Congress is considering several bills that would warp how the U.S. applies sanctions—through the Global Magnitsky Act—against foreigners who violate human rights. The changes would redefine human rights to enforce the left’s abortion-and-gender agenda. That would hobble the fight against real abuses of human rights.

This problem has already appeared in trade bills related to Russia and Belarus. The legislation would replace the current definition of human rights abuses with a new undefined term. The current standard in the Global Magnitsky Act is “gross violation of human rights.” If revised, this would become “human rights abuses and corruption” or “serious human rights abuses.”  

But what is a human right? And which rights are we protecting?

Currently, the Global Magnitsky Act uses the same definition as the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. “Gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” mean: “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person.”

All Americans can agree that those are gross human rights violations.

And what about “internationally recognized human rights”? For these, the Global Magnitsky Act refers to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture. These are the two binding international treaties to which the U.S. is a party. The U.S. has signed and ratified them, which makes them the law of the land.

However, there are other human rights treaties that the U.S. has declined to join over many significant concerns. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child fall into that category. Those treaties could advance abortion rights, undermine parental rights, and infringe on national sovereignty.

By applying new standards and definitions of what constitutes human rights abuses, would the “rights” enumerated in treaties that the U.S. has not ratified be included?

In the last few decades, the left has invoked human rights to promote abortion and policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Biden administration has followed suit. It often uses human rights language to pressure other countries to decriminalize “status or conduct” based on sexual orientation or gender identity. President Joe Biden issued a presidential memorandum in February 2021 that directed agencies of the U.S. government to “combat the criminalization by foreign governments of LGBTQI+ status or conduct” and to fight “discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance.”

But how will U.S. government agencies combat such discrimination and intolerance? And how will the U.S. pressure foreign governments to change their laws and cultural traditions governing sexual morality and biological understandings of male and female?

If Congress expands the “gross violation” standard, this administration could use Global Magnitsky sanctions—or the threat of them—to achieve its goals. The 2021 presidential memorandum said as much: “agencies engaged abroad shall consider … the full range of diplomatic and assistance tools and, as appropriate, financial sanctions, visa restrictions, and other actions.”

That would be a heavy cudgel in the arsenal of an administration intent on promoting gender ideology. It would obviate the need for other legislation that progressives have advanced to achieve these goals, such as the so-called Global Respect Act and the Globe Act.

Similarly, it’s not hard to imagine that expanded Global Magnitsky language would target foreigners who seek to protect the unborn. The White House has been ardent in its support of abortion at home and abroad. Democrats in Congress have pushed legislation to remove abortion restrictions or codify abortion access.

Internationally, influential voices from the World Health Organization to the United Nations’ human rights apparatus to Amnesty International insist that abortion is a human right. This claim is false, as a matter of both fact and international law. No international human rights treaty includes a right to abortion. But abortion proponents don’t get hung up on that inconvenient truth.

Already countries that protect the unborn in their laws face extreme pressure from the United States and international groups to legalize abortion. Countries on the receiving end of such pressure campaigns range from Kenya to Ecuador to the Dominican Republic. Global Magnitsky sanctions could cripple pro-life politicians and religious leaders in these and other countries, like those that have joined the Geneva Consensus Declaration.

And if other countries see the U.S. using sanctions to impose an ideological—and controversial—agenda, Global Magnitsky will become a much less effective instrument.

As it is, the Global Magnitsky Act already deters or punishes human rights violators. There is no good reason to exchange a term clearly defined in law with a new ambiguous phrase. It’s not a far stretch from ambiguity to politicization. In that case, freedom of speech and freedom of religion—our most fundamental rights—will be the first casualties.

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