Pundits responded to news of the retirement of
Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) at the end of his current term with platitudes
and praise. They have focused primarily on his heroic role as a Holocaust survivor
and member of the anti-Nazi resistance in his native Hungary as well as his
leadership on human rights issues in Congress, serving as the founder and longtime
co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
There's no question that his personal history is both courageous and
noble. Nor is there any debate that he stood up in support for the International
Criminal Court, the people of the occupied nations of Tibet and East Timor,
and the victims of oppression in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and other countries.
At the same time, most peace and justice activists have found Lantos
who has chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs since the Democrats regained
their Congressional majority as a very inconsistent advocate for human
Indeed, the Congressman has openly challenged the United Nations as well as
reputable independent human rights organizations when they have raised concerns
about human rights abuses by certain key U.S. allies, even to the point of directly
contradicting their findings. In addition, his leadership in support of the
2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and his resulting culpability in the human rights
tragedies that followed, will no doubt be the most significant negative mark
on his legacy.
Lantos' desire to have the United States
take over Iraq was so strong that he was apparently willing to grossly exaggerate
that oil-rich country's military capabilities to frighten the American
public into giving up on diplomatic efforts and launch a war. In 2001, Lantos
Iraq was developing long-range missiles "that will threaten the United
States and our allies" even though as arms control experts correctly
noted at the time this was not actually the case. Similarly, though
the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that Iraq no longer had
a nuclear weapons program and strict international sanctions prevented that
country from restarting it, Lantos claimed that such peaceful and diplomatic
means to eliminate Iraq's nuclear program had actually failed and that
military means were necessary to prevent Iraq from developing its nuclear capability.
As the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee, his willingness
to co-sponsor the resolution granting President George W. Bush unprecedented
power to invade a foreign country at the time and circumstances of his own choosing
was critical in making the disastrous Iraq War possible.
co-sponsored by Lantos contained accusations that were known or widely assumed
to be false, such as claims of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda terrorists responsible
for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States despite the fact
that a definitive report
by the Department of Defense noted that not only did no such link exist, but
that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based upon the evidence
available at that time.
The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq was "actively seeking a
nuclear weapons capability." In reality, Iraq had eliminated its nuclear
program long before, a fact that was confirmed in a report by the International
Atomic Energy Agency in 1998, four years prior to the resolution. It also falsely
claimed that Iraq at that time continued "to possess and develop a significant
chemical and biological weapons capability" when, in reality, as the U.S.
government now admits, Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons
nearly a decade earlier and no longer had any active chemical and biological
Though Saddam Hussein's regime was notorious for its human rights abuses,
this was not apparently what motivated Lantos to support the invasion. The September
30, 2002 issue of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz quoted
Lantos telling an Israeli Knesset member, in reference to Saddam Hussein, "We'll
be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we'll install a pro-Western
Indeed, his support for a number of U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Middle
East has raised serious questions regarding his actual commitment for human
Denying Israeli Atrocities
Lantos has also been an outspoken defender of
the U.S.-backed Israeli government in its frequent application of military force,
even when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have engaged in serious violations
of international humanitarian law.
For example, during the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah
militia, reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights documented that both Hezbollah and Israelis forces
were engaged in war crimes by attacking civilian areas, which resulted in the
deaths of 43 Israeli civilians and more then 800 Lebanese civilians. In response,
Lantos joined leading House Republicans in co-sponsoring a resolution
praising Israel for its "longstanding commitment to minimize civilian
loss" and even welcomed "Israel's continued efforts to prevent
civilian casualties." The resolution also claimed, in the face of a broad
consensus of those familiar with international humanitarian law to the contrary,
that Israel's actions were "in accordance with international law."
Similarly, in April of 2002, Amnesty International published a detailed and
regarding the Israeli military offensive in the occupied West Bank, noting how
"the IDF acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians.
Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity."
The report went on to document unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property,
arbitrary detention, torture, assaults on medical personnel and journalists,
as well as random shooting at people in the streets and houses.
