Norton Seeks Hearing on Voting Rights

Posted April 7, 2004 at 5:44pm

Looking to build on a recent decision that found the United States in violation of international human rights laws, District of Columbia voting rights advocates are now pushing for a hearing before the Helsinki Commission in their campaign for Congressional representation.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) requested the hearing in a letter issued Wednesday to Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who serve as co-chairmen of the federal panel charged with monitoring human rights issues.

In her letter, Norton asked the commission to review a December ruling by the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which found the absence of Congressional representation for District residents put the U.S. government in violation of international human rights law.

“The commission found that the United States should provide ‘an effective remedy’ by law or other measures ‘to guarantee [D.C. residents] the effective right to participate, directly or through freely chosen representatives and the general conditions of equality in their national legislature,’” Norton wrote. The OAS ruling came in response to a complaint filed in 1993 by 23 District residents.

“The Helsinki Commission has a distinguished reputation and track record of impartial investigation of human rights violations throughout the world,” the letter continues. “Consistent with your hearings on violations in other countries, we ask you to hold a hearing considering the OAS Human Rights Commission ruling and to provide a recommendation concerning this violation in our own country.”

It is not yet clear whether the commission — which in recent times has focused on issues such as human trafficking and religious liberty — will schedule a hearing on the OAS ruling. The commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, consists of 18 House and Senate lawmakers as well as representatives from the State and Commerce departments.

A spokesman for the Helsinki Commission said Wednesday that he had not received a copy of the letter and could not comment on it.

In addition to Norton, voting rights advocate Tim Cooper, who filed the original OAS complaint in 1993, has also requested a hearing.

“The U.S. government is duty bound to conform its domestic law with its international obligations,” asserted Cooper, executive director of the D.C.-based human rights advocacy group Worldrights.

“Once the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] states become engaged, their involvement should create an unstoppable momentum for full Congressional representation for D.C. residents,” Cooper added in a later e-mail. “The OSCE will provide the political catalyst to leverage the OAS legal decision, creating a critical mass for actual change that has been lacking for centuries.”

Proponents of Congressional representation for the District — D.C. residents currently elect only a nonvoting Delegate to the House — also suggest a hearing could prompt Congress to respond to the OAS ruling.

“The silence from Congress on the OAS report was deafening,” said Ilir Zherka, D.C. Vote’s executive director. Although the organization issued information on the 2003 ruling to several Members, it received no responses, Zherka said.