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McCollum Remarks at Amnesty International Lobby Day

February 26, 2018
Press Release

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.) delivered the following remarks at Amnesty International's Lobby Day in Washington on Feb. 26, 2018:

Thank you for welcoming me this morning and thank you for being here in our nation’s capital today to speak up and speak out for human rights! I am proud to be with a room of human rights activists. And, I am honored to stand with Amnesty International in support of prisoners of conscience, human rights, and the right of all people to live lives of dignity and hope.

I’m especially proud to see so many people from Minnesota in this room, including Paul Bloom – whose tireless advocacy for human rights in the Philippines deserves our appreciation. In Minnesota, we take our responsibility to advance human rights seriously. We embrace refugees and we work around the world through Minnesota based organizations like the Center for Victims of Torture, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, and the American Refugee Committee.

Throughout my career in Congress I have felt an obligation to speak out and advance policies that reflect the best of American leadership in the world. From fighting HIV/AIDS, to improving food security for the world’s poorest, to efforts to prevent teenage girls into forced marriages, I have worked to improve lives around the world.

That is why I traveled last November to Burma and Bangladesh with several of my House and Senate colleagues to see the crisis for ourselves and to send a message. We saw firsthand the trauma and the tragedy from the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. We spoke with parents who had lost children, with victims of horrific violence, and with people who are struggling to rebuild their lives in refugee camps in Bangladesh. We saw international aid groups like the United Nations Population Fund working tirelessly to help these survivors.

This visit was an important reminder of the vital role of the United States must play in defending human rights and aiding the vulnerable around the world.

But tragically, America’s role in the world has entered a new and disturbing era. President Donald Trump has abandoned traditional, bipartisan American leadership.  He glorifies torture. He celebrates dictators and human rights abusers. And, he is proud of Guantanamo Bay – which in my opinion is an American disgrace that should be closed immediately.

The Trump administration is intent on taking American leadership backwards. Under President Trump, America has given up the high ground, turning his back on refugees, abandoning Dreamers, and ignoring the victims of war, violence, and persecution.

That is why Congress – Democrats and Republicans – must temper the worst excesses of the Trump administration’s agenda. But we need your help and your voice, and that’s why I’m so glad you’re here today. I want to spotlight a few issues where your voices can help shape what’s being debated in the Capitol right now.

Let’s start with robust funding for foreign affairs and assistance.

I serve on the House Appropriations Committee. Right now, we are in the midst of making very important budget decisions for fiscal year 2018, as well as starting our consideration of the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bills. As you know, President Trump has proposed deep cuts the State Department and U.S. foreign assistance around the world. These cuts are short-sighted and deeply harmful. If enacted, they will cause deep suffering for millions of people, while leaving our country even more isolated on the global stage.

Today, you can make clear to your Representatives and Senators that you strongly support funding for American diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, and you understand the value of these investments in building a more peaceful, just, and prosperous world.

You can also make a difference today on the situation in Burma.

The House has already passed a non-binding resolution, H. Con. Res. 90, which condemns the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. But we need to do more. The BURMA Act, H.R. 4223, imposes new sanctions on the Burmese military in response to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. This bill gives the federal government the tools it needs to help end the ethnic cleansing, support investigations that lead to prosecution of war criminals, and forge a better path forward for Burma.

During our travels to Bangladesh and Burma, we also met with human rights defenders on the ground working to document and end the ethnic cleansing. That includes the journalists who are covering the atrocities against the Rohingya, it includes the teachers and doctors who are working in refugee camps, and it includes the civil society leaders who are speaking up throughout the region.

Symbolism is critical in defending human rights and I strongly support the bipartisan resolution that support human rights defenders, as well as the forthcoming resolution that will defend prisoners of conscience.

I’d also like to discuss another issue that is very close to my heart.

Late last year, I introduced H.R. 4391, the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act. Hundreds of Palestinian children have been detained by Israeli security forces and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system each year. Right now 300 to 500 Palestinian children are in Israeli military detention, including a Ahed Tamimi, a girl who just celebrated her 17th birthday in an Israeli military prison. Ahed, like all of these children, are victims and political prisioners of a 50 year military occupation.

Independent monitors have documented that these children are subject to abuse and, in some cases, torture — specifically citing the use of chokeholds, beatings, and coercive interrogation on children between the ages of 11 and 15. Given that the Israeli government receives billions of dollars in security assistance from the United States, Congress must work to ensure that American taxpayer dollars never support the Israeli military’s detention or abuse of Palestinian children. My bill requires that the Secretary of State certify that American funds do not support Israel’s military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children.

Amnesty International has been a critical partner in this legislative effort and I am proud to have Amnesty’s endorsement on this bill! Now we need more co-sponsors! I urge you to ask your Representatives to co-sponsor H.R. 4391 and promote human rights for Palestinian children.

Of course, I’m realistic that this bill will not pass this Congress. Working on human rights issues in Washington is daunting. It often feels like for every step we take forward, we take two steps back. And when it comes to dealing with an administration that seems willing to trash democratic norms and cozy up to despots at every turn, you can almost feel like giving up. But because of groups like Amnesty International we are making progress! And now is not the time to give up the fight.

People around the world, from imprisoned journalists in Burma to children in the Palestinian territories, are counting on us to stand up and speak out for their rights — and ours.

We need your voices now more than ever. As Amnesty’s motto says, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Thank you for being here today, thank you for the work you’re doing every day, and best of luck with today!