Members of Congress and the Obama administration on Wednesday celebrated the late Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) as a "hero" for his efforts on behalf of Africa and human rights.
Payne died suddenly last month of colon cancer at the age of 77. He'd been a member of Congress for 12 terms, serving alternatively as chairman and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.
Vice-President Joe Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Payne "accorded dignity to everybody."
"Donald was always gracious … (even) in God-forsaken places in Africa where I might add, it took some courage to go," Biden said at a Capitol Hill ceremony. "He put his life in jeopardy and some of those trips. It wasn't always Donald being greeted with open arms; I can think of two occasions where his aircraft was greeted with weapons fire."
Payne also made enemies with the Sudanese regime in Khartoum, even getting arrested while protesting in front of its embassy in Washington, D.C. in 2001.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recalled that his feelings about President Omar al-Bashir haven't changed since then. A couple years ago while he was helping lead a congressional delegation to Sudan, she said, Payne refused to accompany his fellow lawmakers to Khartoum to meet with regime officials.
"They're not going to tell you the truth," Pelosi recalled Payne saying. "I already know that, I'm not going to give them that opportunity. But you have to find out for yourselves."
In addition to his efforts to bring an end to the conflict in Darfur and his co-sponsorship of the Sudan Peace Act condemning the regime for genocide, he also fought to end the conflict in northern Ireland, introducing legislation to prevent the use of rubber bullets by security forces. He accompanied President Bill Clinton to Northern Ireland and on his historic six-nation visit to Africa in 1998.
"Don Payne never settled for being a sympathetic ear," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "He immersed himself in the plight of those that he sought to help."
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the Number 2 Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, remembered Payne as "a man who made a significant difference in the world."
"I know first-hand how much he truly cared and how hard he worked for peace and reconciliation in war-ravaged nations," Smith said. As chairman and, since 2011, ranking member of the Africa subcommittee, "he never shied away from asking the tough questions, but he always did so in a way that demonstrated his earnest desire to find durable solutions to vexing and seemingly insurmountable problems."