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RIGHTS DISPUTE

City's Lack Of Vote Decried By U.N.

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By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006

The District's lack of voting representation in Congress violates terms of an international human rights treaty agreed to by the United States government, a United Nations commission said in a report released yesterday.

Discussion of Washington's disenfranchisement came near the end of the 12-page U.N. human rights committee findings, which expressed concerns about U.S. policies involving secret facilities to detain terrorism suspects, allegations of torture, and treatment of poor or homeless residents.

"The Committee . . . remains concerned that residents of the District of Columbia do not enjoy full representation in Congress, a restriction which does not seem to be compatible with article 25 of the covenant," the report concluded.

The human rights committee monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty ratified by more than 160 countries, including the United States in 1992.

Article 25 says "every citizen . . . without unreasonable restrictions" has the right to participate in public affairs directly or through "freely chosen representatives" and to vote and to be elected "at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage."

In a letter accompanying the U.S. response, Warren Tichenor, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, denied that District residents are excluded from the nation's political process: "The position of the District . . . is not a human rights violation; it is rather a justifiable and important aspect of the federal system of government freely chosen by citizens of the United States."

The committee directed the United States to ensure District residents have a voice in Congress "in particular with regard to the House of Representatives."

The rebuke comes as Congress considers legislation that would expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats by giving a vote to the District and a fourth seat to Utah, the state next in line to enlarge its delegation based on the 2000 Census. The bill, by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), will come before a House judiciary subcommittee Sept. 14.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) cheered the U.N. declaration. "The statement by the committee that our country must address this injustice will hopefully spur members of Congress to act promptly on legislation before them that will move us forward toward equality," said Williams in a written statement.

Putting an international spotlight on the voting rights issue has been a 13-year crusade for Tim Cooper, a Tenleytown resident and human rights activist who traveled to Geneva to testify at the human rights committee's meeting this month.

"The U.N. committee's pronouncement represents the jewel in the crown to internationalize the D.C. voting rights issue," he said.

Cooper has successfully argued the District's case before other international organizations, which have made similar conclusions. In 2003, the Organization of American States' human rights commission decreed that the District's lack of voting representation violates international human rights law.

And last year, two committees of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the District's disenfranchisement was inconsistent with the organization's democratic election standards.

"I do think that the cumulative effect of world opinion cannot help but take hold," Norton said. "We make such a big issue of everybody else's human rights record. We now have to be listed as one of the great hypocrites of the world."


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