Late last week, Congress reclaimed some of its human rights mojo when the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) announced its new Defending Freedoms Project. The TLHRC was established in 1983 by the late Rep. Thomas Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress.
The project kicked off with the TLHRC co-chairmen Frank R. Wolf adopting Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and James P. McGovern taking on the case of jailed Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.
The goal of this new partnership is to increase respect for religious freedom and other human rights around the world through a focus on individual cases of human rights defenders and those who have been unjustly imprisoned for exercising their human rights. Members of Congress will “adopt” at least one political prisoner, using their clout to highlight each case and push for an end to the human rights violations to which the highlighted individual is being subjected.
The launch of the Defending Freedoms project coincides with Amnesty’s annual Write#4rights, when AI members around the world will write letters to highlight the plight of individuals who are at risk for simply expressing themselves and seeking to enjoy their human rights.
By working on behalf of behalf of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, participating members of Congress will also encourage countries to draft laws and adopt policies protecting freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from torture and ill-treatment, the right to a fair trial and other universal human rights.
The launch took place a day before a report by Amnesty International was released detailing increasing attacks against human rights defenders in Latin America, just one stark reminder of the need for leadership and an increased focus on human rights by the United States and the international community.
The Lantos Commission, US Commission for International Religious Freedom and AIUSA hope to grow this initiative and pair more congressional offices with prisoners of conscience to advocate publicly for their release and push for systemic reforms.