Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

It’s Time to Enact Japan’s Magnitsky Act

Such legislation would boost Japan’s credentials as a defender of human rights and practitioner of values-based diplomacy.

It’s Time to Enact Japan’s Magnitsky Act

On January 27, a group met to discuss establishing a multiparty parliamentary group to enact a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act. The proposed legislation aims to take punitive measures against individuals and organizations involved in human rights violations overseas. The meeting included former Defense Minister Nakatani Gen of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), former State Minister of Finance Toyama Kiyohiko of Komeito (the LDP’s coalition partner), Yamao Shiori of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, and Kushida Seiichi of the conservative opposition Japan Innovation Party.

In the meeting, Nakatani stressed the necessity of Japan adopting a Magnitsky Act to deter human rights violations, stating that “Some LDP legislators are questioning if Japan is a country that respects human rights.” Likewise, Yamao pointed out the importance of the legislation pointing out that “only Japan among the Group of Seven (leading industrial nations) has not set up the legislation.”

The Magnitsky Act is bipartisan legislation originally passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2012 under the Obama administration. The legislation was enacted in order to punish Russian officials involved in and responsible for the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured to death in a Moscow prison in 2009. In 2016, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was enacted, and the law came into effect in the following year. The 2016 legislation can be applied to impose sanctions on those who have committed human rights violations by freezing their foreign assets and preventing them from entering the United States. Under the Global Magnitsky Act, individuals and groups from a number of countries including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar have been sanctioned. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has also pressured the U.S. government into applying the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Chinese officials for mass detentions of Muslim in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in the far western region of China. In addition to the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups, practitioners of the Falun Gong religious movement have also reportedly suffered human rights abuses, including imprisonment, organ harvesting, and murder by Chinese officials.

In addition to the United States, nine countries have already formulated the Magnitsky-style legislation, including Estonia, Canada, Lithuania, and Latvia from 2016 to 2018. The global Magnitsky movement accelerated last year. In January 2020, Kosovo adopted its own Magnitsky Act, and in July, the United Kingdom enacted a British version, the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. In December, the European Union passed the European Magnitsky Act. Currently, Australia is considering the enactment of the Magnitsky-style legislation. In December 2020, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade submitted a report with draft legislation suggesting Canberra join the global Magnitsky movement.

Japanese lawmakers have joined in the global movement for human rights. In response to Beijing’s passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law as well as growing concerns over human rights issues in the city, a multipartisan parliamentary group, the Japan Parliamentary Alliance on China (JPAC), was established by both ruling and opposition parties in July 2020. In the inaugural meeting, some JPAC members suggested that Japan should enact Magnitsky-style legislation so that Tokyo could contribute to preventing human rights violations in collaboration with the United States.

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Although JPAC is a multiparty parliamentary organization, Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party – which have close political connections with China – did not join the group. Likewise, the Japanese government and some LDP lawmakers, especially Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro, have been concerned about diplomatic ties with China as a crucial trade partner, and therefore, the government has shied away from drafting a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act. In this context, the aforementioned multipartisan parliamentary group to enact Japan’s Magnitsky Act was established separately from the JPAC.

According to the lawmaking process in Japanese politics, legislation or legislative bills can be submitted by Diet members or the Cabinet. The government tends to prioritize legislation submitted by the Cabinet over bills prepared by Diet members. In the ordinary session of the Diet in 2020, the Cabinet submitted 59 bills and 55 of them were successfully enacted. On the other hand, Diet members submitted 57 bills to the Diet in the same session, but only eight bills were enacted. In other words, 93 percent of the legislation submitted by the government was enacted, and only 14 percent of the legislation submitted by Diet members was enacted. An editorial from Asahi Shimbun on July 10, 2020 used these figures to show how the Japanese government places a priority on legislation drafted by the Cabinet, and how difficult it is for Japanese lawmakers to create their own original laws. If Diet members would like to submit their own legislation, it is necessary for them to persuade other lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties to reach a consensus.

In principle, therefore, a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act, even if introduced by a Diet member rather than the Cabinet, could be enacted if the legislation receives support from all political parties, although it is not an easy task. It also has to be noted that the term of the current Diet members of the House of Representatives will expire on October 22 this year, and there is no guarantee that all Diet members involved in the legislative progress of Japan’s Magnitsky Act can be re-elected in the next coming general election. During and around the lower house election, the lawmaking process would be paralyzed, and the result of the national election could inevitably affect the legislation’s progress.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of the domestic legislative procedure, the enactment of Japan’s Magnitsky Act is of great significance. First, a Japanese Magnitsky Act would help further enhance the Japan-U.S. alliance, given the strategic and geopolitical implications of the legislation as well as the diplomatic priority of the Biden administration, which values the U.S. commitment to global human rights. Also, the legislation would be consistent with Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept as a core diplomatic vision, since Japan’s FOIP cherishes the rule of law and universal values, such as democracy, human rights, and freedom. The legislation would also be congruous with the emphasis on human security diplomacy as one of the pillars of Japan’s foreign policy. By creating and implementing its own Magnitsky Act, Japan can make greater contributions to promotion of human security and protection of human rights. It would also improve Japan’s international image as a country that values human rights and abides by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a member state of the United Nations.

More importantly, Japan’s Magnitsky Act should coincide with the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees “fundamental human rights” as stipulated in Article 11 as well as the right to “peaceful coexistence” of all human beings declared in the Preamble: “We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.” It goes without saying that “all peoples of the world” include Uyghurs and other people suffering from human rights abuses. Of course, it is necessary for Tokyo to avoid possible misuse of the legislation and to maintain its relationships with China and other countries. However, enacting the Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act is crucial for Japan’s national interests and international interests, especially the promotion of global human rights in line with the high aspirations of the Japanese Constitution.

Daisuke Akimoto, Ph.D. is an adjunct fellow of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS) at Temple University Japan Campus, and an associated research fellow of the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP) Stockholm Japan Center, Sweden. He is the author of “The Abe Doctrine: Japan’s Proactive Pacifism and Security Strategy” (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) and “Japan’s Nuclear Identity and Its Implications for Nuclear Abolition” (Palgrave Macmillan 2020).