U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commented today on the Committee's passage of two bills to enhance the security of Peace Corps volunteers. The Committee adopted H.R. 2699, the Peace Corps Volunteer Service Improvement Act of 2011, and H.R. 2337, the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. The bills were authored by Chairman Ros-Lehtinen and Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), a Member of the Committee, respectively.
Statement by Ros-Lehtinen: "Media reports, testimony of former Peace Corps volunteers, and letters from currently serving and former volunteers paint a dire picture for volunteer safety. Both of these bills provide solutions to ongoing problems. The next step is to move both bills, which enjoy strong bipartisan support, to the House floor."
H.R. 2699 seeks broad changes in how crimes against volunteers are handled by the Peace Corps. The bill requires the Peace Corps to formalize its relationship with the Department of State's Regional Security Officers, who are in the best position to work with foreign law enforcement officials in responding to crimes against volunteers overseas. It also requires the Peace Corps to consider safety and security in determining to which countries volunteers are deployed.
H.R. 2337 focuses on the Peace Corps' response to reports of sexual assault. It requires the Peace Corps to maintain confidentiality in reporting, and to ensure that victim advocates are available to counsel and support volunteers who have become victims of sexual assault. Among other things, H.R. 2337 also requires the Peace Corps to establish training policies regarding sexual assault, and sets up a Sexual Assault Advisory Council to help the agency implement best practices in the sexual assault field.
Ros-Lehtinen's full statement as prepared for delivery at the markup is as follows:
"Last year, the Committee received disturbing information that the Peace Corps was in desperate need of Congressional oversight. In conjunction with an ongoing investigation that included meetings with victims, review of victims' testimonials, interviews with whistleblowers, and meetings with the Government Accountability Office and the Peace Corps Inspector General, I called for a multi-day Full Committee hearing in May to address reports of Peace Corps' gross negligence in handling sexual assault complaints. During the hearing, we heard powerful testimony from brave women who came forward with their stories, in the hope that future Peace Corps volunteers would never have to endure the same pain. I was appalled to hear that, upon receiving reports of sexual assault, the Peace Corps responded by blaming the victims for the attacks.
"As a female, as a mother, and as Chairman of this Committee, I feel a moral imperative to help Peace Corps volunteers, especially the women, who have been victims of sexual assault. I want to again thank Mrs. Lois Puzey - the mother of Kate Puzey - , Dr. Karestan Koenen, Ms. Jessica Smocheck and Ms. Carol Clark for their courage in testifying before this Committee. You are deeply inspiring, and I am committed to making sure your voices are heard loud and clear.
"I also want to thank the current and former volunteers who have shared their stories with us through letters and affidavits. We are here today for all of you and for all who are thinking of serving our nation overseas through the Peace Corps.
"In the months leading up to and following the hearing, the Peace Corps leadership has taken some action, but it is not enough. In seeking to remedy this unacceptable situation, I introduced H.R. 2699, the Peace Corps Volunteer Service Improvement Act of 2011. The bill requires the Peace Corps to establish and maintain policies and procedures for volunteers to confidentially report sexual assault. It mandates that any Peace Corps employee or volunteer who breaches such confidentiality will be subject to disciplinary action, including termination, and be ineligible for re-employment with the Peace Corps.
"As Ms. Puzey testified, the Peace Corps breach of confidentiality may have led to the murder of her brave daughter, Kate, who reported of the rape of her students by a foreign national. This legislation also requires the Director of the Peace Corps to consult with the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security to form a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with respect to the protection of Peace Corps volunteers serving overseas.
"It is unacceptable that U.S. citizens--Peace Corps volunteers--do not enjoy protection from Regional Security Officers stationed at our overseas diplomatic posts because their role in protecting volunteers has not been clearly defined. Regional Security Officers are United States law enforcement officials deployed overseas who are in the best position to serve U.S. citizens and work with their foreign law enforcement counterparts to seek justice on behalf of crime victims.
"As the Peace Corps Inspector General reported over 17 months ago, further delay in forming this MOU could compromise volunteer safety and hinder response to crimes against volunteers. The revised language in the substitute amendment states that if the MOU is not entered into within six months of the bill becoming law, then the Director must report to the Committee on the reasons for failing to meet this deadline, along with a detailed certification on steps taken toward meeting this requirement in a timely fashion. The modification to this section is the result of extensive bipartisan consultation, including regular discussions with the Senate.
"This bill also requires the Peace Corps to report on crime statistics for each country where it operates, including arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations. The legislation also amends the Peace Corps Act to ensure the continued independence of the Peace Corps Inspector General, which is necessary for effective oversight of the Peace Corps. This bill requires that the Peace Corps conduct vital periodic reviews including assessments on the safety and security of volunteers, the country's need for assistance, the effectiveness of in-country management and the country's congruence with the Peace Corps mission and strategic objectives, among other criteria. This bill also requires that the IG perform an audit of the Peace Corps' implementation of safety and security protocols, and the status of any outstanding recommendations from previous audits. As a further oversight measure, the new language in this section requires that the Committee on Foreign Affairs hold a hearing within sixty days of the report's issuance to address the IG report's findings.
"I would also like to, at this time, express my strong support of H.R. 2337, the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, introduced by Congressman Poe and of which I am a proud co-sponsor. Thank you Judge Poe for your continued efforts on this issue.
"Versions of both these bills were adopted by this Committee as Title Ten of H.R. 2583, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. Not a single one of the 84 amendments offered to the Authorization bill altered the Peace Corps provisions.
"I would like to thank Ranking Member Berman for his support and cooperation on this timely issue. It is important that Congress act now to put in place the protections contained in the two bills before us."
NOTE: Both measures were passed by the Committee by unanimous consent.