Nov. 19, 2004
MISCELLANEOUS TRADE AND TECHNICAL CORRECTIONS ACT-CONFERENCE REPORT-CONTINUED
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Wisconsin.
Mr. KOHL. Madam President, I want to speak on the miscellaneous tariffs bill.
Last spring, Senator Feingold and I sent a letter to the minority leader making it clear we would object to taking up S. 2200, a bill granting NTR status to Laos because of the human rights situation there. At the time we said:
Reports emerging from Laos remain disturbing. Journalists, human rights groups, and many of our constituents inform us that the Laos government continues to be responsible for serious human rights violations, and that conditions are particularly difficult for the Hmong ethnic group.
The situation in Laos has not changed, and, in fact, over the last several months more disturbing evidence has emerged that now is not the time for us to appear to be rewarding one of the most closed and repressive regimes. For the first time, we have independent corroboration of the types of charges which have been made by many Hmong residents of my State for years and by others who have fled Laos more recently.
On September 13, 2004, Amnesty International issued a report entitled "Military Atrocities Against Hmong Children Are War Crimes." The report, which I will read from momentarily, details horrific crimes committed in May of this year reportedly by Laos soldiers. These crimes were captured on a graphic videotape smuggled out this summer and which I understand the State Department has taken very seriously, and they were also described by witness testimony.
The attack took place against a group of children, five of whom were killed, in a remote area of the country, and was described by Amnesty International as follows:
The 5 children, between 13 and 16 years old and part of an ethnic Hmong rebel group, were brutally mutilated-the girls apparently raped before being killed-by a group of approximately 30-40 soldiers. The victims-four girls, Mao Lee, 14; her sister Chao Lee, 16; Chi Her, 14; Pang Lor, 14; and Tou Lor, Pang Lor's 15 year old brother-were killed whilst foraging for food close to their camp. They were unarmed.
A witness, who has subsequently fled the country and been recognized as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reported hearing one of the soldiers saying: "Hmong. Your mouth allows you to speak. Your vagina allows you to breed".
He then heard moans and a gunshot.
A 14-year-old girl was shot in each breast and the other bodies were mutilated by what appears to be high-powered rifle shots fired at close range. One of the girls was disemboweled.
Several other members of the group were seriously injured with gun shot wounds but managed to return to their encampment. The rebels have little if any medicine and rely on traditional treatments using plants found in the forest.
It is my understanding that in the last several weeks, our State Department has delivered a demarche to the Lao Government, calling for thorough investigation of these atrocities which happened in May-an investigation that is credible and that would withstand scrutiny by the international community. To date, there has been no such investigation and the soldiers involved with these war crimes have not been held accountable.
Also this year, came startling and deeply upsetting reports. Hundreds of former Hmong-Lao insurgents-many of whom courageously helped our military during the Vietnam War-and their families emerged from the jungles in Laos only to be captured by the Lao military and mistreated, and as some allege, killed.
The emerging Hmong-Lao were under the impression that there was an amnesty program organized by the Laotian government, but there was much confusion about this program. The Lao government has officially denied there was such a program, they have refused to provide our Government with any details of this mass surrender of ethnic Hmong and their families, and they would not accept humanitarian assistance for the sudden influx of people seeking assistance.
In response to these reports, Senator FEINGOLD and I, along with others, sent a letter to Ambassador Negroponte asking for his assistance in urging the United Nations to send a high level UN representative or fact finding mission to Laos to monitor the treatment of the Hmong. I also raised the issue with Secretary Powell when he came to testify before the Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee. Secretary Powell expressed concerns about the reports coming out of Laos. He agreed that there is a need for greater access and that more needs to be done to secure the safety of the Hmong. And, while Laos hasn't exactly been on the front burner, this spring the Secretary raised the issue of the Hmong in Laos with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and he wrote to the Lao Foreign Minister to express concerns about the reports related to the supposed amnesty.
It is my understanding that there has been no reply to Secretary Powell's letter.
So, here we are today offering a carrot to a government that has essentially stonewalled our Secretary of State and has restricted access to independent international monitors, leaving us with no way to investigate the many reports coming from Laos.
I am aware that there are supporters of Laos who have raised questions about the veracity of reports of human rights violations against the Hmong. Because of restrictions put in place by the Lao government that deny policymakers, journalists, and humanitarian groups access to the situation on the ground, it is very difficult to confirm these reports one way or the other. More significantly, it is virtually impossible to ensure that these individuals are being treated fairly and humanely. That is why it is essential for us to keep the pressure on the Lao government to push for international access. Such access would be crucial in determining the facts surrounding the treatment of the Hmong and would allow us to ensure that they are not being mistreated.