In response, Lantos introduced a resolution
challenging Amnesty's findings, claiming that "Israel's military
operations ... are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure
in the Palestinian areas." In an apparent retort to growing demands by
peace and human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel in response
to these violations of international humanitarian law, the Lantos resolution
called for an increase in military aid, which many of these activists
felt was, in effect, rewarding Israel for its repression and attacking the credibility
of Amnesty International, winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. (See my article
Congress Ignores Human Rights Groups
In Pro-Israel Resolution.)
Contempt for International Law
Lantos has also been an outspoken critic of the
International Court of Justice in its ruling on the applicability of international
humanitarian law, such as the 2004 decision against Israel's construction
of a separation barrier deep inside occupied Palestinian territory. Lantos condemned
the near-unanimous decision as a "perversion of justice" and praised
Bush for "his leadership in marshalling opposition" to the UN's
Lantos also sponsored a resolution last year defending Israel's annexation
of greater East Jerusalem, despite a series
of UN Security Council resolutions citing the inadmissibility of any country
expanding its territory by force and declaring the annexation illegal.
His resolution also claimed that Israel had "respected the rights of all
religious groups" during its 40-year occupation of that city and environs.
However, a number of UN bodies along with Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations have frequently
cited Israel for its ongoing violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in East
Jerusalem and surrounding areas, including the confiscation and destruction
of homes and other property belonging to longstanding Muslim and Christian residents.
(See my article Jerusalem: Endorsing
the Right of Conquest.)
On a number of occasions, Lantos placed himself to the right of the Bush administration
regarding Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. For example,
when Bush expressed concerns that the Israeli government's policy of assassinating
Palestinian opponents was leading to the deaths of innocent bystanders, hurting
moderate Palestinian forces and proving counter-productive in enhancing Israeli
security, Lantos expressed that he was "deeply dismayed" by the
president's comments and insisted that such Israeli actions constituted
legitimate self-defense and deserved "the full support of the United States."
Israel is not the only occupier power whose human
rights abuses have been denied and defended by the Congressman. Lantos has been
a strong supporter of Morocco's efforts to annex the Western Sahara, a
former Spanish colony invaded by Morocco in 1975, in defiance of a series of
UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision by the International
Court of Justice. He has declared
Morocco's proposal for limited autonomy of that illegally occupied country
as "a breakthrough opportunity" and a "realistic framework
for a political solution." Given the widespread opposition in the international
community to legitimizing Morocco's act of aggression, the letter concludes
by urging Bush to "embrace this promising Moroccan initiative so that
it receives the consideration necessary to achieve international acceptance."
(See my article The Future of Western
Despite well-documented reports by Amnesty
International, Human Rights
Watch, and other reputable human rights groups monitoring the situation
in the occupied territory that public expressions in support for self-determination
are routinely suppressed, Lantos has also expressed
his confidence that "Morocco will do nothing to stifle debate among the
people of Western Sahara."
Lantos also has a history of exaggerating human
rights abuses by governments and movements he opposes.
For example, despite consistent reports by United Nations monitors that the
Western Sahara nationalist Polisario Front has scrupulously honored its 1991
ceasefire agreement with Morocco despite the Moroccans' refusal to honor
their reciprocal commitment to allow for a UN-sponsored referendum on independence
Lantos has insisted
that "peace has been summarily rejected by the rebel Polisario Front in
favor of guerrilla ambushes." He has also falsely accused the Polisario
Front of forcing most of the Western Saharan population to live in arid refugee
camps in neighboring Algeria, ignoring that fact that the refugees were forced
to flee to these camps as a direct result of Moroccan repression in their occupied
In addition, Lantos cosponsored a resolution
accusing Hezbollah of "cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields"
during the fighting with Israel in 2006 despite the fact that Amnesty International
found no conclusive evidence of such practices and Human Rights Watch, in a
had found "no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as
shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack."
As these and other examples illustrate, Lantos'
advocacy for human rights has been far from consistent.
For human rights advocacy to be credible, it must be based on empirical evidence
rather than ideological biases. It must hinge on universal principles of international
humanitarian law rather than a given country's relations with the United
The failure of Representative Lantos to recognize this fundamental reality
will scar an otherwise noble legacy.