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McGovern: more focus needed on human rights

When the government discusses U.S. interests in areas such as trade, military, or economic relations with other countries, human rights should be a major part of the conversation, says U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. Too often, he said, this isn’t the case.

“It’s my view that U.S. interests are not served very well when you put human rights to the side,” McGovern said. “Because ultimately people who are oppressed end up revolting and demanding change. And when they do they not only remember who in their government treated them badly, they also remember who enabled their government.”

McGovern, who represents the Massachusetts Second Congressional District covering most of Central Massachusetts, spoke to about 70 people Friday afternoon in the Northeastern University School of Law’s Dockser Hall. The program was sponsored by the law school’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (also known as PHRGE) and the university’s Office of Government Relations.

In opening remarks, Jeremy Paul, dean of the law school, said in his opening remarks, commended McGovern for his commitment to these issues of conscience and for talking to the Northeastern community about his experiences. His work aligns with the goals of PHRGE, the center of the School of Law’s human rights efforts and which works closely with scholars, institutions, and advocates nationally and internationally to address issues of human rights and economic development.

McGovern, for his part, is the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, named for the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, which aims to promote, defend, and advocate internationally recognized human rights in a nonpartisan manner. McGovern said the commission meets once a week to hear testimony on global human rights issues.

“The reason the commission is so important is because the committees of jurisdiction in Congress have let the obligation to focus on human rights go by the wayside,” McGovern said.

For those assembled who wanted their representatives to get more involved in human rights issues, McGovern said advocates need to constantly talk to their elected officials, get them to attend information sessions in their districts, and join the Human Rights Commission so they can learn more.

The Worcester native attributed his passion for human rights issues to the time he spent working for for South Dakota senator and presidential candidate George McGovern and U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley of South Boston. “When I came to Congress, I made it a point to be engaged on these issues,” he said. McGovern described persuading President Bill Clinton to start the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program, which provides poor children in developing countries with a nutritious meal during school hours.

As a staffer for Moakley in 1989, McGovern led a House task force that investigated the murders of six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador. The investigation found the Salvadorian military committed the murders and as a result changes were made to U.S. policy with El Salvador.

During a Q-and-A following his talk, McGovern was asked what the U.S. should be doing to help those affected by the civil war in Syria, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions more to flee their homes.

“It’s one of the worst-if not the worst-humanitarian crisis in the world right now,” McGovern said. “There ought to be greater pressure from the international community on the factors that we can control. And in terms of helping to resettle refugees, the U.S. needs to step up a little bit too.”