Congressional Update – Week Ending December 8, 2017

December 10 is Human Rights Day and this year it marks the 69th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With this landmark anniversary approaching, many events this past week focused on the importance of the United States’ role in promoting human rights.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Continuing Resolution. With the US federal government on the brink of running out of money, congressional leaders struck a deal to keep the lights on for two more weeks. A continuing resolution (CR) simply extends the previous fiscal year’s funding amounts to the current fiscal year, meaning all federal entities must operate on the past year’s budget. In addition to a basic funding agreement, it has been reported that congressional leaders and the White House have reached a tentative agreement to increase defense spending as part of any year-end spending bill. There are still plenty of obstacles to be met, so negotiations are expected to continue right up until the CR expires on December 22.

Res. 644. On December 4, Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) offered a resolution expressing the House’s condemnation of the recently documented migrant slave trade in Libya. Last month, CNN released a shocking report of Libyan slave traders auctioning off migrants and refugees who had entered Libya hoping to reach Europe. There was swift international condemnation and Bass and 40 colleagues crafted this resolution to echo those sentiments. It will be considered before the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

H.R. 1164. On December 5, the full House voted, via voice vote, to adopt the chamber’s version of the Taylor Force Act, as amended, under suspended rules. This version is significantly watered down from the version first introduced, but ultimately it would still send a message to the Palestinian Authority that Congress will withhold funding if the so-called “martyr payments” do not end. Though the Senate did not vote on its stand-alone version of the Taylor Force Act, it did plan on voting on a version as part of the fiscal year 2018 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act (see pages 200-210), essentially ensuring that some form of the Taylor Force Act would be enshrined into law in the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill. However, following President Donald Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and issuing directives to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, many members of Congress are second-guessing the timing of passing the Taylor Force Act. It is still more likely than not that this bill becomes law, in some form, but this could occur later than many expected.

H.R. 4549. On December 5, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) introduced a bill that would require annual reports be submitted to Congress assessing whether Saudi Arabian educational materials contain information that is intolerant of religious minorities. Though Saudi Arabia is viewed as an ally, many on Capitol Hill have long been frustrated by reports of intolerant material showing up in children’s textbooks regarding Jews, Christians, and other religious minorities. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

Res. 139. On December 6, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) agreed to favorably report a nonbinding resolution condemning Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of its Bahai religious community and its disregard for the International Covenants on Human Rights. The Bahai are Iran’s largest religious minority group, but they face systematic abuse, discrimination, and arrests. The resolution will move to the Senate floor for consideration.

H.R. 4591. On December 7, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) introduced a bill that would levy additional sanctions on any Iranian individual reported to be taking actions that threaten the stability of Iraq or its government. Many of the Iranians who would likely be subject to such penalties are already subject to US sanctions, but legislation like this would be a symbolic gesture of Congress’s frustration with Iranian behavior in the Middle East. The bill garnered the support of 14 cosponsors and will move to the HFAC for consideration.

H.R. 4603. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and four of her colleagues introduced a bill that would provide for the “continuation in effect of sanctions with respect to Yemen.” The language of the bill has yet to be published, but the sanctions to which it refers could be any number of penalties levied against Yemeni individuals who are suspected of supporting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the Islamic State’s Yemeni branch. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

H.R. 4324. The House Financial Services Committee favorably reported an amended version of a bill that requires the secretary of the Treasury to make certifications regarding aircraft-related transactions between the United States or foreign financial institutions and Iran. The Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act requires a report every 180 days detailing the nature of the aforementioned aircraft-related transactions and a certification that the transactions do not, among other things, aid in money laundering or benefit any individuals or entities already sanctioned under US law. This version will move to the House floor for consideration. The Senate recently introduced its own version, so the chances of a bill similar to this becoming law are high.