The sad fate of the Hmong in Laos has been exacerbated by their role in helping the United States during the Vietnam war. By 1963, as many as 20,000 Hmong fighters were trained and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight against the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao forces as part of the so-called "secret war in Laos." Some reports put the number of fighters as high as 40,000 in 1969. The Hmong sustained heavy casualties during those years, working in coordination with the CIA. The impact on the Hmong community extended beyond the actual fighters: Family members lived under terrible conditions, throughout this period, unable to farm because they were constantly moving to keep one step ahead of the Communists. Since they were never in one place long enough to harvest, they had to eat leaves, wild fruit, tree bark, and whatever else they could find in the jungle. The United States is indebted to these former Hmong insurgents who rescued downed American pilots and disrupted North Vietnamese supply lines-under the most difficult circumstances. We cannot forget these courageous individuals and their families.
In the years since the end of the Vietnam war, thousands of Hmong have fled to Thailand, living a life of separation from their homeland and ongoing transition. Hmong have come to the United States, resettling in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. My State of Wisconsin is the home to 33,000 former Hmong refugees, many of whom are concerned about the status of their family and friends in Laos. And, last December, the U.S. Government decided to admit 15,000 Hmong-Lao refugees who were living in Thailand. These refugees began to arrive in June and they will continue to arrive through the end of the year.
Estimates are that there are as many as 17,000 Hmong still live in the jungles of Laos. According to the Associated Press, about 20 Hmong communities are currently involved in low level combat against the Lao communist government, which came to power in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. Most recently, there are reports that as many as two thousand Hmong have been under attack in remote regions of Laos by Lao forces using grenades, machine guns, and mortars. The scattered reports we receive are from those who manage to escape the area, those who call out on satellite phones, and the few reporters who venture onto the dangerous terrain.
In October 2003, Amnesty International issued a report which stated that the Lao government is using starvation as a "weapon of war against civilians"-a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, which Laos has ratified. The report indicated that the Lao military had surrounded several rebel groups and their families, including civilians, and was preventing them from foraging for food they need to survive. At that time, Amnesty stated that it was greatly concerned "by the sharply deteriorating situation of thousands of family members of ethnic minority groups, predominantly Hmong, involved in an armed conflict with the Lao military in jungle areas of the country." Articles in Time Asia in spring 2003 underscored these charges, stating that the Lao government had hunted down and surrounded "this dwindling group of outcasts." The pictures accompanying this and other pieces in Time have shown the Hmong in the jungle living in deplorable conditions.
Beyond its treatment of the Hmong, the Lao government also has a history of particularly severe violations of religious freedom which have been documented by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a report submitted to Congress last March. The Commission has designated Laos as a "country of particular concern" and has said that "U.S attention to Laos at this time may advance protections for religious freedom and promote U.S. interests."
I am sure that granting NTR was not the kind of attention the Commission had in mind.
To quote from their report:
. . there has been extensive government interference with and restrictions on all religious communities. In more recent years, the government has focused its repression on religions that are relatively new to Laos, including Protestant Christianity . . . [Violations] include the arrest, prolonged detention, and imprisonment of members of religious minorities on account of their religious activities. . . . Lao officials have forced Christians to renounce their faith . . . dozens of churches have been closed.
This persecution of religious minorities has extended to U.S. citizens as well. In June of this year, the Laotian Government arrested, imprisoned, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison a Lutheran minister, a U.S. citizen, from St. Paul, MN. While in captivity, he was denied consular access for over a week and was subjected to a so-called trial before the Laotian judiciary system. Although he was released after a month, Laotian Christians have not been so lucky. Some Christian pastors say leaders have remained imprisoned for years. As long as there is no pressure on the Lao Government, we can expect the status quo to continue.
With all due respect to my colleagues on the Finance Committee, I have to say they have been surprisingly eager to grant NTR status to Laos. They have been so focused on taking this step in the context of cleaning up our trade laws and eliminating the distinction between those nations which have NTR status and those that do not have NTR status that they have forgotten that this is not happening in a vacuum. Whether we intend to or not, we are sending a strong signal to the Lao Government, and that signal is that they can act with impunity.
I recognize there is strong support for the miscellaneous tariff bill that has nothing to do with Laos NTR, and that many of my colleagues are not casting this vote with Laos in mind. For many years, I have worked with others, including my colleague, Senator Feingold, to shed more light on the condition of the Hmong in Laos and to assure their safety, and I did guarantee I will continue to do so.
Madam President, I commend to my colleagues a report on the CIA Web site entitled "Supporting the 'Secret War': CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955 to 1974." The report is by a historian at the University of Georgia.
I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the RECORD a report from Time magazine of May 5, 2003, entitled "Welcome to the Jungle," which details the deplorable conditions of the Hmong in the jungle in Laos. As one of the Hmong said, "We shed blood with the U.S . . . they should remember us." Also, a report dated September 13, 2004, from Amnesty International entitled "Laos: Military Atrocities Against Hmong Children Are War Crimes." Then a letter from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
And a letter dated March 15, 2004, to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Negroponte, signed by members of the Wisconsin, California, and Minnesota delegations.
There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows: