Felix Gillette couldn’t be more wrong in his “Moving Backward” (2/20). He suggested that a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) finding that the United States is violating international human-rights standards by denying full voting rights to D.C. residents is a less-than-helpful step that probably hurts the cause of equality rather than advancing it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is the OAS finding enforceable in a court of law? No. Will it immediately change the course of D.C. voting rights and shame the U.S. government into quickly and fully enfranchising D.C. citizens? Of course not. But neither is the ruling without significant impact in helping to move voting rights for the District closer to reality.

Has Gillette—and perhaps too many of the rest of us—forgotten the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s here in our own country? Denial of voting rights was an essential target of that campaign, along with many other aspects of institutional racism in the South. One march, one sit-in, or one judicial order did not in and of itself end segregation or place disenfranchised African-Americans in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states on to the voting rolls. The process took years of effort and a variety of different types of initiatives that brought the issue to public attention and forced the courts and the U.S. Congress to change the legal standards that were then in effect. Congress was just as reluctant to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act back in the ’60s as it is to grant equal voting rights to the District now. But it was convinced of the necessity of doing so by numerous actions and pressures that built up as a result of the civil-rights movement.

That is exactly what has to be done now for District voting rights, and the OAS decision helps in that effort by making clear that we are alone in the international community in denying voting rights to residents of the capital city—that our own sister nations in the hemisphere recognize and condemn this inequality and denial of basic human rights.

It is important to see the OAS decision as one more point of leverage, one more means for bringing pressure on the U.S. government to accept voting rights for District residents. The real significance of the ruling can be seen in the fact that the OAS, or any other international organization, for that matter, rarely takes on the U.S. government, for the simple reason that we are one of the largest and most powerful member states of these organizations. The fact that the human-rights compliance agency of the OAS felt compelled to take the United States to task indicates just how clear-cut the violation of international human-rights standards is, and how important the issue of equal voting rights for the District is viewed in the international community.

Another key factor to keep in mind is that the OAS decision comes at a perfect time. As President Bush himself noted in his State of the Union address, the U.S. government is in the midst of making a strong case that support for democracy in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe is our strongest weapon in the fight against terrorism. Bush suggested that terrorism cannot grow where democratic institutions exist. That argument—and all of our efforts to promote human rights and democracy in foreign nations—is seriously undercut when the regional international organization for our own hemisphere declares that we are denying basic democratic rights to residents of our capital city.

It is very shortsighted to take the position that the U.S. government does not feel the impact of this decision and the pressures that it adds to deal more effectively and promptly with the D.C. voting-rights problem. The OAS decision is not “the end,” as Gillette suggests, because it cannot, by itself, result in change. It is one small but very significant step forward on the path to equality, so long as we recognize its significance and take the necessary follow-up actions that will give it greater attention and help it produce the impact we would like it to have in terms of real policy change.

World Organization Against Torture USA