Dealing with Dictators

By | August 3, 2017

Canada doesn’t need a US-style Magnitsky Act to deal with putative dictators like Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or others.

We could easily deal with Maduro or any situation involving the trampling of basic human rights and democratic principles with a few tweaks to the Special Economic Measures Act.

SEMA was passed in 1992, twenty-five years ago, and hasn’t been updated since. It’s true, as spokespersons at Global Affairs have said, the legislation doesn’t allow Canada to apply sanctions as the US has done in response to recent developments in Venezuela.

Reflecting the international context of a bygone era, section 4 of SEMA says:

 The Governor in Council may, for the purpose of implementing a decision, resolution or recommendation of an international organization of states or association of states, of which Canada is a member, that calls on its members to take economic measures against a foreign state, or where the Governor in Council is of the opinion that a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred that has resulted or is likely to result in a serious international crisis,

(a) make such orders or regulations with respect to the restriction or prohibition of any of the activities referred to in subsection (2) in relation to a foreign state as the Governor in Council considers necessary; and

(b) by order, cause to be seized, frozen or sequestrated in the manner set out in the order any property situated in Canada that is held by or on behalf of

(i) a foreign state,

(ii) any person in that foreign state, or

(iii) a national of that foreign state who does not ordinarily reside in Canada.

Section 4 was worded that way because, at the time, the international community didn’t believe there was a need to counter actions within countries that were offensive or abusive but not peace-threatening.

So because the Venezuelan situation isn’t a “grave threat to international peace and security”, SEMA doesn’t allow the cabinet to impose sanctions or asset freezes on Maduro and his cohorts as the US has done.

A simple change to section 4 could be made, bringing into the 21st century by giving the federal cabinet the power to sanction persons (individuals or entities) in cases where the Governor in Council (in legal parlance) is of the opinion that unacceptable acts like corruption, criminal behavior or human rights violations have occurred or are likely to occur within foreign countries.

A few words such as “. . . or serious human rights abuses, corruption or infringement of democratic principles . . . “ inserted in section 4 would do the trick. Easily done.

Last May, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously supported changes to SEMA along these lines. It’s not clear why the Trudeau government hasn’t followed through with a draft bill.