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Published: Friday, 12/28/2012

Orphans held hostage

This month, President Obama signed a law that aims to punish Russian officials who violate human rights by denying them visas to travel to this country and the ability to buy real estate here. In retaliation, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he will sign a law that prohibits Americans from adopting Russian children starting Jan. 1.

The word “counterproductive” comes to mind. Also “petty.” If Mr. Putin is more concerned about improving the often-blighted lives of orphans in Russia — and maintaining productive U.S.-Russian relations — than about scoring political points, he will reconsider.

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The U.S. legislation is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009, allegedly because of mistreatment and lack of medical care, after he exposed government tax fraud. Russian officials complained that the law interfered in domestic affairs, but concern for human rights around the world has long been a tenet of U.S. foreign policy.

Mr. Putin says that instead of allowing Americans to adopt Russian orphans, his country will work to improve its child welfare system. In the past 20 years, as many as 60,000 Russian children have been placed with American families. The United States takes in more children from Russia than any other country does.

Other critics cited abuse, even deaths, of Russian children in the United States as violations of human rights. But such incidents amount to an infinitesimal fraction of such adoptions. Far more often, Russian children leave abusive domestic situations or Dickensian orphanages to join loving homes here.

Last month, American and Russian officials began to carry out an agreement aimed at including greater safeguards in the adoption process. Such cooperation is far more productive than cynical political posturing.

It also could encourage both countries to work together on larger issues, such as stopping the carnage in Syria, containing Iran’s nuclear program, getting supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and reaching understandings on missile defense.

The Russian law has attracted widespread domestic opposition, including criticism by some senior officials. Yet given the choice of enhancing the prospects of vulnerable children — Russia has an estimated 800,000 orphans — or exploiting anti-American sentiment in his country, Mr. Putin evidently prefers the latter.

If the adoption ban takes effect, Mr. Obama will have something to think — and talk — about the next time Mr. Putin calls for greater mutual cooperation to improve U.S.-Russian relations.


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