Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans:
President Vladimir V. Putin signed a bill on Friday that bans the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, dealing a serious blow to an already strained diplomatic relationship. But for hundreds of Americans enmeshed in the costly, complicated adoption process, the impact was deeply personal….
The law calls for the ban to be put in force on Tuesday, and it stands to upend the plans of many American families in the final stages of adopting in Russia. Already, it has added wrenching emotional tumult to a process that can cost $50,000 or more, requires repeated trips overseas, and typically entails lengthy and maddening encounters with bureaucracy….
The bill that includes the adoption ban was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Obama this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.
As the New York Times article quoted above points out, the new Russian law is a traumatic blow to American parents currently in the process of adopting Russian orphans, including some who have already formed relationships with particular children. It also probably violates a recent US-Russian agreement on adoptions, that requires a year’s notice prior to any termination by either side. Worst of all, the law consigns thousands of children who might have been adopted by Americans to life in Russia’s horrendous system of orphanages, which is among the worst in the world.
A few cases where Russian children were abused by American adoptive parents previously caused outrage in Russia. But, overall, such abuse is rare. And there is no doubt that on average, Russian children adopted in the US have vastly better lives than they would likely have had in Russia.
In any event, the current Russian adoption ban was adopted in retaliation for the human rights sanctions embedded in the US Magnitsky bill. One can argue about whether the latter law was wise or not. But there is no doubt that Russia’s human rights record under Putin has been atrocious. The fact that the nation is led by a former KGB colonel is itself an indication that human rights is hardly a high priority. And sanctions narrowly targeted at individual human rights violators are among the most defensible international efforts to deter abuses. Unlike generalized trade sanctions, they don’t harm the population of the target country as a whole.
It would be easy to blame Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime for the adoption ban, and Putin does indeed deserve a share of the blame. However, a recent poll shows that the ban is supported by 56% of Russians, so it is possible that the law would have been adopted even if the Russian government were fully democratic. On this issue, as on many others, public opinion is influenced by ignorance and irrational nationalism.
The Russian government has argued that US sanctions against Russia are hypocritical, because the US itself has a flawed human rights record. I have myself criticized unjust US policies on issues such as the War on Drugs and immigration, and others. But America’s record, flawed as it is, is not nearly as bad as that of Putin-era Russia. And even if the US sanctions were indeed hypocritical or otherwise reprehensible, victimizing innocent children and prospective parents is hardly a proper response.
UPDATE: I have made a few minor wording changes in this post.