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Congressional Record: May 14, 1999 (Extensions)
Page E966-E967



                            HON. TOM LANTOS

                             of california

                    in the house of representatives

                         Thursday, May 13, 1999

  Mr. LANTOS. Mr. Speaker, recently I introduced in the House The Human 
Rights Information Act (H.R. 1625), and joining me as the principal 
cosponsor of this bill was Congresswoman Connie Morella, our 
distinguished Republican Colleague from the State of Maryland. Our 
legislation has already found strong bipartisan support with over 50 of 
our distinguished colleagues joining as original cosponsors of this 
bill. These men and women are leading voices in the defense of human 
rights throughout the world, and recently many of them joined me at a 
press conference announcing the introduction of this legislation.
  Mr. Speaker, this legislation is similar to legislation which I 
introduced in the last Congress with the cosponsorship of Congresswoman 
Morella. Our bill--H.R. 2635 of the 105th Congress--was considered and 
favorably reported by the Subcommittee on Government Management, 
Information, and Technology of the Committee on Government Reform in 
the last Congress. I want to commend our colleague, Congressman Stephen 
Horn, who chairs that Subcommittee, for his thoughtful consideration of 
the legislation last year. I also want to thank Congressman Dennis 
Kucinich, who served as Ranking Democratic Member of the Subcommittee 
in the last Congress, for his help in the consideration of the 
legislation last year.
  Mr. Speaker, three simple principles are at the heart of the Human 
Rights Information Act.
  First, it is a fundamental obligation of our government to support 
and protect human rights and democracy. This principle is central to 
our democratic system of government. The constitutional codification of 
our commitment

[[Page E967]]

to human rights, our Bill of Rights, not only has domestic implications 
for Americans, but it also has inspired and encouraged countries around 
the world in their own quest for freedom, democracy, and human rights. 
Successive American Administrations have recognized our nation's strong 
national commitment to human rights as a guiding principle and as one 
of the highest obligations of our nation's foreign policy. The United 
States has freely accepted our obligation to protect human rights under 
international law by signing and ratifying various international human 
rights treaties and covenants. It is also fundamental to any democratic 
system of government that the public be fully informed about policies 
directly affecting these most fundamental rights in order for the 
people to make meaningful decisions with regard to their government and 
to participate fully in the democratic process. The timely 
declassification of documents pertaining to human rights violations 
abroad, therefore, ought to be a paramount obligation of any U.S. 
government agency.
  Second, our nation's commitment to the promotion and protection of 
human rights and democracy around the world has led us to make 
tremendous diplomatic, economic, and military efforts to end systematic 
human rights violations abroad. The United States government's efforts 
are supported by numerous American and foreign non-governmental 
organizations (NGOs) in the promotion of human rights and democracy. 
These efforts would be in vain if we do not do all we can to uncover 
and legally prosecute those who commit human rights abuses with 
impunity. Only full investigation of human rights abuses in these areas 
can really bring about the full accountability needed to develop 
respect for human rights and to rebuild a peaceful and reconciled civil 
society after civil conflict.
  Third, democracy and human rights can flourish only where information 
is fully available, and information is essential to the rule of law. 
Without information and the rule of law, we will see human rights 
violations and the erosion of democracy. Even in countries where 
progress has been made, there is danger of regression if full 
information and the rule of law are not scrupulously enforced.
  A country currently facing this danger is Guatemala. As my colleagues 
may know, just a few weeks ago, three gunmen entered the house of 
Ronalth Ochaeta, the director of the Catholic Church's human rights 
office. They put a gun to the head of his 4-year old son and left a box 
with bricks behind. The bricks are an allusion to the assassination of 
Bishop Gerardi a year ago, who was killed by a brick only days after 
the Bishop issued his report on human right violations during the 
period of the Guatemalan Civil War. The investigation of the Bishop's 
death has not yet produced any results. In Guatemala recently, 
President Clinton gave his word that the United States will never 
forget its obligation to those people whose lives have been affected by 
our policies, and who are now rightfully seeking the most basic of all 
information which was not included in the recently released report by 
the Guatemalan Truth Commission--What happened to their relatives and 
loved ones, where are their bodies, and which individuals were 
responsible for the disappearances and deaths?
  Mr. Speaker, let me briefly outline the provisions of H.R. 1625:
  Our bill specifies that 120 days after enactment of the legislation, 
each U.S. government agency shall identify, review and organize all 
records and documents relating to human rights abuses in Guatemala and 
Honduras after 1944. The provisions of the legislation would also apply 
to human rights violations in other areas of the world, but because of 
the particularly serious problems of Guatemala and Honduras and the 
reconciliation efforts currently under way there, these two countries 
these are given particular focus in the bill.
  The legislation would apply the declassification procedures of the 
previously enacted JFK Assassination Records Act to human rights 
records. This will assure that legitimate National Security concerns 
are protected, but at the same time it will also assure that human 
rights documents are given special priority. In order the assure that 
records are not withheld for trival reasons, those records which 
agencies seek to withhold would be reviewed by the Interagency Security 
Classification Appeals Panel (an organization which was established by 
Presidential Executive Order 12958) or any entity subsequently 
established which fulfills the same functions of the Appeals Panel. Our 
legislation would add two new members to the Appeals Panel (or the 
entity that replaces it). These two positions would be filled by the 
President with human rights experts who meet the security requirements 
for membership on the panel. The President would be required to invite 
recommendations for these positions from the human rights community.
  Mr. Speaker, our legislation is an effort to assure that human rights 
records and documents--which are essential for the identification and 
prosecution of individuals involved in gross human rights abuses--are 
made available to other countries in their pursuit and punishment of 
human rights violators. At the same time the legislation recognizes and 
carefully balances the national security and intelligence needs of the 
United States.
  I invite our colleagues in the House to join as cosponsors of this 
important piece of legislation.

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