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On Feb. 12, D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton accused White House spokesperson Scott McClellan of essentially slapping her constituency.
The previous day, District leaders had asked McClellan about a December ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regarding the suffrage of District voters. The seven members of the commission, which acts as a watchdog group monitoring the Americas for human-rights violations, concluded that the U.S. government is currently abusing District residents by denying them full representation in Congress.
McClellan more or less responded, So what?
Outraged, the District’s voteless legislator accused the White House on her Web site of reacting to the commission with “the back of their hands.”
The only trouble with McClellan’s slap is that it wasn’t enough. In Hollywood movies, a single slap to the face of a hysterical character, followed by a warning to “get yourself together,” usually does the trick. But people who fight for the District’s voting rights have become numb to reality.
It took nearly 11 years of proceedings for the IACHR to rule in favor of Timothy Cooper, a member of the Statehood Solidarity Committee, against the U.S. government. As the saying goes, there are many victories worse than a defeat. This is one.
What did 11 years of litigation accomplish? In essence, the suit won over the sympathy of seven individuals—none of whom vote in the United States.
Nice strategy. At this rate, it will take only another 10 billion years to galvanize the rest of the international community.
There are four meaningful venues when it comes to fighting for District voting rights: the U.S. Congress, the U.S. judicial system, the White House, and the soapbox of public opinion. The IACHR isn’t 5th on the list, nor 6th. It’s not in the top 100. It’s not a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. It’s the final stop on the long road to obscurity, the place where the downtrodden victims of imperialism and capitalism throughout North, South, and Central America can unload their grievances when all else has failed.
Thanks to the recent ruling, District voters can now join hands in solidarity with the embattled Kankuamo indigenous people in Colombia, the beleaguered Garífuna community in Honduras, and the late Diego Xon Salazar of Guatemala. All of whom enjoy the explicit backing of the IACHR. We’re all in the same gang now.
Unfortunately for District voters, the IACHR has little leverage over the current administration. The IACHR has no legal jurisdiction in the United States. No economic influence. No military power. There will be no saber-rattling, no trade sanctions. Ultimately, the IACHR’s nod to the District’s problems is considerate, just, and meaningless.
We may as well start appealing to other international panels that have no bearing on the future of electoral politics in the United States. How would the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute size up the District’s situation? Or the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union? Perhaps we could spend the next 11 years presenting our case to the Russian Olympic Committee. Toss in a few Canadian figure-skating judges and full suffrage is sure to follow.
Norton noted that it would be difficult for the United States to ignore this ruling, in part because the Organization of American States (OAS), of which the IACHR is a subordinate committee, enjoys the “active participation and financing of the United States in its work.” In addition to its regular membership dues, the United States also regularly pitches in voluntary contributions to various OAS funds. For instance, last year Colin Powell announced that the State Department would contribute an extra $1 million to the OAS special mission in Haiti.
How does that put pressure on the U.S. government? Perhaps the OAS could threaten to stop taking U.S. funding: the old reverse boycott.
But if refusing to accept the U.S. money somehow fails to catapult the District’s voting rights to the top of the Bush Administration’s agenda, there’s always the threat of bad publicity. According to Norton, “the United States will lose further international credibility if they ignore the finding of the respected Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”
In other words, if the honchos in the White House think the French and German diplomats are fuming about pre-emptive warfare and phantom weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, wait ’til they get a whiff of this IACHR debacle.
It’s still premature to measure the public-relations fallout if the feds flout the IACHR’s recommendations regarding the District. But there are precedents.
In 2002, the IACHR came down in favor of Mary and Carrie Dann in their suit against the U.S. government. The Dann sisters, who are members of the Western Shoshone tribe in Nevada, charged the federal government with interfering on their tribal land by removing the Danns’ livestock and by allowing gold prospecting within Western Shoshone territory.
Representatives of the U.S. government countered, in part, by arguing that in terms of 1872 values, the Indian Claims Commission had already awarded the Western Shoshone more than $26 million in compensation for the loss of their land.
Shortly after the IACHR spoke up for the sisters, the feds sent their de facto response, noting that “the United States rejects the Commission’s findings in their entirety.” The Dann sisters, despite the outrageous backhanded slight, did not become darlings of the international press.
One commission member, dissenting in the District’s case, suggested that a public-relations campaign might be more effective for the voting-rights cause than an actual ruling. “…I am of the view that the type of issues dealt with in the present case can and should be dealt with by the Commission and other organs of the Organization of American States through their promotional functions rather than by deciding on a claim or communication,” wrote José# Zalaquett. “I believe such an approach to be more promising and constructive.”
That would have been a great point—10 years ago.
Because the United States has refused to comply with the commission’s recommendations on D.C. voting rights, the members of the IACHR have published their conclusions in the OAS’s annual report. This past December, the ruling went out to representatives of the 35 members of the OAS.
So what’s next?
If the United States fails to grant District voters full representation in Congress, then next year the annual report will acknowledge, once again, the plight of D.C residents.
That’s it. Case closed.
As it turns out for District voters, the favorable ruling from the IACHR is not the means to an end.
It is the end. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Peter Hoey.