Sep 17, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Dave will be back in the saddle on Monday for our lucky 250th edition.
  • In the meantime, we'll be diving into some human rights issues, this week's Abraham Accords, news out of Taiwan, America's global image in the COVID era and more (1,796 words, 7 minutes).

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1 big thing: A Magnitsky moment

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amid a global assault on human rights stretching from Belarus to Hong Kong to Yemen, the European Union signaled yesterday that it may act to deter corrupt kleptocrats and state abusers by hitting them where it hurts: their assets.

  • Europe's chief executive Ursula von der Leyen revealed in her first-ever State of the Union speech that she will bring forth a European Magnitsky Act, a sanctions framework modeled after a U.S. law that restricts malign actors' access to travel and the global financial system.

Why it matters: For all the ridicule it’s earned as a bureaucracy-addled bloc with a penchant for "strongly worded" statements, the EU is still the world’s largest single market area and a leading promoter of democratic values.

The big picture: Getting the EU on board would be a major victory for Bill Browder, an investor and activist who has spent the past 10 years lobbying world governments to pass sanctions legislation in the name of his late tax adviser, Sergei Magnitsky.

  • Browder's Hermitage Capital was once the largest foreign investor in Russia, where his broadsides against corporate corruption made him a thorn in the side of the oligarchs.
  • His visa was revoked in 2005 and his offices were later raided by Russian authorities as part of an apparent tax fraud investigation. Browder commissioned Magnitsky, then a 35-year-old lawyer, to figure out what happened.
  • Magnitsky went on to uncover a massive fraud scheme allegedly involving Russian officials. His testimony against the Russian state resulted in his 11-month detention, torture and eventual death in prison in 2009.

Browder's decade-long anti-corruption campaign in the wake of Magnitsky's death yielded new sanctions frameworks in the U.S. (2012 and expanded in 2016), Canada (2015), the Baltic states (2016–2018), the U.K. (2018) and Kosovo (2020). He is likely the most wanted man in Russia.

What they're saying: Browder has called a European Magnitsky Act "probably the most devastating thing that could happen to the Putin regime" given the property and assets that key players own in Europe.

  • He told me the legislation "has been held up for almost a decade by various member states and politicians who wanted to either please or appease Putin."
  • But after the poisoning last month of fellow Putin critic Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent known to be a calling card of the Russian security services, Browder says those people have "disappeared into the woodwork."
  • Note: Navalny is awake in a German hospital and posting on Instagram after two weeks in a medically induced coma. He plans to return to Russia.

Yes, but: Some experts warn that money laundering loopholes in the international financial system render Magnitsky laws ineffective, especially in the U.K. And questions still remain about the EU's willingness to stand up to China, the world's second-largest economy and one of its worst human rights abusers.

Between the lines: If the EU does move forward with an assets-focused sanctions law, Browder tells me the first targets should be the people who killed Magnitsky — followed swiftly by the perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the operators of mass detention camps in Xinjiang, and the authorities cracking down on protests in Hong Kong and Belarus.

What to watch: The EU's chief diplomat has called for the sanctions law to be named the "Navalny Act."

2. What Israel's deals with UAE and Bahrain mean for the region

President Trump speaks as the Israeli prime minister and UAE and Bahraini foreign ministers await the signing ceremony, Sept. 15. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain became the third and fourth Arab states to formalize diplomatic ties with Israel with the signing of the Abraham Accords this week.

Why it matters: Few dispute that more dialogue and cooperation between regional actors is a positive step. Where the consensus ends is how far these deals will go in bringing lasting peace to the Middle East — especially with the Palestinians dubbing Tuesday's ceremony a "black day" for the Arab world.

On the one hand: J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement, "[R]eal conflict resolution requires parties actively in conflict to agree on how to address their differences," alluding to the fact that neither the UAE nor Bahrain were ever at war with Israel.

  • "There isn’t some new framework of 'peace for peace' replacing the core idea of land for peace as the essential construct of peace for Israel and its neighbors," he argues. "This is more akin to a business deal: 'interests for interests.'"

On the other hand: Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells Axios that the deals are a "rebuke to decades of conventional wisdom about the peace process, as well as the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the region."

  • "It's clear the outsized driver for peace between Israel and the Arab world is Iran and its regional overreach," Taleblu argues, comparing the gaps in time between Egypt and Jordan's peace agreements with Israel (15 years) to the UAE and Bahrain's (less than a month).
  • "Nothing in history occurs in a social vacuum," he adds. "The foil to these agreements was also the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The agreement planted the idea in the hearts and minds of Arab leaders that U.S. policy could change against them, and on a dime."

Behind the scenes: Axios contributor Barak Ravid tells me that while some commentators may be denying the Palestinian issue is still at the top of mind, his reporting shows that all of this happened because the UAE was looking for ways to prevent Israel from annexing parts of the West Bank.

  • The UAE was leading the effort against annexation, which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had campaigned on during the last election, and pitched the idea of normalization to the White House as a way to stop it.
  • It offered an out to both Netanyahu, who was facing U.S. resistance to annexation, and to the White House, which views both allies as critical to confronting Iran.

What to watch: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said he expects more Arab countries, including possibly Saudi Arabia, to normalize with Israel before Palestinian leadership agrees to come to the table.

3. Latin America: Maduro accused of crimes against humanity

Portrait of Maduro on the floor of Venezuelan Consulate in Bogota, Colombia, after being looted on July 28. Photo: Daniel Munoz/VIEW press/Getty Images

A three-member panel of UN investigators has accused Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro of crimes against humanity, citing "evidence of unlawful executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture" by security forces.

