Progress on the ability of U.S. firms to take advantage of new business opportunities when Russia joins the World Trade Organization (WTO) took a step forward yesterday when Senate leaders acknowledged that legislation to promote human rights will be a condition needed for permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to move forward, too.

Senators Max Baucus (D–MT), John McCain (R–AZ), John Thune (R–SD) and John Kerry (D–MA) introduced legislation to exempt Russia from the Cold War–era Jackson–Vanik Amendment restrictions, passed in 1974, that no longer effectively promote human rights.

Approval of this legislation will allow U.S. companies to benefit from trade concessions that Russia made in order to join the WTO. Otherwise, American firms attempting to do business in Russia will be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with their foreign competitors.

McCain joined others in calling for passage of the bipartisan Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D–MD) and McCain, to accompany Jackson–Vanik’s repeal. This legislation would impose penalties on officials from Russia and elsewhere who are responsible for gross violations of human rights. Ignoring legitimate human rights concerns would threaten PNTR’s prospects.

The Magnitsky Act would “impose sanctions on persons responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky, for the conspiracy to defraud the Russian Federation of taxes on corporate profits…and for other gross violations of human rights in the Russian Federation.”

While named after Magnitsky, the bill would target human rights abusers around the globe by denying U.S. visas to individuals guilty of massive human rights violations and freezing all of their assets within the purview of the U.S. government. The legislation could also apply to the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Yukos Oil Company was expropriated by the state for trumped up tax violations and its assets sold to the Rosneft national oil company.

According to Baucus:

It is clear the Magnitsky Act has overwhelming support in the Senate and growing support in the House.… It is equally clear that many of our colleagues are rallying around the position…that the repeal of Jackson–Vanik for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act. I am fully committed to ensuring that the Senate can act on both items this year.

Since Russia will officially join the WTO later this summer, it is important for Congress to act on these issues soon. As Baucus observed: “The clock is ticking.”

As we wrote last month, America should not ignore the weak rule of law in Russia or its connection to violations of individual and human rights and the spread of corruption and organized crime. Congress should take action against those tyrants that systematically violate the natural rights of people not just in Russia but around the globe.

The Magnitsky Act or similar legislation would not only empower the U.S. government to take action against such individuals but also send a clear message that the U.S. will support the rule of law and freedom in other countries.

By placing human rights front and center and addressing the PNTR issue as Russia joins the WTO, Congress can both protect U.S. interests in the global marketplace and maintain America’s stature as a nation that believes in and actively defends human rights.