Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lantos Human Rights Commission and U.S. Human Rights

This year, with the ICCPR and CERD reviews, along with the pending UPR review, wouldn’t it be an appropriate time for a congressional hearing on US human rights compliance?  A few weeks ago, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) spoke at Northeastern Law School.   Rep. McGovern has a long-time interest in human rights, dating back to his time as a Hill staffer working human rights in El Salvador, and he is now the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the House of Representatives. 

When I first heard about the Human Rights Commission, I was excited.  Efforts to create a true national human rights institution – a U.S. Human Rights Commission that would implement human rights obligations domestically – have faltered.  Perhaps, I thought, the Lantos Commission was the next best thing: a broad-based, bipartisan body dedicated to addressing human rights issues.

The Lantos Commission website explains that it is a successor to the House Human Rights Caucus, institutionalized through an authorizing resolution in 2008, and that its mission is “to defend and advocate for internationally recognized human rights norms.”  Among other things, the Commission shall:
• Develop congressional strategies to promote, defend and advocate internationally recognized human rights norms reflecting the role and responsibilities of the United States Congress.
• Raise greater awareness of human rights issues among Members of Congress and their staff, as well as the public.
• Provide expert human rights advice to Members of Congress and their staff.
• Advocate on behalf of individuals or groups whose human rights are violated or are in danger of being violated.
• Collaborate closely with professional staff of relevant congressional committees on human rights matters.
• Collaborate closely with the President of the United States and the Executive Branch, as well as recognized national and international human rights entities, to promote human rights initiatives in the United States Congress.
• Encourage Members of Congress to actively engage in human rights matters.

Though I’m sure that the Commission also works behind the scenes, one of its major activities is holding weekly hearings on human rights issues.  Many of these hearings are webcast, and they provide a forum for airing many important human rights issues.

Unfortunately, when I looked over the list of the Commission’s hearings, I saw that it’s no substitute for the sort of U.S. Human Rights Commission that many have advocated for.  The Lantos Commission’s attention to human rights in the U.S. has been minimal. Recent hearings addressed issues in Honduras, Burma, Colombia, Turkey, and India.  A hearing last year on global violence against women looked abroad, rather than at our nation’s own track record.  I had to scroll back to 2011 to find a hearing that directly addressed human rights issues in the U.S.:  “The United States’ Government’s Relationship with the Human Rights Council.”   There were no hearings examining the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S., or the displaced persons after Hurricane Katrina, or mass incarceration, all serious human rights issues facing the U.S. that have attracted the interest of UN monitoring bodies and UN special experts.  Isn’t it time that the Lantos Commission caught up to the U.S. human rights movement and began airing these issues along with human rights issues elsewhere in the world?  


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