Interview: Rep. Jim McGovern Says Trump Ignores Human Rights Abuses

In an interview with The Hardy Report podcast, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) discusses his work advocating for human rights around the world and his solutions to the problems that exist in China and Myanmar.
Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) offers closing remarks during a congressional briefing on Egypt’s presidential election, current repression of civil society and potential political adversaries, and U.S. policy toward Egypt – March 13, 2018. (POMED/Creative Commons)

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) offers closing remarks during a congressional briefing on Egypt’s presidential election, current repression of civil society and potential political adversaries, and U.S. policy toward Egypt – March 13, 2018. (POMED/Creative Commons)

This interview is published on Rantt Media in partnership with The Hardy Report

Who is Representative Jim McGovern and what is he doing to address human rights abuses around the world?

Congressman Jim McGovern is a member of the House of Representatives, from Massachusetts’s 2nd congressional district, Co-Chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China and of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Since taking office, he has dedicated his career to advocating for human rights in countries across the world, in particular Colombia, El Salvador, Sudan and Tibet.

Earlier this year, in April, to mark the 31st birthday of the Panchen Lama, McGovern renewed calls for his release by the Chinese government, criticizing the country’s persecution of religious leaders and practices in Tibet. He also urged the Chinese government to release prisoners and those in detention who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. In 2013, in response to the attacks on Rohingya Muslims within Myanmar, McGovern introduced House Resolution 418, calling on the Burmese government to end the persecution and discrimination of Rohingya people and recognize them as an ethnic group.

Editor’s Note: This transcript has been edited, for clarity, from the original interview, broadcast on The Hardy Report podcast on 14th June 2020.

Edward Hardy: A focus of your career has been international human rights, advocating for individuals across the world from El Salvador to Tibet. For a large part of that time, the United States has been seen as a leading figure on the world stage fighting for human rights. But there are people who believe that, under the Trump administration, the US is now shirking that responsibility. Do you feel the current administration has failed in its duty to advocate for human rights?

Representative Jim McGovern: I do and I’m sad to say that. It’s very, very disappointing to me. I’ve always believed that, if the United States stands for anything, we need to stand out loud and foursquare for human rights. In Congress, we still have a bipartisan coalition that comes together around many human rights issues, but when the President of the United States thinks of human rights as an afterthought, when he’s more interested in a business deal than in protecting people from persecution, it is very disheartening.

I believe that, as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we ought to live up to what we signed. We ought to insist that everybody’s dignity be respected. I’m not just talking about halfway around the world. I’m also saying halfway down the block. I think we have to care about human rights in the United States, as well as everywhere else in the world.

When I see the President of the United States basically turn a blind die to the terrible atrocities that are occurring, not just in China, but also by Saudi Arabia with a Washington Post journalist being murdered and dismembered, and the president was an apologist for the Saudi royal family that was responsible for giving the order, so he can sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia, I find that’s unconscionable. So, I am deeply disappointed that the Trump administration has walked away from human rights and I think it has hurt our reputation around the world. I think it has given a green light to a lot of authoritarian leaders to behave in very unfortunate ways.

Hardy: That issue of the Trump administration seeing everything as a business deal was reflected in how, earlier this year, the Trump administration announced that it was loosening restrictions on the US military’s ability to use landmines, which have been banned by more than 160 countries due to their history of killing and wounding civilians. How concerned where you by that move?

McGovern: Landmines are indiscriminate weapons. They kill civilians. They kill innocent bystanders. Every once in a while, you’ll read a story about somebody in Europe who was killed by a landmine that was planted during World War II. We have got countries that have used landmines and then there’s been mudslides and tropical storms that have moved their location. They’re just one of the cruellest weapons that you can think of.

Early on in Congress, I was a strong advocate, along with Senator Leahy of Vermont, to try to get the United States during the Clinton administration to sign on to the international treaty to ban landmines. We didn’t sign onto the treaty but, under the Clinton administration, we made a pledge that we were going to try to live up to what the treaty said and it actually provided a lot of money for de-mining efforts all around the world. I never thought that there was any objection to us trying to rid the world of landmines until Trump came in to power. For the life of me, I don’t understand this other than it might make some weapons developer happy. It’s just cruel.

