11:49PM EDT