Lawmakers Forge Informal Ties to Push Human Rights Cases

Article excerpt

Rebiya Kadeer always wondered why her treatment in one of the harshest prisons in China suddenly got better: The guards stopped yelling so much, and she was let out of solitary confinement.

"Since my husband and children were in the United States, I thought it might have something to do with Washington," says the rights activist for China's Uighur minority.

It did, she is now certain. For more than five years, her case was a top priority of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which held briefings on her case and rained letters on Beijing and the US State Department to make sure her name was not forgotten. "The caucus played a very big role in her release last March. They never stopped raising my mother's case," says Ms. Kadeer's daughter, Akida Roussi, who translated her mother's telephone interview for this article.

Like some 300 other informal member groups on Capitol Hill, the Human Rights Caucus works outside the official committee structure. As an informal group, it doesn't write bills or appropriate funds and can't even maintain an independent Web page. Yet it is a venue for members to set aside party ID and work together on issues they care about. Sometimes, as with the case of Rebiya Kadeer, it makes a difference.

"The human rights caucus shines a spotlight on issues that wouldn't otherwise get attention from the mainline congressional committees," says Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, which also worked for her release. "They stick to it."

Congress also has formal committees that take up human rights issues, such as the Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, which invited Kadeer to be part of a July 21 panel on the persecution of minorities in China. But the caucus had her speak three months earlier and has held public briefings on the issue since 2001.

Such informal groups have been part of congressional life since the first Congress, but dramatically increased in the 1980s and '90s. They range from well-established groups like the Congressional Black Caucus to newer groups, such as the Mental Health Caucus.

For some lawmakers, these are venues to work on issues that haven't yet made it onto the official agendas. For others, it's a passion. "I don't believe my marriage would have lasted 55 years if I hadn't started this [Human Rights] caucus," says Rep. Tom Lantos (D) in an interview, coincidentally, on the day of his wedding anniversary. Mr. Lantos, who fought with the Hungarian resistance in World War II, is the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress.

His wife, Annette, also a Holocaust survivor, works full-time in his office as an unpaid assistant, mainly on human rights issues. …

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