2) Hearings

Egypt: Human Rights Seven Years After the Revolution. On December 6, the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing to assess the state of human rights in Egypt seven years after protests ushered the fall of longtime autocrat, Hosni Mubarak. Cochairman Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Illinois) offered introductory remarks, stating that the purpose of the hearing was to specifically understand the human rights situation in Egypt, particularly in the areas of the rule of law and civil society, religious freedom for minorities and Coptic Christians, and prisoners of conscience and their prison conditions. It is interesting to note that the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement prior to the hearing to denounce it as a forum for defaming Egypt and decried it as unfair. To discuss these topics and offer recommendations were Amy Hawthorne, Project on Middle East Democracy; George Gurguis, Coptic Solidarity; Joe Stork, formerly of Human Rights Watch; and Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hawthorne opened up the witnesses’ testimonies by discussing the “draconian legal framework” that undermines peace and prosperity in Egypt and codifies autocratic rule. To illustrate her point, she described four pieces of legislation that have been enacted by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Egyptian parliament, as well as two laws that have been proposed, all of which do, or would, jeopardize the internationally recognized rights of due process and political participation. The laws in question include those outlawing protests, unauthorized operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and any political activities or discussions in places mainly frequented by youth (e.g., sports clubs). Hawthorne decried an anti-terrorism law as well, saying that it is too broadly defined and allows for the arrest of even peaceful activists and dissidents. Moving forward, she noted that the Egyptian government is considering legislation barring homosexual behavior or pro-LGBTQ activism (with the punishment being jail time) and another bill that would amend the country’s citizenship law, allowing the government to strip dissidents of their citizenship and leaving them stateless.

Gurguis detailed the plight of Egypt’s Coptic Christian population, a group that he said numbers roughly 10-12 percent of the entire population but one that faces discrimination and violence and lacks any political representation. After the fall of the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Gurguis said, the Copts were very optimistic about participating in the democratic transition many hoped would unfold in Egypt. However, since President Sisi’s power grab, Gurguis said, the Copts are now in a position that is just as bad, if not worse, than before. Though he is vehemently against the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups like the Islamic State in the Sinai, President Sisi has not proven to be the defender of Copts that many thought he could be. Instead, Gurguis argued, Sisi has completely failed to protect that vulnerable community. He concluded by outlining the five forms of discrimination the Coptic Christians in Egypt experience: underrepresentation in government, limits of freedom to practice their religion, a government-sponsored “hate culture” that demonizes and scapegoats the Copts, strict blasphemy laws, and a systematic form of discrimination in the educational system that ignores or denigrates Copts’ historical role in forming modern Egypt.

Stork explained the discriminatory judicial practices in Egypt, including arbitrary arrests and detention, the use of torture and forced disappearances, and the prison conditions in which suspects are held. He said that by the most conservative estimates, roughly 67,000 people have been arrested since Sisi took power in 2013. Many of them are held in pre-trial detention that, by law, can only last for a maximum of two years—but that is often extended well beyond that time frame through dubious legal loopholes. Even if individuals serve their time in prison, Stork said, they face a draconian and arbitrary parole system in Egypt. Judges set the length, but the police who have jurisdiction over the individual set the conditions of parole, and these can vary wildly. Stork moved on to describe the Egyptian Ministry of Interior’s national security apparatus and its use of torture and forced disappearances. Security officers will often torture suspects to coerce cooperation and/or confessions, he said, and they will “disappear” suspects in order to further terrorize the individuals. This is an institutional problem in Egypt, according to Stork, because judges and prosecutors often ignore reports and complaints of torture and forced disappearances. Finally, Stork detailed the gruesome prison conditions to which Egyptians—both guilty and innocent alike—are subjected. Prisons in Egypt are overcrowded and unsanitary and prisoners are often abused, malnourished, and isolated. According to Stork, Egyptian prisons do not meet the international standards for the treatment of prisoners.

