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US Congress Loses Key Human Rights, Foreign Policy Voice


The U.S. Congress has lost one of its strongest voices on international human rights issues. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who headed the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, died of cancer Monday. VOA's House of Representatives correspondent Dan Robinson reports on a few of the many issues for which he fought and reaction to his passing.

Whether he was speaking about military dictatorship in Burma, the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, genocide in Darfur, or Iranian nuclear ambitions, Tom Lantos never pulled punches.

Indefatigable is a word he frequently used in committee hearings or on the floor of the House in statements supporting key human rights figures, and it is a word that easily describes how he approached his own work.

ON BURMA: "Both China and India have considerable leverage over Burma. Neither country has utilized the leverage, China not at all, and India only to a limited extent."

ON DARFUR: "Did the world learn nothing from the Holocaust, from Cambodia, and from Rwanda?"

ON IRAN: "Virtually the whole world now recognizes that Iran is hell-bent on becoming a nuclear power."

ON THE PALESTINIANS: "It is a situation in which the Palestinians leadership has isolated the Palestinian people from the international community."

At the time of his death from cancer at the age of 80, the Hungarian-born Lantos was the only survivor of the Holocaust ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.

As a teenager, he twice escaped Nazi labor camps, was in the anti-Nazi underground, before coming to the United States after World War II.

In January when he announced his medical diagnosis and decision not to run for re-election, Lantos said that "only in the United States could a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground receive an education, raise a family, and have the privilege of serving" in Congress.

Although his support for human rights was directed across the globe, some of his most emotion-filled statements came on issues involving Europe.

Noting that he was the only member of Congress to be liberated by Soviet troops from Nazi oppression during World War II, Lantos made this statement in 2007 in support of the Estonian government in the wake of violent demonstrations by pro-Russian elements.

"We in Congress join our friends in Europe in expressing our strong disapproval of the unjustified and unacceptable Russian attacks against Estonia," said Lantos.

While foreign governments and human rights violators were frequently targets of Congressman Lantos' criticism, he also became one of the sharpest critics in Congress of Bush administration policy in Iraq.

"The administration's myopic policies in Iraq have created a fiasco," he said. "Is it any wonder that on the subject of Iraq more and more Americans have little confidence in this administration?"

Monday, President Bush praised Lantos as a man of character and a champion of human rights, and in a statement read by press spokeswoman Dana Perino referred to his history as a Holocaust survivor.

"As the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, Tom was a living reminder that we must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent at the hands of evil men," she said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Lantos as "the embodiment of what it meant to have one's freedom denied, and then to find it and to insist that Americans stand for spreading the benefits of freedom and prosperity to others."

There was universal praise for Lantos from Republicans and Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said he translated his Holocaust experience into a lifetime commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, Holocaust education, and a commitment to Israel.

In the words of Roy Blunt, a key Republican leader, Lantos "never wavered in his pursuit of a better, freer and more religiously tolerant world."

Fellow Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel said Lantos was a voice for victims of injustice, and against dictatorships and totalitarianism.

The World Jewish Congress and other groups focused on his support for Israel, and his efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

One of Congressman Lantos' other contributions, namely support for sharply increased U.S. funding for efforts to fight HIV/AIDS around the world, was also being remembered.

The chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to pass to another California Democrat, Howard Berman, who was second in seniority for majority Democrats.

Lantos' seat in Congress will be the subject of a special election, the date for which must be set by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger within 14 days.

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