Paul Strauss: Denial of democratic equality for DC violates international law

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Last week I spoke to members of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations With the United States on behalf of the rights of some 700,000 people who are denied basic democracy — the residents of the District of Columbia. Here’s the case I made to the Europeans that this denial is a violation of international law:

We in the United States fought a revolution against England, under the principle that taxation without representation is tyranny. Yet that is the political reality for the citizens that I represent. Under our federal Constitution, DC is under the specific jurisdiction of Congress for all legislative matters, yet we have no vote in the House or Senate.

We also struggle for a degree of self-determination as well. Congress decides what laws we can pass and when. Our local government began electing mayors and legislators in 1974. When they pass a law that they deem in the best interest of our citizens, if a member of Congress disagrees, they can overturn it.

In response to an epidemic of AIDS and HIV, we instituted a sterile needle exchange program that was very effective at reducing the spread of bloodborne viruses. A conservative congressman thought it sent a bad signal and that it would encourage kids to use and distribute drugs, so he changed the federal appropriations to defund that program. The result was that diseases we were on the verge of beating began to creep up in alarming numbers.

Parliamentarians listen during the exchange of views between Alex Mayer and Paul Strauss, shadow U.S. senator (photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert © European Union 2018)

We lack the ability to compete economically in terms of local taxing. We can’t regulate our system and trade the way other states do. Anytime we pass a budget with money from our locally raised tax dollars, Congress can decide how to redirect those funds if they wish.

I understand that on a global level, these don’t seem like the worst violations of human rights and self-determination. In the scheme of international law, however, you must follow the principles of law all the time. In a system that enforces equal rights under law, you can’t just prosecute murders; you have to credibly deal with misdemeanors as well.

The reality is DC is under the absolute jurisdiction of Congress — and while it would be politically permissible for Congress to give DC equal rights, there’s nothing in the Constitution that actually requires them to.

It may be that the only legal mechanism to secure rights for the residents of DC may come from enforcing international agreements. In 1993, the inter-American court of the Organization of American States found that the U.S. government was violating international law by disenfranchising DC. In 1990, with the signing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Copenhagen document, we guaranteed universal suffrage to adult citizens in all member states. We are in violation of that treaty.

“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to … vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage … ,” reads one of the organization’s reports. The first paragraph of that same covenant recognizes that it protects the right of every citizen to vote and be elected. The covenant requires signatories to adopt the necessary legislative measures to ensure citizens an effective opportunity to enjoy this right.

To achieve statehood for the District of Columbia, Congress would simply have to admit the non-federal part of Washington and the 700,000 citizens as their own state.  In order to do that, we need to persuade members of our national legislature to vote for that bill.

One instance in which a Republican senator’s vote was switched came in 2007. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio took a boat ride with representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who were visiting Washington. Following him on that boat were protesters from DC who called for statehood and voting rights, which prompted the parliamentarians to ask the senator about the issue. Two years later, Voinovich voted in favor of giving voting rights to the District of Columbia.

In that particular case, international pressure worked.

To those in the European Union Parliament who worry about the state of our trans-Atlantic relationship and our alliance, I say this: For many years we fought for stability around the world. Getting DC the voting representation it needs in Congress would only strengthen those relationships. One of our values in DC is appreciation for the international community. We want to be part of the US, but we value our role as an international city of the world.

Give us the rights that our government has promised to give the citizens, and allow us to take our rightful place in our own democracy. Together let’s do what we can to continue to work toward freedom, prosperity and democracy around the world.

Paul Strauss is part of the District’s statehood congressional delegation as one of the two elected shadow senators. This commentary is based on his June 27 remarks about DC statehood to members of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations With the United States in Brussels, Belgium. The occasion, classified as a formal “exchange of views,” was chaired by Alex Mayer of the United Kingdom in conjunction with the Secretariat of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the U.S. Joining Strauss for the presentation were Lucia Parrucci, DC’s advocacy officer from the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, and Richard Schiff, an Emmy Award-winning actor and democracy activist.

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