Michele Dunne offered recommendations for both lawmakers and executive branch officials. Washington should be concerned about Egypt’s human rights situation for multiple reasons, not the least being that the United States has a special relationship with, and provides ample financial support to, the state of Egypt. With this in mind, Dunne argued that the United States is in a strong position to push Egypt to make reforms. First, she recommended that the United States ensure that no security assistance funds given to Egypt are used by the government to violate international human rights. Second, the United States should act more assertively to intervene on behalf of US citizens and NGOs that face unfair legal action in Egypt. In this regard, she urged both lawmakers on the Hill and officials in the White House to be outspoken in pushing Egypt to treat US entities fairly. Third, US military and security officials who work with their Egyptian counterparts should operate in a manner that clearly demonstrates US commitment to human rights and instill a sense of expectation for the Egyptians to do the same. Fourth, Dunne suggested that members of Congress craft bills that maintain or expand the amount of security assistance funds that can be withheld on human rights grounds. Finally, she urged the US government to invest in building enduring relationships with Egyptian civilians. This is important, she noted, because if everyday citizens do not hear the United States speaking up in their defense, the situation can often lead to an increase in anti-American sentiment.

Many of the broader ideas and recommendations about human rights in the Middle East broached in this hearing were also discussed in a hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.

Beyond ISIS: Promoting Stability in North Africa. That same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism held a hearing to discuss the United States’ role in promoting stability and countering radicalization in North Africa. To discuss current US policy, the subcommittee invited the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Nathan Sales, and the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Joan Polaschik. Sales began by outlining the areas that the State Department has been working with partners in North Africa to deprive terrorist groups of safe havens from which they organize and launch attacks. First, he highlighted efforts to improve countries’ legal capacities to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate cases of terrorism and its financing. Second, State has helped establish a number of intelligence-sharing strategies which North African partners can use to bolster security on borders that are often long and porous. Third, the State Department has expanded its designation of terrorist organizations operating in the region, depriving those groups of the means to finance illegal activities. Fourth, State has worked with partners to customize effective counter-radicalization programs specific to a particular partner’s needs. Finally, Sales lauded the efforts of the Department of Defense, which have resulted in developments like the apprehension of suspects involved in the 2012 Benghazi attacks on US diplomats.

For her part, Polaschik detailed, country-by-country, the political situations for US allies and partners in the region. First, she identified Libya as the greatest source of instability and violence. In that regard, she stressed the need for a political solution in the country that will contribute to peace and security. She described Tunisia as a country balancing on the edge of stability. Neighboring Libya has proven problematic for the fledgling democracy, but the United States has helped Tunisian partners bolster the judicial system and usher in tough but necessary economic reforms. As for Morocco and Algeria—arguably North Africa’s two most stable countries—US partnership is less one-sided. Polaschik noted that both countries are good counterterrorism partners and even lauded Morocco as a “net-exporter” of security as it aids in counterterrorism training for its neighbors. Last, Polaschik talked about the US-Egypt relationship. Egypt has its own terrorist threats, she acknowledged, but this is exacerbated by the instability in Libya. While military support for Egypt will remain, she said counterterrorism cooperation is growing. She described President Sisi as a capable counterterrorism partner, but told lawmakers that the United States has to be very honest with Egypt about improving its human rights record.

This hearing was interesting in contrast to remarks delivered by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) two days earlier. At an event on security in the Maghreb on December 4, Connolly directly questioned the United States’ ability to address challenges in North Africa because of the problems facing the State Department (such as budget and assistance cuts, vacancies, and “Islamophobic” tweeting by the president). Like the lawmakers and witnesses of the hearing, Connolly, too, stressed the need to restore stability in Libya but was much more critical about efforts to fight extremism with allies who repress civil society. Singling out Egypt, Connolly called out the United States’ “hypocrisy,” arguing that the United States makes deals with Egypt’s autocracy for short-term gains while jeopardizing political dynamics in Egypt in the long term.

