Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission
In 2014, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.) launched the Senate Human Rights Caucus in the spirit of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Like its counterpart in the House, the Senate Caucus was to help members of the Senate defend and advocate for internationally recognized human rights in a nonpartisan manner, and it has done so. The Caucus has become a critical platform and resource for the Senate and Congress taking on issues such as the persecution of the Rohingya, human rights in Iran, and threats to religious minorities. It has also served as a catalyst for individual action in support of human rights by numerous senators, and in late 2020 it officially joined the Defending Freedoms Project of the Lantos Commission, which facilitates advocacy by members of Congress in support of persecuted human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience.
However, it can and must do more.
The 117th Congress faces closing civic space and growing efforts to retrench respect for rights, and an unprecedented crisis of forcibly displaced persons numbering over 80 million (almost the size of Germany) at the end of 2020. The global community has consistently reneged on meeting its obligations under the 1967 Refugee Convention. The solutions here are not straightforward or easy, so perhaps having the discussions start in a commission might allow for more creativity and help identify solutions for Congress to consider.
Then there are the challenges of climate change, armed conflict, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing climate change continues to be a test for the United States government and even as the Biden administration has laid the groundwork for an aggressive agenda, Congress, the administration’s critical partner, remains divided in its response and support for a credible agenda. A Senate human rights commission could play a critical role in increasing awareness and even help build consensus by showing how climate change is impacting human rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to 115 million cases and caused the deaths of 2.55 million to date. Even as the vaccines are finally being manufactured and distributed, critical issues and challenges urgently need to be addressed using a human rights lens. Beyond the terrible death toll, the pandemic is devasting economies and livelihoods and could force possibly as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty. These crises will outlive the actual health crisis, so ensuring that the global response is just, equitable and has long term sustainability built into it will be critical. A Senate human Rights Commission could spearhead discussions and expose congressional staff to a wider variety of opinions and help build consensus and support for a more ambitious agenda. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated existing human rights challenges. Opportunistic authoritarian governments have rolled back human rights protections under the justification of preventing the virus from spreading. This retrenchment on respecting and protecting civic space is happening across the globe including in Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Rwanda, and will present the United States with challenges and opportunities in its efforts to fashion a rights respecting global community.
A Senate human rights Caucus could add to discussions on how to rein in the under-regulated global arms trade, including how more responsible U.S. arms exports could play a role in addressing this terrible crisis, and it could help advance a new, more wholistic definition of security and help the global community start to shed its reliance on weapons and military solutions.
In addition to global challenges, the world is also dealing with a daunting array of conflicts and country-specific crises: conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ethiopia. In short, there is an enormous amount of work to do, and while a reinvigorated human rights agenda from the Biden administration will be a powerful start, the Senate will also have to play a role if that agenda is to succeed.
In addition to facilitating the work of the bicameral Defending Freedoms initiative, a full staffed commission will complement and support the work of a Foreign Relations Committee that will already have a full agenda of mainstreaming human rights issues into the Senate’s discourse and deliberations, coordinating rights-focused initiatives, and helping keep human rights in the spotlight of the Biden administration.
Last week Sens. Coons and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the two co-chairs of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, reintroduced the resolution to establish the Senate Human Rights Commission and to authorize $200,000 per year for the Commission’s activities. The initiative has broad support from civil society. The Senate needs to pass the resolution and have a Human Rights Commission be the force it can be and that the world needs it to be.
Adotei Akwei is deputy director of advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International USA.
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