ON FRIDAY, the House of Representatives stepped out of the past and confronted today’s human rights debacle in Russia. By a vote of 365-43, the chamber repealed the 1974 Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions that were a cornerstone of the long struggle to win freedom for Soviet Jews to emigrate. At the same time, the House approved legislation creating new sanctions against human rights abusers, including those who sent corruption-fighting lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to his death in a jail cell three years ago.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment was a singularly powerful instrument in the Cold War, a counter-weight to detente that was championed by Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.). The original purpose has long been realized. Russia does not prevent emigration, as the Soviet Union once did, and it has now joined the World Trade Organization. The new legislation will create permanent, normal trade relations with Russia, an important and welcome foundation for American firms seeking to do business there.
But Mr. Jackson’s goals have not been fulfilled entirely. Respect for human rights in Russia has plunged since President Vladimir Putin returned to office this year, confronted by large street demonstrations against his rule. A string of new laws has restricted freedom of expression, assembly and association. The laws give the state expanded powers to accuse individuals of treason; restrict nongovernmental organizations that receive money from abroad; and attempt to limit participation in public demonstrations. Moreover, Mr. Putin’s enforcers have been eager to set an example for those who would challenge the Kremlin. A band of punk rockers, Pussy Riot, received harsh prison sentences after a performance prank that included criticism of Mr. Putin. An opposition activist was apparently abducted by Russian agents while in Kiev, brought back to Moscow and interrogated. These tactics are intended to create fear and intimidation.
The new legislation is named for Mr. Magnitsky, who uncovered an embezzlement scheme by Russian officials, after which he was imprisoned, was mistreated and died. The legislation would allow the United States to deny visas to those involved in human rights abuse, as well as freeze their assets. The measure is an attempt to name and shame the offenders in the Magnitsky case and beyond. Right away, Russia reacted by vowing “tough” retaliation against what it called “unfriendly and provocative” legislation. Obviously, the sanctions are a potent threat, and that’s good.
Time is running short for action in the Senate, where a broader version of the bill would apply to rights abusers worldwide. The Obama administration, while initially resisting the legislation, seems resigned to Congress passing it. The Senate should vote for the new restrictions before this session ends. Despite its misgivings, we hope that the administration will implement the bill in full, even if it causes heartburn for Mr. Putin and Co. Some principles rise above the usual oscillations in diplomatic relations with Moscow, and protecting human rights is one of them.