In an American political culture coarsened by belligerence, dozens within Congress still are shaping bipartisan foreign policies to maintain a strong U.S. defense of human rights worldwide. The ability of Congress to sustain bipartisanship on human rights issues is vital to long-term international stability and U.S. national security, according to the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of Congress’ prominent human rights group—the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

The representatives from Congress and Institute President Nancy Lindborg

The commission, which includes 66 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, has managed to maintain an approach of respectful dialogue and cooperation, said Representative Randy Hultgren, the Republican co-chair. “If you just fall into the momentum or flow” of an embittered political discourse, “it is easy to want to attack, want to fight, but … I want to get something done,” he said.

The Way Congress Should Work

“Congress right now has a bad reputation,” said Democratic Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts. “You know, we hear it … that ‘you guys are kind of dysfunctional.’ Well, here is a case, in this commission, where we are functional.”

“We don’t agree on every single thing, but we agree on most things, and we are having an impact” by working together,” McGovern said. “I think it’s a good example for Democrats and Republicans on other committees. This is the way Congress should work.”

Hultgren and McGovern spoke at the inaugural forum of USIP’s Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue—a series of discussions to explore U.S. legislators’ common ground on foreign policy problems and to advance solutions. USIP was founded by a bipartisan group of legislators, including prominent World War II veterans. Thus the Institute is “keenly aware of the importance of bipartisan congressional action” notably “in solving problems around the world,” USIP President Nancy Lindborg said.

Human Rights as National Security

Among points made by the commission’s co-chairs were these:

  • Human rights abroad are vital to stability and U.S. security. Achieving international “peace and stability is impossible apart from human rights” protections, Hultgren told the audience of government officials, scholars and civic activists on foreign policy and human rights issues. “A country or government that is stable or that has created so-called peace through fear or the use of authoritarianism is not ultimately a reliable ally or partner for the U.S. We must convince our allies that, in addition to being in line with international law, human rights policies are also in their best interests.”
  • A key role for Congress is to defend human rights advocates abroad. “Human rights advocacy often comes from the ground up, from ordinary people whose basic human rights are being violated,” Hultgren said. “Repressive governments will accuse us of forcing our will and our values on them, but their citizens are actively advocating for the freedom to express themselves according to their own conscience. … One of these areas where we can make the biggest difference is by supporting these human rights defenders as they fight for the rights of their own people. … When these advocates find themselves in prison for their efforts, we can advocate for them by highlighting their situation and by magnifying their message and their cause.”
  • U.S. policy must treat the protection of human rights as a war-prevention strategy. “We must focus on human rights from a prevention perspective,” said McGovern. The human rights commission hears regularly of “systematic discrimination and abuse carried out by a government against a subset of its own people. Those people may be ethnic, cultural or religious minorities, like the Tibetans and Uighurs in China, the Bahai in Iran, Christians in Egypt, non-Arab people in Sudan or the Rohingya in Burma.” Or they may be political opponents, gays or other groups. “What we know is that these situations are warning signs. When governments systematically discriminate against some of their people, sooner or later, we are likely to see radicalization and increased conflict, even armed conflict that can spill over borders. And when that happens, governments will double down on repression, and in the post-9/11 era, they will cloak their crackdown in the discourse of anti-terrorism. This is exactly what is happening in Burma.”
  • Bipartisanship has achieved human rights victories. “Foreign policy is an arena in which there are many important bipartisan achievements,” said McGovern. “The 1991 Nunn-Lugar program for securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction, the 2002 McGovern-Dole program to support education, child development and food security in low-income, food-deficit countries around the globe, and more recently the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes financial sanctions and visa restrictions on foreign persons in response to human rights violations and acts of corruption.”

In the second Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue, Representatives Steve Pearce (R-NM) and Jim Himes (D-CT) will speak April 17 on ways to counter the illicit funding sources that support acts of international terrorism. Pearce and Himes are members of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Terrorism and Illicit Finance, which Pearce heads as chairman.

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