The damage that America’s reduced moral standing globally is having on U.S. efforts to promote human rights compliance overseas was a main cause for collective concern at a House Foreign Committee Affairs hearing today on Capitol Hill, a little over a month after lawmakers coalesced around the same issue in their initial assessment of the State Department’s 2006 country reports on human rights.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) led the charge for a more critical self-assessment as a way of combating the threat that negative global perceptions of the U.S. – as evidenced by the results of a exceedingly negative recent world opinion poll that suggests that America is betraying its core ideals – pose to national interests. The centerpiece of this effort should be an annual report developed by a legislative commission that address America’s human rights record, he said
Others were less accusatory, but nonetheless echoed Delahunt’s concerns. Rep. Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) cautioned against equating forced interrogation of detainees in Guantanamo Bay with the torture carried out by Islamic extremists and authoritarian regimes in countries like China, Burma, Iran, and Ethiopia. Still, he railed against U.S. economic support for some of the nations he mentioned, saying that American taxpayer and business dollars shouldn’t be used to prop up repressive governments. Barry Lowenkron, a State Department official in the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor and the lone witness present, also acknowledged that flagging legitimacy was a concern, but stopped short of saying that it severed our ability to promote democratic values abroad. Despite our failings, Lowenkron said, our preservation of self-corrective mechanisms (i.e. governmental checks and balances and the independent press) is the “ultimate strength” of U.S. democracy.
In addition to sounding the alarm on American failings, committee members pressed Lowenkron on egregious rights abuses elsewhere. The situation in China, where the government continues to repress dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities in spite of the spotlight cast by the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was a major point of emphasis. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said that the U.S. should leverage China’s designation as a country of particular concern to punish the government for its restrictions on dissent and its ‘genocidal’ one-child-per-couple policy. Lowenkron, for his part, echoed Smith’s sentiments and chided Chinese officials for ignoring State Department efforts to promote bilateral dialogue.
On Egypt, Delahunt contended that a totalitarian regime was consolidating executive authority and committing egregious acts of torture. While Lowenkron agreed that Cairo had significantly tightened its grip on opposition, he rejected the totalitarian designation and refused to rate the torture of detainees in Egypt as more severe than torture committed elsewhere. “Torture is torture,” and it shouldn’t be rated on a sliding scale, Lowenkron said.
Lowenkron was more forthcoming in response to Smith’s concerns regarding Viet Nam, specifically the government’s ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy voices and the plight of persecuted Christian Montagnards asylum seekers. Lowenkron said that he addressed the crackdown in talks with Vietnamese officials last week and praised U.S. Ambassador to Viet Nam Michael Marine’s efforts on behalf of dissidents. Regarding the Montagnards, Lowenkron said that the U.S. had left the processing of asylum claims solely to the United Nations refugee agency in order to streamline the procedure, but said that he would look into Smith’s concerns that more comprehensive efforts were needed.
The governments of Sudan, Russia, and Venezuela were also major targets of collective criticism in the hearing.