We have to be leading the world to ban not only weapons like landmines, but we ought to be leading the world in trying to abolish nuclear weapons. We currently have an administration that seems bent on doing the exact opposite. There’s not a country in the world that Donald Trump doesn’t want to arm. All he seems to want to do is brag about weapons sales. That’s not how you create stability. You create stability by dealing with issues like extreme poverty and hunger and human rights abuses. Trying to uphold those principles will do more to create a better world. As a citizen, as a United States congressman, I’m horrified by this administration and, especially, their insensitivity towards the rights of regular people.

Hardy: If Joe Biden is elected in 2020, is that something that you would hope that a Democratic administration, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House would be able to work towards?

McGovern: Absolutely. I have my differences with Vice President Biden but those differences are minuscule compared to my differences with Donald Trump. Even where we have differences, I believe that at least I would have a chance of trying to persuade Joe Biden to move more in my direction.

When Joe Biden was Vice President, he was a leader on human rights issues. I want a President who is the leader on human rights issues. Standing up for human rights, I think it defines who we are as a nation, and walking away from human rights also defines who we are as a nation. I don’t like this administration’s policies and turning a blind eye to some of the worst abuses that you can imagine. I already mentioned Saudi Arabia. Donald Trump has an on again, off again relationship with President Xi of China, but really doesn’t talk about the situation with the Uighurs or the Tibetans or whether it’s a terrible situation now in Hong Kong. He seems enamoured with Putin. He likes every strong man in the world and I think would like to be them. I think he’s doing great damage to the United States, and he’s doing great damage to those human rights defenders all around the world who are risking their lives every day standing up for the principles of freedom and dignity and justice.

Hardy: You’ve talked about how the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission works for the release of prisoners of conscience around the world. You’ve been a significant advocate for calling for the release of the current Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped by the Chinese authorities when he was just six years old, days after being selected as the Dalai Lama’s ultimate successor. He is now 31 years old. For those that aren’t familiar with the situation, why did the Chinese government kidnap him and refuse to allow anyone to see him?

McGovern: Let me say, I distinguish between the Chinese government and the Chinese people. I have great respect for the people of China. It’s the government that I have a problem with. I think the government fears His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I don’t quite understand why. I’ve spent many hours with His Holiness. I visited him in Dharamsala. I met with him many times in Washington. He is a man of peace and justice and goodness. He wants for his people to be able to practice their religion, their language, their culture, their traditions. He has developed his third way of approaching the future. His way would basically allow the people some autonomy, but it doesn’t demand that there would be a separate Tibetan country.

The Chinese government is obsessed and fearful of this elderly monk, this man of peace. I don’t get it. China is a big country with a powerful military and, yet, there they are fearful that this good man is somehow a threat to them. They took the Panchen Lama because they fear a true and independent Panchen Lama. They fear Tibetan Buddhism. They’re afraid because, I think, they’re so used to controlling everything. But that paranoia is a sign of weakness.

In the case of the Panchen Lama, he was six years old when he was kidnapped. The Chinese government was trying to inject itself into the whole reincarnation process and basically say that the government can pick the next Dalai Lama. It is so absurd. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. I think the Chinese government is fearful and paranoid because they think the tight control that they have over the people in China could be unravelled. It’s important that not just the United States, but also our friends in Europe and all around the world, stand up on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is a good, decent, honourable man. When I was in China, I told everybody I met that I consider him a friend and somebody that I revere and respect.

The Chinese government should release the Panchen Lama. I don’t even know where he is. No one has seen him. We don’t know whether he’s still alive. We don’t know whether he’s in prison. We don’t know. All we have is the Chinese government’s so-called word that he’s fine. It’s an example of incredible cruelty.

Hardy: As you acknowledge, China clearly has sought to keep the Panchen Lama out of the public eye to ensure they can control the succession and reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and have a firmer grip of control over the Tibetan Buddhist community. What can be done to prevent that from happening?

McGovern: I don’t think the Tibetan communities will allow China to take control over their minds and their faith. China will try, but they will not be successful. China has tried for many, many years and yet the Tibetan community is still vibrant. Those who are within the borders of China suffer greatly. They’re being persecuted, which is very, very sad. One of my frustrations over the years has been that the United States, under Republican and Democratic leadership, and other countries, will stand for a photo opportunity with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and say that: ‘We believe you should have the freedom to practice your religion and to be able to live your life along with your people and the Tibetan traditions.’ and then that’s it. There’s been no consequence for China consistently trying to eviscerate the Tibetan culture.