3) Around the District

Authorization for the Use of Military Force. On December 7, four congressmen ventured away from the Hill to discuss authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) and how to build consensus in Congress. Republican Reps. Mike Coffman (Colorado) and Don Bacon (Nebraska) were joined by Democratic Reps. and fellow veterans Ruben Gallego (Arizona) and Jimmy Panetta (California). These four have been vocal advocates for Congress to pass a new AUMF that addresses the contemporary fight against terrorism, so their remarks were no surprise. They argued that the president does not need a “blank check” for the fight against terrorism—which now spans from the Sahel in West Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond—and that Congress must reassert itself as a check on executive powers. The four members have cosponsored a new AUMF with other House colleagues and there is also a moderately popular version in the Senate. While interest in a new AUMF is growing on Capitol Hill, the White House has so far pushed back on the idea that it needs a new authorization.

4) Correspondence and Personnel

House Democrats Pen Letter to Tillerson. On December 6, Democratic members of the House and the HFAC, led by HFAC ranking member Eliot Engel (D-New York), sent a letter to Secretary Rex Tillerson asking for an assessment of how President Trump’s often inflammatory tweets affect US diplomacy. President Trump recently retweeted multiple videos purportedly showing Muslim migrants in Europe brutalizing locals. Giving these videos such public exposure proved controversial, however, especially when it surfaced that they originated from a far-right ultranationalist organization in the United Kingdom and that the videos may have been doctored or decontextualized. British politicians and citizens alike were livid, and this led House Democrats to ponder the damaging effects that Trump’s tweets—often considered official statements—could have on US relations and diplomatic efforts. In addition to the letter, some House Democrats are crafting a resolution condemning Trump’s actions and censuring him.

Sens. Cardin, Young Pen Letter to Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan. In addition to the letter mentioned above, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Todd Young (R-Indiana), both of the SFRC, wrote to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan voicing concern over Tillerson’s “redesign” efforts at the State Department. In recent weeks, lawmakers and State Department observers have grown increasingly worried about the state of the United States’ diplomatic arm as Foggy Bottom is understaffed and many divisions could be shuttered.

High Profile Resignations Rock the Hill. This week, Capitol Hill saw the resignations of three high-profile lawmakers, two Democrats and one Republican, amid a storm of revelations of sexual misconduct and harassment in the halls of Congress. The longest serving member of Congress, Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) announced he would be “retiring” immediately on Tuesday in light of several allegations made against him. Another representative, Trent Franks (R-Arizona), announced he will resign effective December 8, in response to an Ethics Committee investigation of his inappropriate interactions with female staffers. Franks is considered among the most conservative Republicans in the House and has often appeared at public events in his native Arizona with President Trump. Last, on December 7, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) announced his resignation after a steady stream of allegations came to light about his inappropriate behavior. Though vacant representative spots are filled via special elections, Franken’s senate seat will be filled by gubernatorial appointment. Minnesota’s Democratic Governor, Mark Dayton, is widely believed to be considering appointing his Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, to Franken’s spot once he formally leaves.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Announces Decision on Jerusalem. On December 6, President Trump took a groundbreaking step that departs from decades of bipartisan US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered the State Department to begin planning the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed Jerusalem—though he did still sign the national security waiver that other presidents have used to avoid moving the embassy. Despite warnings from allies and members of his own cabinet, Trump decided to fulfill his campaign promise, possibly at the detriment of his son-in-law’s Middle East peace plan. Jared Kushner and Trump’s top negotiator, Jason Greenblatt—according to Kushner at last week’s Saban Forum—are making progress on a thus-far secret peace proposal for Israel and Palestine, but many believe Trump’s decision effectively kills any momentum the sides may have had on negotiations. Alongside the protests and international condemnation his decision elicited, including from allies in the Middle East and in Europe, this announcement will surely make for a frosty reception for Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the region next week. He will visit Egypt before likely receiving a warm reception at the Israeli Knesset. But it will be interesting to see if Palestinian officials walk back their claim that Pence is “unwelcome” in Palestine and meet with Trump’s second-in-command.

Trump Statement of Yemen. If the Jerusalem announcement did not ruffle some feathers among Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Trump’s later statement on Yemen could have done so. Trump called on Saudi Arabia—as leader of the anti-Houthi coalition in the Yemen war—to allow medicine, food, fuel, and water to reach the desperate Yemeni people “for humanitarian reasons immediately.”

