By sending the shock to the Kremlin — that the U.S. values prosecuting rights abusers as much as it values profits for businesses — the Maryland Democrat has catapulted human rights atop the international agenda and brought new attention to the U.S. Helsinki Commission that he chairs.
The Helsinki Commission — founded amid the Cold War, just like the legislation the new trade bill replaces — once helped secure freedom for Soviet refuseniks unable to emigrate from under the thumb of Communism. Thirty years later, Mr. Cardin and the 21-member, bipartisan, congressional-executive body put the spotlight back on the Soviet region broadly and Moscow specifically.
I remember the June day in 2009 when Senator Cardin first heard about Sergei Magnitsky. Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder spoke of the raid on his office in Moscow and how Mr. Magnitsky, his 37-year-old lawyer, refused to lie about the trumped-up charges his client faced in Russia's largest-ever tax fraud scheme, and how he suffered in prison for it. Mr. Cardin sat wide-eyed, imagining the story worthy of a movie.
What no one knew in the hearing room that day was that Mr. Magnitsky would die within five months, a tragic victim of either repeated medical inaction in prison or torture. (Is there a difference?)
Mr. Magnitsky spent his final days in an isolation cell, chained to a bed, beaten by guards, before he was left to die on the floor in a pool of his own blood and urine, with medical help just outside his cell, according to the Russian governmental human rights council's own report.
Mr. Cardin sought to create this legislation before Mr. Magnitsky's struggle and death were turned into an international cause by Mr. Browder's PR machine.
But it was Mr. Cardin's bill and public release of names of those connected to Mr. Magnitsky's death that really turned heads at the White House, State Department and Capitol Hill — not mention in Moscow, where the list of people targeted to have their assets frozen and visas denied became known as Cardin's List.
Foreign policy doesn't often win votes at home, but Mr. Cardin never slowed down his soft-spoken advocacy for the cause. And now it is paying off worldwide. His legislation is being replicated in several European countries and at the European Parliament, where legislators are looking to Washington before voting on their own, related bills.
The success of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was combined with the larger trade bill, reveals not only Mr. Cardin's patience as a freshman senator to pass this bill but shows the senator's bipartisan leadership qualities as well.
Amid partisan gridlock, Mr. Cardin's measure passed the Senate with only four no votes. One of his chief allies became Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. In fact, when Mr. Cardin was unable to attend a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly that included the only international debate among parliamentarians (including Russians) on this legislation, Mr. McCain showed up to speak for the bill. It passed with only a few former Soviet countries opposing.
In Russia, where defeating the Magnitsky legislation was labeled a top foreign policy priority for President Vladimir Putin's new term, Mr. Cardin's bill is now called "absurd." In Washington, the White House was never fully comfortable with this human rights stick for the trade relations carrot Moscow sought, but Mr. Cardin never wavered, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it this week.
Ben Cardin was right to push to amend the final version of his bill to target human rights abusers no matter where they are. U.S. banks and borders need not welcome anyone who flagrantly abuses the freedom of their fellow countrymen. But anybody who knows Maryland's junior senator knows he's pragmatic, and he was right to avoid an 11th-hour fight that could have held up this bill.
Moscow may have learned Mr. Cardin's name from this debate. But Washington learned something too. The substance and intellectual weight that Mr. Cardin brings to our global diplomatic agenda through the Helsinki Commission is a force in itself. The commission is never a substitute for the Senate or House foreign affairs committees, but it is a strong complement nonetheless — and in this case, a key difference maker in the future trajectory of human rights in Russia.
Neil H. Simon, communications director for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly based in Copenhagen, Denmark, previously worked on the staff of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission). His email is email@example.com.