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Turning D.C. Into an International Cause

By Spencer S. Hsu
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page C05

An election observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, has reported that the United States denies full representation and voting rights to residents of the District of Columbia.

The March 31 report, summarizing the U.S. presidential election in November, marked the second straight year that an international organization has found District residents treated as second-class citizens under the U.S. Constitution, voting activists said last week. An Organization of American States commission ruled that the U.S. violates international law by denying D.C. voting representation in Congress.

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"Today the world will not give a pass to any great power on human rights, especially a denial of democracy in its own capital," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), calling it "a sure sign of our country's urgent need to get its own house in order" while promoting democracy abroad.

Norton praised D.C. activist Tim Cooper for his "continuing energetic work for equal voting rights and for his insight" in having the election team hear testimony about the District's status.

In its report, the OSCE mission noted that the U.S. limits congressional representation to the states, adding pointedly, "ensuring equal voting rights is a fundamental OSCE commitment." The U.S. is a member and one of 55 nations bound by OSCE commitments.

Cooper, 51, was involved in both international declarations.

A former moviemaker who taught himself human rights law, the married father of three has a long pedigree of District activism. Born in Los Angeles and educated at St. Albans School for Boys, Cooper became involved in city Democratic politics during Sharon Pratt's 1990 campaign for mayor. The Tenley Circle resident and 22 others formed the Statehood Solidarity Committee to launch the OAS case in 1993.

Building the District's case, Cooper went to the United Nations in 1995, testified in Geneva in 2001 to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and addressed OSCE officials in Warsaw in 2002 and 2004. As head of Democracy First, Cooper in 1997 was arrested on the White House sidewalk and engaged in a confrontation with Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) at a fundraiser, both in protest of federal policies during the District's financial crisis.

Last year, he helped dream up the District's nonbinding, first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential nominating primary.

Cooper credits his success to "utter tenacious persistence" and to happenstance. By accident one day, he read the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights while browsing at American University's law library.

"I realized I was getting into a delicious area of political principle and legal theory. I certainly didn't think it would lead me to where it has," said Cooper, who also is active in the Chinese pro-democracy movement and supports himself through his organization Worldrights, an advocacy group backed by families of imprisoned Chinese dissidents such as New York-based activist Wang Binzhang.

Cooper said the District will win voting representation if the United States is confronted by diplomatic pressure over its pro-democracy stance abroad, something he claims is happening behind the scenes. "Once those private conversations become public, the double standard the U.S. is exercising will not stand," he said. "When the U.S. recognizes that granting U.S. rights to D.C. residents is in the U.S. government's self-interest, it will act. That time is nearer rather than farther."

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