We have passed some legislation in Congress to change that and to impose some consequences. We ought to make sure that there are consequences. If China chooses to inject itself in the reincarnation process, we should invoke a bill I helped to pass called the Global Magnitsky Act. We have to impose consequences on those individual Chinese officials who are responsible for this abuse of policy against the Tibetan people. We ought to say to China: ‘We’re not going to allow you to open up any more consulates in the United States unless you allow us to open one up in Lhasa. [The capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region.]’. There are things like that that we and other countries around the world can do.

We need to put some teeth into our policy with regard to Tibet. There needs to be a consequence to the Chinese government for every time that they try to basically eliminate the Tibetan culture. We want the administration to use the tools that they already have available to impose sanctions against Chinese government officials. They haven’t done that. We passed a bill called the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, that basically says to the Chinese government: ‘We’re going to treat you like you treat us.’. I was able to go to Tibet several years ago, but we were the first delegation from Congress in possibly 10 years that was allowed in. Journalists can’t go to Tibet freely. The Chinese government basically holds people back. We’re saying: ‘OK, if that’s the case, we will treat you the same way. So, when your officials come to the United States, you can’t go anywhere you want.’. This issue of reciprocity is an important principle in dealing with other countries. There needs to be consequences and we’re trying to enshrine that in law.

Hardy: Buddhists in Tibet aren’t the only religious group who’ve been persecuted by China. Uighur Muslims in China have been rounded up and put in “re-education” camps. Why has the international community allowed the Chinese government to proceed with this crackdown and persecution of a religious minority?

McGovern: It’s shameful that there haven’t been stronger consequences. What the Chinese government is doing against the Uighurs is tantamount to crimes against humanity. I co-chaired, through the China Commission, a report that details the oppression against the Uighurs. It would be nice if we had a president of the United States who cares about human rights and utilizes the tools that he already has to respond to the Chinese authorities responsible for that policy, but he’s not. Congress needs to continue to try to pass legislation to force the issue. I think a lot of people in this administration are willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, whether it’s Uighurs, the Tibetans, or the people in Hong Kong because they’re interested in business deals at any cost.

We’re also working on legislation to hold our business community accountable and we need to put more of a burden on US businesses and other businesses outside of China to make sure that, whatever they’re producing, is in no way, shape or form tied to any of the forced labour in China. But, again, it’s terrible. When the world is silent, the world is complicit in this. It’s not enough to simply say: ‘It’s too bad what’s happening to the Uighurs.’, or issue a press statement, or do a tweet or say: ’What’s happening to the Tibetans is terrible.’, or: ‘What’s happening to the people in Hong Kong is terrible.’. Words are cheap. Words clearly do not impress the Chinese government. We’re at a point now where, if human rights matter, we need to replace our words with concrete actions. I want a good relationship with China. China is an important country in the world, with an incredible culture and history. The Chinese people are incredible, but we cannot sit by silently, or in a way that’s passive, while these terrible human rights atrocities continue.

Hardy: You mentioned Hong Kong in the answer there. Do you think that with what’s happening in Hong Kong, and what’s happening in Tibet, China just believes that it can act with impunity because it’s not going to face significant repercussions from the international community to discourage its actions?

McGovern: I think China thinks they can do whatever they want to do, be as oppressive as they want to be, and the worst that will happen to them is that various governments might issue a press statement saying: ‘What’s happening in China is unfortunate.’, and then China expects us to all move on. I hope that China is not proven right. It is important that governments around the world, that say they care about human rights, actually stand up for the people of Hong Kong, who are bravely protesting that China abides by the agreement for the two systems, one state solution. There’s nothing radical about what the protestors are asking for. I think that I’ve never seen a protest movement as inspiring as what I’ve seen in Hong Kong.

Young people and old people and everybody in between organizing protests in a peaceful manner, even apologizing to others when they have protests that cause inconvenience, and helping to raise awareness around the world. It’s just been unbelievable. I’m in awe of what they’re doing. They’re not asking for independence from China. They understand what was agreed to, but they want China to respect their autonomy and to not crackdown on their civil liberties and their democratic rights, and they want to have some say on who governs them in Hong Kong. What they’re asking for is reasonable and rational. If the world community allows China to continue its crackdown and to basically go back on its word, Hong Kong won’t be the last place where China tries to flex its muscles. And what does that say about us to just stand by and allow this to happen?

