In today’s hyper-divided Congress, many wouldn’t find it too surprising if even the brand of coffee served on Capitol Hill became a partisan debate. However, Illinois senator Dick Durbin believes there is at least one issue that can garner support from both sides of the aisle: human rights.
Durbin spoke Thursday afternoon to a packed audience in Lincoln Hall at the Northwestern School of Law. In his speech, sponsored by the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center for International Human Rights, the senior senator addressed the importance of protecting human rights in the modern day and the planned reintroduction of his Crimes Against Humanity Act.
The bill, which Durbin proposed in 2009 but has since been languishing in the Senate, would make it legal for U.S. courts to prosecute anybody who has committed a crime against humanity anywhere in the world. In the current legal system, there is no general U.S. law condemning such crimes. Courts can only try these human rights violators if they are U.S. nationals or if the abuses took place on American soil.
Northwestern Law professor David Scheffer, who organized the event, believes that the reintroduction of this bill marks a historic day for both the university and U.S. human rights law alike.
“If this legislation could become law, then the U.S. will no longer be a sanctuary for those who commit crimes against humanity like ethnic cleansing, slavery, apartheid and mass deportations," Sheffer said. "We do not want the U.S. to be a sanctuary for someone who commits those crimes.”
Durbin went on to cite multiple incidences where the United States and the international community have failed to prevent human rights violations in recent decades: slavery in Mauritania, potential Russian war crimes in the Ukraine, genocide in Rwanda. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, for whom the hall he spoke in was named, Durbin said, “We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.” He believes through his goal of “legislation, not lamentation,” the U.S. can be a leader in the fight against human rights violations worldwide.
During his 18-year tenure in the Senate, Durbin has been extensively involved in the fight against abuses of human rights. He served on the first Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights, and currently serves as a ranking member of the group (now called the Subcommittee on The Constitution). He has also sponsored the Genocide Accountability Act, the Child Soldiers Accountability Act and the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. Durbin, himself a Democrat, notes that some of the strongest support for these laws came from conservative Republicans.
“Even in hyper-partisan times, I’ve found that practices that shock the conscience have the ability to draw together broad coalitions,” Durbin said.
In the Q&A session, Durbin spoke about some of the human rights violations currently plaguing the world, and even our own country. Currently, the practice of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons is being investigated and reformed. Such isolation has been found to have horrible and long-lasting effects on inmates’ mental health. However, Durbin believes that while America has its own job to do at home, that shouldn’t deter us from action abroad.
The speech was well received as a whole. Third-year law student Julie Silverstein found the speech powerful, and believes that human rights should be a bigger issue on the national conscience.
“I wish there were more senators or politicians or just general public figures that spoke out against genocide and against crimes against humanity," Silverstein said.