Death of a Magnitsky warrior

To achieve anything worthwhile in public life is really, really hard, especially when it involves “soft” matters like human rights. Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, who died suddenly on Thursday, was passionately dedicated to that vital cause.

Kitching was a close friend of Bill Shorten, the man the Coalition targeted with a royal commission a few years ago. So when news of her death got out, it was a surprise to hear political opponents speak glowingly about her. Coalition hard men Peter Dutton, Eric Abetz and James Paterson, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison – not to mention far-right senator Pauline Hanson – all said how sorry they were to have lost her.

They spoke of a woman who always showed respect towards the people she encountered, regardless of party, and whose views about people, Australia and the world were really worth listening to. Clearly she struck a chord across the political spectrum.

But as well as involving ideas, party politics is about practice, some of it brutal. While Kitching focused on big policy questions, battle lines between Victorian Labor factions were hardening ahead of a looming federal poll, throwing into doubt her chances for re-election. According to Shorten, she felt the stress of that uncertainty.

We’ve seen it many times before, political figures whose efforts for important but intangible  causes count for nothing in securing a winnable position on the party ticket for the next election. The much admired Tasmanian senator Lisa Singh went down that path twice at the tail-end of a notable political career, eventually falling victim to factional deals.

In her short political career Kitching made a mark extending well beyond our shores, directly relevant to the global sanctions regime involving most developed countries, including Australia, imposed on Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the wake of that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian-born Russian Sergei Magnitsky was an auditor employed by an investment company owned by US-born British national Bill Browder. In 2008 Magnitsky exposed massive tax fraud by companies close to Putin, whereupon he was arrested and held without trial for nearly a year before dying from a blow on his head in a Moscow prison.

Browder refused to allow Magnitsky’s killing to pass unnoticed. Using his considerable personal resources – he made most of his pile in Russian resource stocks during the chaotic post-Soviet era – he persuaded US lawmakers to pass the Magnitsky Act.

Since 2016 that legislation has allowed the US government to sanction people it deems to be human rights offenders, strip them of financial assets and ban them from entering the country. The Magnitsky Act is one of the main legal foundations of US sanctions now being applied to Russian individuals, including Putin himself, and their government.

Browder, himself a target of Putin’s government, did not stop there. He has campaigned relentlessly to get Western countries to follow the US lead. Estonia, which banned entry to human rights abusers in 2016, was an early responder. Canada’s 2017 laws have targeted individuals in Venezuela, South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and China, as well as Russia.

After passage of asset-freezing laws by Latvia and the UK, Europe joined the party. Under the Magnitsky Act, which passed Europe’s parliament in 2020, individuals involved in serious human rights abuses can have assets frozen and travel restricted. In total, 34 countries have now enacted similar laws, including Australia. 

Three private members’ bills, including one introduced by Senator Kitching, came and went before the Morrison government sponsored its own. The Autonomous Sanctions Amendment (Magnitsky-style and Other Thematic Sanctions) Act passed the parliament last December. It has since been applied to Russian players as a result of the Ukraine invasion.

Kitching was a central figure in securing the support of all sides of parliament to an Australian Magnitsky Act. Browder called her “the driving force… a true advocate of the victims of human rights abuse”, adding that she was “one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

That’s a big compliment, but Kitching would surely have wanted it known that this was just one step in the endless fight to secure and defend human rights, both there and here. 

Magnitsky is one thing, but for decades Australia has failed to address chronic injustices against Aboriginal people, kept “illegal” immigrants in indefinite detention or returned them into harm’s way in the place they fled, and deported people who have known no other home but here.

We’re doubtless better than Russia in protecting human rights, but what a low bar. Unlike Russia, we’re supposed to be a democracy. We have no excuse.

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