Response to U.S. Magnitsky Act Would Harm Orphans, Tighten Noose on Civil Society
December 21, 2012
Russian officials’ anger at the US Congress is leading them to do the wrong thing. This bill hits back at Russia’s most vulnerable children and could deprive them of the loving families they desperately need.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director

December 28, 2012 Update

On December 28, 2012, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that bans adoptions of Russian children by United States citizens and imposes new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia that have certain ties to the United States. The law will go into effect on January 1, 2013.

The United Nations and the Council of Europe should assess the law’s compliance with international and regional human rights norms, Human Rights Watch said.

“The adoption ban harms Russia’s orphans by diminishing their chances of being adopted,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s wrong to make vulnerable children pawns in a cynical act of political retribution.”

On December 25, Russia’s deputy prime minister on social issues, Olga Golodets, sent President Putin a letter urging him not to sign the law because it violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international treaties. Several other senior officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, also criticized the law before it was adopted.

On the day he endorsed the adoption ban, Putin signed an executive order aimed at improving support for domestic adoptions and foster care arrangements, simplifying adoption procedures, and changing attitudes in Russia about adoption. The order also calls for introducing tax breaks for Russians who adopt orphaned children, increasing salaries for orphanage staff, and increasing monthly state welfare payments for children with disabilities and those who care for children with disabilities.

Human Rights Watch urged the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to assess the law’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that governments shall ensure that children deprived of a family environment are entitled to alternative care, including adoption in which “the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.” The convention upholds international adoption “as an alternative means of child’s care, if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin.” Such inter-country adoptions are allowed when safeguards in the adoptive country are equivalent to those applicable in the case of national adoption.

The Council of Europe should call on its Venice Commission to examine the law’s compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia is a party, Human Rights Watch said.

“The executive order improving conditions for Russia’s orphans is laudable, but no substitute for using all options to ensure they grow up in a family environment,” Becker said.

In 2011, nearly 120,000 children in Russia were eligible for adoption. Approximately 7,400 were adopted by Russian families, and 3,400 adopted by families abroad.

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December 26, 2012 Update

The upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, on December 26, 2012, unanimously endorsed a bill that would ban adoptions by United States citizens and would impose new restrictions on Russian nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from the US. The State Duma, or lower parliamentary chamber, had adopted the bill on December 21. The bill will become law after President Vladimir Putin signs it.

Several government ministers and other high-level officials had expressed concern about the bill in media statements. One official, according to news reports, sent Putin a letter outlining how the bill violates Russia’s international obligations.

“The bill undermines Russia’s international human rights commitments, and President Putin should not sign it,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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(Moscow) – The upper chamber of Russia’s parliament should reject a draft law that would ban United States citizens from adopting Russian children and introduce new restrictions on civil society.

“Russian officials’ anger at the US Congress is leading them to do the wrong thing,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This bill hits back at Russia’s most vulnerable children and could deprive them of the loving families they desperately need.”

The Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, introduced the draft law to retaliate for the so-called Magnitsky Act, which US President Barack Obama signed into law on December 14, 2012. The law calls for visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials allegedly involved in the torture and killing of whistleblowers in Russia.

The draft law would allow for suspending and freezing the assets of Russian nongovernmental organizations that engage in “political” activities if they receive funding from US citizens or organizations or if their leaders or members are Russian citizens who have US passports. Any nongovernmental organization that engages in what the draft law terms “political” work that “harms Russia’s interests” would also be suspended, and its assets would be frozen.

The proposed blanket ban on adoptions by US citizens would undermine Russia’s commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Human Rights Watch said. The convention states that children should “grow up in a family environment” and upholds international adoption “as an alternative means of child’s care, if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin.” Such inter-country adoptions are allowed when safeguards in the adoptive country are equivalent to those applicable in the case of national adoption.

“This bill is harmful to Russia’s orphans, to democracy and public participation in Russia, and violates Russia’s international human rights commitments,” Williamson said. “Russia’s leadership should end the crackdown on civil society and make good on Russia’s obligations under international law.”

Of the 3,400 Russian children adopted by foreign families in 2011, 956 – nearly a third – were adopted by US parents, according to official figures.

The draft provisions affecting nongovernmental organizations are the latest in a series of measures adopted in the past seven months that increasingly restrict freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said. Since May 2012, Russia’s parliament has adopted laws that imposed new restrictions on public assembliesand raised financial sanctions for violations to the level of criminal fines, re-criminalized libel, and imposed new restrictions on internet content. A law adopted in July forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”. Another law, adopted in November, expands the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize international human rights advocacy.

The Federal Assembly, the upper house of parliament, is scheduled to consider the bill the week of December 23. The bill is referred to as “The Dima Yakovlev” law, in memory of a 21-month-old Russian boy who died in Virginia in 2008 when his adoptive American father left him in a locked car for nine hours. A US court acquitted the father of involuntary manslaughter charges.

If adopted, the bill would introduce a visa ban and asset freeze on US citizens involved in human rights violations and crimes against Russian citizens. These provisions of the bill also apply to citizens of other countries that pass legislation similar to the Magnitsky Act.

The US law is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison after he exposed a massive tax fraud scheme by government officials. The law angered Russia’s leaders and legislators, who threatened an “asymmetrical” response.

“Russia’s officials threatened an “asymmetrical response” to the Magnitsky Act and indeed what they delivered is wholly disproportionate,”Williamson said. “The draft law would harm orphaned children and civil society, and should be rejected.”