The Senate Finance Committee determines whether or not a vote should be held by the full Senate on trade treaties and sanctions, through some logic only known within the Senate, though it would have seemed appropriate for such things to be determined by the Foreign Relations committee or some such entity.
Today, the Finance Committee ruled on two sets of trade issues, establishing normal trade relations with Russia (yes) and lifting sanctions on trade with Myanmar (no).
The Russia issue involves the admission of Russia into the World Trade Organization. Certain long-standing American policies concerning trade with Russia are in violation of WTO rules. The 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment linked favorable tariffs on Russian goods with human rights inside the Soviet Union. Since the late 1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations have ruled that Russia was in compliance with human rights agendas.
Russia is due to join the WTO in August, and if the Jackson-Vanik amendment is not overturned before then, Russia could deny us favorable treatment as it opens its markets. That would put us at a disadvantage against the other 154 members of the WTO. The Finance Committee has recommended that the whole Senate vote to void the Jackson-Vanik amendment. There are only 12 working days left for the two houses of Congress to pass this before the August recess.
But, some lawmakers want a new law to replace Jackson-Vanik. The so-called “Magnitsky bill” would set up a requirement for the State Department to publish the names of people believed to be responsible for the detention, abuse or death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 after a year in Russian jails. The list would deny those people visas to enter the United States and the Treasury Department could freeze their assets. It would also punish other human rights abusers in Russia or anywhere in the world, allowing members of Congress to add names at will. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat supporter of the bill, said “What this bill does is hold gross violators of internationally recognized human rights accountable.” Russia has called the bill an intrusion into its internal affairs. The Putin regime has a questionable record on the use of the law to punish Putin’s political opponents, and has been accused to rigging the most recent elections.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp wants a clean bill from the Senate, free from any human rights amendments, as does the White House. It is virtually impossible to decide from afar who is responsible for the arrest of any person or the guilt or innocence of any person arrested by a foreign government. There are certain governments whose actions are so egregious that there is no question they routinely violate human rights, but single cases, individuals, are much harder to objectively judge. Russia is in a fairly fragile place right now. Opposition to Vladimir Putin is widespread, but not strong enough to oust him. Putin has been traveling the world to reintroduce himself to world leaders, and pulling off some things that reek of trying to restore the old Soviet power. He arranged to have foreign NGOs declared illegal and refused to negotiate a fair deal with Ukraine over the sale of natural gas. Putin is demanding the Ukrainians hand over control of their gas lines to Russian control. Most of the world is fairly ticked off at Putin over his stonewalling on the issue of Syria.
A clean trade bill would be to our benefit. As hard as it is for our politicians to swallow, we cannot dictate internal policy to other countries unless we and a group of nations are agreed that human life is at stake on a large scale, as in Syria.
After approving the Russia deal, the same committee decided to retain sanctions on Myanmar, banning all imports of Myanmar goods for another three years. The legislation was first passed in 2003, was expanded in 2008 to include jewelry made in other countries from gemstones mined in Myanmar and expires the end of this month. But in the past two years, the situation in Myanmar has almost completely reversed. The military junta gave up its power, and there were free elections held for a new parliament. Most symbolic, the Myanmar freedom activist Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to that parliament. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has promised the Myanmar government that as they progress toward equal rights and a new constitution, the United States would lift the sanctions.
The Finance Committee extended the sanctions, but also extended the ability of the administration to waive or end the sanctions as Myanmar makes progression. The extension was part of a bill to renew expiring trade benefits for sub-Saharan African countries.
In 2002, the United States imported $356.4 million worth of clothing and other goods from Myanmar. In 2003, imports fell to $275.7 million and have been non-existent since. Myanmar is not an industrialized, modern nation, but is rich in natural resources that could be used to create a new economy. Last week, the Obama administration lifted some sanctions to permit American companies to invest in Myanmar. The Finance Committee’s recommendation, if passed by the whole Congress, will permit additional sanctions to be lifted on a reasoned, measured basis.