Disillusioned on Capitol Hill

Learning Firsthand How Little Congress Cares for Human Rights

Kurt Hoffman/Getty Images

By Gal Beckerman

Published February 03, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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So what was the point of this hearing? It was hard to tell at first. The accounts by the family members were harrowing.

The wife of the imprisoned Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng described his numerous disappearances by the police over the past few years, retribution for his defense of Falun Gong and Christian dissidents. She described in detail one incident in 2007 after her husband wrote a letter to Congress protesting the Chinese government’s abuses in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.

“On the same day the letter appeared, he was brought to a dark room; the police took off all his clothes and beat him, using electrical cords to beat him all over his body, including his private parts,” said Geng He, Gao’s wife. “And they used cigarette butts to target his eyes. He lost consciousness. There were scars all over his body because of the torture. The police told him, ‘If we want to we could make you disappear anytime.’”

The mother of Do Thi Minh Hanh, a Vietnamese labor activist in jail for the past two years, began weeping while recounting how her daughter has breast cancer. She pleaded for the “intervention” of the men in front of her to get her released from her gulag.

I know there are limitations to Congress’s ability to affect foreign policy. It’s the executive’s role, and the Obama administration has shown very little stomach for championing human rights, whether to protect Syrians or to protest on behalf of Chinese dissidents. But what I heard from the congressmen astounded me. In response to this testimony, they basically threw up their hands.

“This place is downstream from what is going on,” Wolf explained to the still sniffling families. “If you think that Congress and the administration will save you, you are mistaken.”

Smith, who was seated next to Wolf, reading glasses perched at the edge of his nose, drove the point in deeper.

“We’re the legislative branch,” he said. “We are not the face of American foreign policy. That is an executive branch function. We write the laws, we can put money or not put money in certain accounts, but when it comes to the interface with certain governments, we can be advocates, and we are. but it is the White House, it is the diplomats, who carry the burden or drop that burden for the dissidents.”

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