In Congress, we were working in a bipartisan way. Marco Rubio is the Co-Chair on the China Commission. Marco Rubio is a conservative Republican. I’m a liberal Democrat. We probably can’t even agree on what to have for lunch, but we’ve come together and we’ve unified on the issue of human rights. Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, a liberal, or a conservative, we ought to all agree that human rights should not be a partisan political issue. It ought to be something that is a defining issue, something that we all can come together on.

Hardy: Another country where there have been significant concerns about human rights abuses against Muslims is in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was once a freedom fighter, she even won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, but, since assuming office in 2016, she has stood by while Rohingya Muslims are persecuted and murdered in her country, with some reports even calling it genocide. Do you think that she should be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize, and what other actions could be taken against that country?

McGovern: Her lack of leadership and covering up for what, I think, has been accurately described as genocide is disgraceful and shameful. She is just as responsible as anybody else in that country. I think we need to figure out ways to sanction individuals who are responsible for many of these atrocities. I think she should be stripped of her Nobel Prize. She received the Congressional Medal. I want it back. She’s terrible. It’s a disgrace. It’s a moral outrage. If they want to come into the world community, and they want to deal with us economically and work with us, then we need to get assurances that these human rights abuses are going to stop. It has been a real disappointment to see how the human rights situation has deteriorated there.

Hardy: How do you believe that Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being so feted around the world, receiving awards for her work, to a pariah who’s allowed these actions to happen in her country?

McGovern: She lost her soul along the way. Maybe she feels incredible pressure from the security forces. Some people have said to me that if she pushes too hard then she’ll be in jail. She spent a lot of time under house arrest and that’s when we all were advocates for her release. Also, we were hopeful when she rose to the position she has now, that she would be a champion for the rights of all people. I know it’s easy for me to say because I can speak my mind and not be thrown into jail, but the deal is, if you want to be the leader of your country, then you have to lead. I don’t know what the consequences would have been if she had done the right thing, but I think the world community would have rallied around her.

She didn’t stand up for human rights, for the Rohingya people, and for all other citizens of Myanmar because, by the way, they’re not the only people that are being oppressed. Not only did she not stand up for them, she actually put forward the lies and the misinformation that were coming from the security forces there. I think the whole world is disappointed with her and I think she’s a disgrace. I remember when she first came to power, she came to Congress and we welcomed her. She said all the right things and she ended up doing all the wrong things. It’s just a moral outrage.

Hardy: Do you believe that Aung San Suu Kyi, or members of her government, or her political party should face charges at the International Criminal Court for what’s happened to the Rohingya Muslims?

McGovern: That’s a difficult question. I don’t believe she’s ordering what’s happening. I think she is complicit. I don’t believe that she’s entitled to a Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t believe she’s entitled to any praise. What she has turned a blind eye to is just unforgivable, but I haven’t thought about the question you asked.

Hardy: Finally, looking to the future, we’ve obviously talked about some awful instances of human rights violations across the world but, when it comes to human rights, what do you hope for in the future and what are you hoping will be the situation we’re at after 2020, after 2024, once the Trump administration is out of office?

McGovern: I hope that happens sooner rather than later because I think that, in and of itself, will make a big difference in terms of raising the issue of human rights around the world in a more effective and more consistent way. But what gives me hope are the men and women I’ve met and I’ve talked to who are on the front lines, who are literally risking their lives on behalf of human rights. We talked about Hong Kong, these young teenagers, young adults that are incredibly courageous and defiant because they know what they’re doing is absolutely right. The Tibetans who just won’t be repressed, who find ways to practice Tibetan Buddhism even in spite of the terrible, watchful eye of the Chinese government. The people in Columbia who have suffered so much as a result of the civil conflict there, who are still suffering.

There’s goodness in this world and I think, as hard as some of these dictators and authoritarian rulers are trying to stamp it out, eventually, I believe, that goodness will prevail. I believe that the Tibetans ultimately will prevail. I believe that the protestors of Hong Kong will prevail. I believe in a better future. I just want to hurry that future along here and that’s why I focus a lot of my attention on this work.

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Interview // Congress / Human Rights / Jim McGovern / World