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What I Never Learned in Civics Class

September 17, 2010

When I started here at the FCNL just a few weeks ago I knew that working as a lobbyist would allow me a unique experience and fascinating insight into how Congress “really” works.  Yet I don’t think I suspected that I would be jumping in head first so quickly!

I’m working with Bridget Moix on the Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict program, and as Congress came back into session on Monday, September 13th, we began an intense round of meetings with Senate staff lobby trainings and legislative action messages in support of S. Con. Res. 71, a resolution introduced in the Senate on August 5th to prevent genocide and mass atrocities.  When it comes to incidents of horrific violence, too often it seems like the United States is stuck putting out fires after they’ve erupted.  Responding to genocide and mass atrocities also dredges up contentious questions of whether to use the military to intervene, or whether or not a certain kind of violence should be labeled “genocide.”

But what if the United States could peacefully contribute to preventing these kinds of violence before they occur?  We hope that S Con Res 71 represents a step, albeit small, on this path.  It affirms that prevention is in the United States’ interests and urges the “relevant agencies to review and evaluate existing capacities for prevention.”  It also recognizes the importance of flexible contingency funding for the State Department to respond to these kinds of crises, and urges the Secretary of State to make sure that Foreign Service Officers are trained in early warning and conflict prevention.  Yes, the bill is non-binding.  But, if we gain a significant amount of bi-partisan co-sponsorship, we can show Congress and the Administration how much support there is for the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, and perhaps get a binding bill passed in the next session of Congress (by the way, write to your Senator here!).

Our lobby visits were a particularly eye-opening experience for me.  As a life-long activist who is passionate about human rights and genocide prevention, I admit that even I was a little skeptical when I arrived in DC about the power of activism.  Maybe I was worn down by years of friends and acquaintances asking, “do you really think that your Senator/President Obama/a Burmese dictator is going to read your letter?”

I’m happy to report that, at least sometimes, activism really does work!  Some of our meetings with Senate staffers involved lots of convincing.  But in others, staffers greeted us with the news that their Senator had already signed on to co-sponsor the resolution, saying that the letters that they had received and the well-organized nature of our campaign had convinced them that this was an issue that their constituents cared passionately about.  In civics class you learn that American politicians are elected to represent their constituents, but reading the news day after day is enough to make anyone feel jaded about that ideal, and maybe think that big corporations or people with lots of influence are the only ones who are really being represented.  In fact, there’s still plenty of room for activists like us to get our voices heard- so vote, write, call and visit your legislators, early and often!

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