Why it matters: The review of over 3,000 cases since 2014 details an egregious pattern of human rights abuses, dealing a blow to the Maduro regime at a time when it has sought to improve its international legitimacy and lift the burden of crippling U.S. sanctions, according to the New York Times.

  • "Far from being isolated acts, these crimes were coordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials," the chairman of the panel said in a statement.
Bonus: Investors' verdict on Brexit chaos
Expand chart
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Joe Biden has stepped into the Brexit fray, joining Speaker Nancy Pelosi and bipartisan members of Congress in warning that there will be no U.S.-U.K. free trade deal if Boris Johnson goes forward with plans to violate the withdrawal treaty he struck with the EU.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that he trusts the U.K. government to "get this right."

Go deeper.

4. Global news roundup

Carrying nine satellites, China's first sea-launched rocket blasts off from a ship on Sept. 15 in the Yellow Sea. Photo: Guo Chaokai/China News Service via Getty Images

1. The Trump administration is preparing a $7 billion arms sale to Taiwan that will include drones, cruise missiles and mines, according to multiple reports.

  • Why it matters: Experts say the weapons package is more explicitly designed than past U.S. sales to counter an invasion by China, which considers the self-governed Taiwan a rebel province.
  • Meanwhile: A senior U.S. envoy arrived in Taiwan today for a memorial service for former President Lee Teng-hui, becoming the highest-level State Department official to visit the island in decades. Both developments are sure to infuriate Beijing.

2. Japan's new prime minister Yoshihide Suga took office yesterday with a 74% approval rating, 19 points higher than the departing Shinzo Abe, according to a snap Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll.

  • What to watch: The FT's Robin Harding — who describes Suga as a "master of backroom politics" — says one of his "first decisions will be whether to call a general election and seek an electoral mandate of his own: a test of his transformation from a dour but effective behind-the-scenes politician to inspiring national leader."

3. Barbados will officially remove Queen Elizabeth as its head of state and become a republic next November, timed for the 55th anniversary of the Caribbean island's independence from Britain.

  • The big picture: Barbados is one of nine Caribbean countries in which the queen remains head of state, in addition to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and three Pacific islands, per The Economist.

4. A national U.S. survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 63% of adults under 40 did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, while 48% could not name a single concentration camp.

  • Why it matters: "The results are both shocking and saddening and they underscore why we must act now while Holocaust survivors are still with us to voice their stories," said Claims Conference president Gideon Taylor.
5. America's COVID reputation
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

The U.S. has suffered a steep decline in its global image in the aftermath of its COVID response, according to a Pew survey of over 13,000 people in 13 countries.

Key findings:

  • In every country surveyed, 80% or more say the U.S. has handled the virus badly.
  • Since last year, favorable views of the U.S. dropped by double-digits in every country for which 2019 data was available: Japan (-27%), South Korea (-18%), Italy (-17%), Australia (-17%), France (-17%), U.K. (-16%), Canada (16%), Netherlands (-16%), Germany (-13%), Spain (-12%) and Sweden (-12%).
  • Trump is less trusted (16% confidence) on world affairs than Germany's Angela Merkel (76%), France's Emmanuel Macron (64%), U.K.'s Boris Johnson (48%), Russia's Vladimir Putin (23%) and China's Xi Jinping (19%).
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals
6. What I'm reading: Brazil's red scares

Bolsonaro holds up a box of chloroquine medicine. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Since the early 20th century, a culture of conspiracies, paranoia, secret plotting and military coups has dominated Brazilian politics as the country has whipsawed between democracy and dictatorship, Vincent Bevins writes for The Atlantic:

"For the past 100 years, by far the most powerful of Brazilian conspiracy theories is the tale of an international communist plot to destroy the nation. ...
When that threat wasn’t powerful enough to keep the citizenry subdued, right-wing radicals fabricated events to support their fearmongering. Modern conspiracy theorists the world over are fond of dismissing mass shootings and other acts of violence as staged “false-flag” operations, but in Brazil, they really were routinely used by terrorists or the military to create the conditions for further crackdowns. ...
Recently, these traditions have coalesced once more, and helped deliver the country into the hands of Jair Bolsonaro. Making vigorous use of digital tools, and jumping headfirst into a political vacuum created by a huge corruption scandal, members of the Bolsonaro family deployed the fear of communist conspiracy to great effect. The ghosts of the Cold War haunt politics in the world’s fifth-most-populous country, and as another political crisis looms, the leadership is doubling down on conspiratorial thinking."

Why it matters: "Latin America’s largest country now offers a chilling reminder of the ways that rumor-mongering and disinformation can shore up elite power and subvert democracy."

Read the full piece.

7. Stories we're watching

100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Moore, a World War II veteran who was knighted after raising over £32 million in a charity walk for Britain's National Health Service last spring, marks the launch of his memoir, "Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day." Photo: Samir Hussein/WireImage

  1. Massive wildfires devastate Brazil's Pantanal wetlands, one of the world's most bio-diverse areas
  2. Afghan migrants charged with arson in fires that destroyed Greek refugee camp
  3. Ex-House Foreign Affairs chair now lobbying for Chinese tech giant complicit in surveillance
  4. New Zealand PM pledges 100% renewable energy generation by 2030
  5. FBI director confirms "very active" Russian efforts to interfere in election
  6. Smoke from U.S. fires reaches Europe
  7. India set to surpass U.S. for most COVID cases


"I would have rather taken him out. I had him all set. Mattis didn't want to do it."
— Trump told "Fox & Friends," confirming that he wanted to order an assassination against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad