A Generation of Fighting for Human Rights

We've all done things we're not proud of. At discos in the early '80s I'd dance a solo routine to Dexy's "Come on Eileen" - all rockstar pout and ginger quiff, an inspired fusion of Riverdance and air drumming. The memories of those days are partly redeemed by knowing I was also interning in the U.S. Congress, researching anti-apartheid legislation for Senator Ted Kennedy. Around that time another young student, Jim McGovern, was interning for the Senator George McGovern, and working for Congressman Jim Moakley, also from Massachusetts. In those pre-Internet years, we both researched human rights--him concentrating on abuses by the El Salvador military, me on apartheid, trying to determine how to stop U.S. complicity in human rights violations in those places and elsewhere. McGovern has served as a Massachusetts Congressman for the past 19 years, and as Co-Chair of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for the last seven. In that time, he has repeatedly, doggedly raised human rights issues in dozens of countries from Burma to Colombia to Sudan and beyond. Now he has confirmed that he will introduce legislation in the House to block the sale of certain arms to Bahrain until the State Department certifies that Bahrain has fully implemented all of the recommendations offered by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) - similar to the bill introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) this week. McGovern has been steadfast on Bahrain in these past few years at a time when others in the U.S. government have been willing to cozy up to the dictatorship there. He's spoken publicly many times about the harassment and jailing of leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, the jailing of medics after they treated injured protestors and told international media the truth about the attacks on civilians, and warned that Bahrain's repression will cause instability that the United States can't afford. When I hear human rights activists in Bahrain talk about McGovern, it reminds me of what South Africans fighting apartheid used to say to me about Ted Kennedy: he's a rare friend in Congress that speaks out on injustice when other American politicians stay silent, and they wish he was in the White House. And what Bahraini government officials say about McGovern is what the apartheid government used to say about Kennedy: he doesn't understand that their country isn't ready for democracy, he's a meddler, and he believes everything he hears from radicals. But while the apartheid regime allowed Kennedy to visit in 1985, the Bahrainis were so nervous about McGovern seeing the situation for himself last year they refused to let him into the country. Rula al Saffar spent 18 years working and studying in the United States and served as president of Bahrain's Nurses Association. She was targeted in 2011. "I was one of dozens of medics targeted after treating injured protesters hurt during clashes with the regime. After being detained for months and tortured into making a false confession, I was convicted by a military court and sentenced to 15 years in prison," she said. "I was one of the lucky ones who was later acquitted, but I had very few allies who stood with me in my fight for justice. An exception was Rep. Jim McGovern, one of the few American leaders who has worked to secure justice for the people of Bahrain. The U.S. government needs more people like him. When U.S. allies are guilty of torture and other human rights abuses, far too few American leaders are ready to speak out for what is right." It's been a long time since Dexy's and the early 80s, since Reagan's first term, since the anti-apartheid sanctions campaign, since the opening years of the Salvadoran civil war. McGovern has put in a generation of work on human rights in Congress since then as an intern, staffer and representative. Pity there aren't many more like him.