On a cold day in February, I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook when I saw an ad from Amnesty International inviting people to a lobbying day in Washington, D.C. to help support human rights worldwide. If you don’t already know about Amnesty International, it is a nonpartisan global movement of over seven million people who, “take injustice personally.” Through their detailed research and determined campaigning, they help fight abuses of human rights, bring torturers to justice, change oppressive laws, and free people jailed for voicing their opinions. Knowing all of that about Amnesty International, I was eager to join. I entered my information and received a phone call the very next day telling me that Amnesty International would pay for my flights and pay for a hotel room on Sunday night. This was my chance to help vulnerable families without ever even leaving the country.
On Monday, February 26, 2018, 350 lobbyists took the capitol by storm and spoke to our representatives about maintaining a robust budget for humanitarian aid, refugees, and displaced persons, the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and Human Rights Defenders worldwide who have become Prisoners of Conscience. There were so many of us from North Carolina (50!) that we couldn’t all meet with the staffers for Senators Tillis and Burr and instead had to break into two groups of 25. My group met with Cole, a staffer for Senator Burr. I didn’t speak in this meeting because our group was so large and there were a lot of people who felt passionately about making their voices heard, but it was very interesting to sit in on.
A smaller group of six of us met with one of Congressman McHenry’s staffers. The staffer we were supposed to meet with was out sick for the day, so we met with a woman named Lauren. In this meeting, I spoke about my time in Kenya and my time in South Africa in the Peace Corps. I spoke about how the orphanage I was a voluntourist at exploited families and recruited children in order to attract volunteers and donations, which were ultimately pocketed by the man running the orphanage. I spoke about how women and children were treated less than favorably in my villages in South Africa. Lauren was kind, but she wasn’t the staffer responsible for being knowledgeable about the issues we were discussing.
Even if just some of the representatives the 350 of us spoke to are determined to help with the issues we brought up, it could make a huge difference. For example, one of the funds we lobbied on behalf of was the International Disaster Assistance (IDA) fund. It provides funds to people displaced by natural disaster, conflict, and war. Funding supports efforts to eradicate famine in countries including South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia and addresses long-standing humanitarian crises that have caused significant internal displacement in other countries.
Here are the things we were asking of our representatives:
Ask #1: I request that Congressman McHenry/Senator Tillis/ Senator Burr do whatever he can to maintain robust funding for Humanitarian Assistance for Refugees and Displaced People worldwide.
The appropriations process provides a critical opportunity for Congress to support displaced persons and refugees by funding the MRA, IDA, and ERMA accounts that provide life-saving and life-sustaining humanitarian assistance worldwide.
The world hasn’t seen this level of displacement since World War II. 65.6 million people have had to flee their homes to escape persecution, torture, and violence. Among them are about 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are children. President Trump’s proposed budget would slash Federal funding for Humanitarian Aid by over 1/3. We cannot allow this to happen.
When the United States stands up for the protection of vulnerable people worldwide, other nations take notice and follow suit. When the United States retreats in cowardice away from protecting the most vulnerable people, other nations take notice and follow suit. If we don’t maintain robust funding for Humanitarian Aid, millions will suffer even more than they already are. It adds insult to injury when people fleeing war, violence, torture, and persecution are cared for so little by the world’s Power House. We must show refugees, displaced persons, and the rest of the world that we care about human dignity.
Ask #2: I request that Congressman McHenry co-sponsor and commit to passing H.R. 4223, The BURMA Act of 2017, and that Senators Tillis and Burr support S. 2060 (The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017).
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that ethnic cleansing is still an issue faced in 2018, but for over 688,000 Rohingya people, systematic murder, rape, and mass burnings are their reality. After the world has witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, northern Iraq, China, Libya, Soviet Ukraine, and many others, you would think our government would know better than to stand by and watch while doing nothing
Thousands more Rohingya are displaced internally in Myanmar. As documented by Amnesty International and other credible organizations, this crisis is a direct result of Myanmar military’s campaign of violence marked by murder, deportation and forcible displacement, torture, rape, village burnings, apartheid, and other inhumane acts like the denial of life-saving provisions.
The BURMA Act of 2017 and the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017 would sanction Myanmar officials responsible for the persecution of the Rohingya, prohibit military to military cooperation with Myanmar’s security forces, facilitate access to a U.N. fact-finding mission to Rakhine State, call on officials in Myanmar to permit aid distribution by international humanitarian organizations, urge the Myanmar government to extend civil and political rights, including citizenship, to the Rohingya, and protect Rohingya refugees from being subjected to unsafe, involuntary, or uninformed repatriation.
Ask #3: I request that Congressman McHenry protect Human Rights Defenders Worldwide by co-sponsoring and passing the Prisoners of Conscience resolution to encourage human rights advocacy on behalf of prisoners of conscience worldwide/ I ask that Senators Burr and Tillis co-sponsor and pass the Human Rights Defender Resolution.
Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) play a key role in defending the principles of freedom, justice, and dignity. When they are attacked, the human rights of everyone, including you, me, and Congressman McHenry, are undermined. Over 3500 HRDs have been killed worldwide, with at least 312 HRDs murdered in 2017. Attacks on HRDs and prisoners of conscience have a devastating impact on human rights in wider society, creating a cycle of fear and impunity, eroding the rule of law, and depriving the countries or communities of the progress toward freedom and justice that would have been achieved by the brave work of these individuals.
The Human Rights Defender Resolution provides vital public recognition and support for the important work of HRDs, supports and promotes the protection of threatened HRDs from arbitrary arrest, intimidation, defamation campaigns, judicial harassment, threats, torture, enforced disappearances, and assassination, and encourages accountability for those who are responsible for human rights violations against HRDs.
Even if you don’t have lobbying training provided to you and even if you can’t afford to travel to Washington, D.C. to talk to them in person, it’s easy to write letters to and call your representatives and senators to let them know what is important to you. Most of them also have local offices where you could arrange a face-to-face meeting. Contact your representatives and let them know how you feel about issues like voluntourism, orphanages, and the exploitation of families.