Trump Extends Military Aid to Iraq. This week, President Trump also signed an executive order allowing the Defense Department to “drawdown” $22 million-worth of equipment and services from its inventory to provide aid to Iraq. This will likely be used to further train and assist Iraqi security forces.

2) Department of State

Acting Assistant Secretary Satterfield Addresses Jerusalem Decision. On December 7, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, held a press briefing to address the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His comments and answers were to be expected, but Satterfield did have some difficulty toeing the line between the president’s words and the practical implications. Most notably, though Satterfield acknowledged it is now US policy that Jerusalem is considered Israel’s capital, he refused to state that this recognized capital actually lies in sovereign Israeli territory. The irony was not lost on the reporters, who repeatedly pressed Satterfield on the issue, but he maintained that the administration believes the following two things are both true: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but that in no way suggests a resolution of border disputes between Israelis and Palestinians.

Tillerson to Participate in International Support Group for Lebanon. Secretary Tillerson is currently in Europe for meetings with top allies where he announced he would participate in an International Support Group for Lebanon. During the meeting, Tillerson and top European ministers will discuss commitments to maintain peace, stability, and security in Lebanon, as well as combat Hezbollah. The ministers, including Tillerson, will also meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during the group session.

3) Department of Defense

General Mattis Travels to the Middle East. Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis spent most of the week traveling in the Middle East and North Africa to meet with US allies and reaffirm the US commitment to, among other things, countering violent extremism in the region. He first stopped in Egypt before attending King Abdullah II’s “Aqaba Process” in Jordan’s most famous beach resort city. After a brief stop in Pakistan, the secretary concluded his trip in Kuwait where he visited with senior Kuwaiti officials.

Department of Defense Discloses Troop Count in Syria, Iraq. This week, the Department of Defense disclosed the official number of troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. There are currently 5,200 troops in Iraq and 2,000 more stationed in Syria. The number in Syria is expected to be reduced, but it still represents a steep increase from the Obama Administration’s peak deployment in the country. Though the troops’ presence in both countries is billed as a mission to “train, advise, and assist,” the increase in troops is a departure from positions Trump previously held about involvement in Syria.

4) Department of Energy

Secretary Rick Perry Visits Middle East. Though the trip was unrelated, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry took a trip to the region that coincided with that of Secretary Mattis. Perry visited energy producers Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. In Saudi Arabia—besides posing with falcons and swords—Perry worked out a memorandum of understanding for the United States and Saudi Arabia to collaborate “in the area of clean fossil fuels and carbon management.”

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Greenlights Trump’s Travel Ban. On December 4, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly ruled to allow the third iteration of President Trump’s travel ban to take effect while lower courts continue hearing legal challenges. Until a final decision is made on the legality of the immigration order—likely to be in the Supreme Court—the administration is free to enforce the travel restrictions that, to varying degrees, limit the ability of some travelers to enter the United States. Iran, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia join three other countries on the restricted list, though Libya is lobbying the Trump Administration to be removed from the group.

United States vs. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Beginning on December 4, a plane filled with a military judge, lawyers, and reporters arrived in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States operates its military detention center for suspected terrorists. The individuals traveled there for the 26th meeting of a military war tribunal that was established five years ago to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—previously a top-tier al-Qaeda figure and the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks—and four others for their roles in the deaths of thousands. This week, former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who investigated in the aftermath of the attacks testified as to how each of the five men was tied to the attacks. The defendants, most of whom are being tried separately, had differing defenses on display this week. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s lawyer is trying to get the case dismissed from the military tribunal, arguing it does not have jurisdiction because the “war crimes” he is charged with are not applicable since the period pre-9/11 was not one of war between the United States and al-Qaeda. Other defendants are raising questions about the validity of government testimony, arguing that the government’s use of renditions and torture invalidates any information gathered through such means. The hearing is scheduled to end on December 9 and the judge should rule on moving forward with a trial soon after.