Lantos Foundation Statment - Russia Jehovah's Witness Ruling

Today's ruling against the Jehovah's Witnesses by Russia's Supreme Court effectively bans this peaceful religious community from being able to legally exist. It is an outrageous violation of the fundamental right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief and more evidence of the deterioration of democracy, human rights, and civil society in Putin's Russia. What began as a ban on distributing literature has now escalated into an all out assault on the right of this community of over 170,000 faithful believers to function at all. There is a significant risk that if this appalling ruling is allowed to take effect, that Jehovah's Witnesses could face criminal prosecution and prison.

The Lantos Foundation urges faith leaders from all communities to stand in solidarity with the Jehovah's Witnesses of Russia and we call upon the Russian government to uphold the religious freedom rights of all people.     

Her Father’s Daughter - World Magazine

Democrat Katrina Lantos Swett is an advocate for human rights regardless of which party she offends

by J.C. Derrick

CONCORD, N.H., and WASHINGTON, D.C.—On a February morning at the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers, ambassadors, and advocates gathered to award the Lantos Human Rights Prize to Vian Dakhil, a young, articulate member of Iraq’s parliament whose 2014 cries for help drew the world’s attention to ISIS atrocities.

Dakhil’s advocacy for fellow Yazidis had made her ISIS’ most wanted woman, but her nationality almost kept her from attending the event in her honor: As an Iraqi national, she was barred from entering the United States under President Donald Trump’s recently issued travel ban.

Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, later called it “the height of irony” that the ban would block “one of ISIS’ most effective and ardent foes.” Dakhil eventually received a waiver to attend the event—a process the administration created to address situations like her’s—but Swett urged event attendees to consider what an “America First” policy could mean for human rights.

Some conservative observers might dismiss Swett’s Trump criticism, since she’s a Democrat, but Swett has crafted a reputation as a forceful and fiercely independent advocate for human rights—and specifically international religious freedom. Swett spent the Obama years often urging the administration to be more active and challenging congressional Democrats to do the same.

“There’s no Republican position and there is no Democratic position on international religious freedom,” said Swett, age 61, who served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) from 2012 to 2016. “It absolutely transcends party lines.”

As some Democrats de-emphasize traditional human rights—often in favor of LGBT concerns—and Republicans face pressure not to criticize a GOP White House, Swett’s example of independence shows it is possible to put policy over politics.

“She was the very opposite of a partisan or an ideologue,” said conservative Princeton University professor Robert P. George, who served as the USCIRF chairman in alternating years with Swett. “I did not have a different vision from Katrina, and she didn’t have a different vision from me. We were the same.”

HARROWING FAMILY HISTORY cultivated Swett’s passion for human rights. Her Hungarian parents, Tom and Annette Lantos, both lost most of their families in the Holocaust. After escaping a slave labor camp, her father hid in a safe house established by Raoul Wallenberg, the famed Swedish diplomat who saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Her mother slipped out of Hungary with a “protective passport”—another Wallenberg rescue effort. The couple reconnected after the war, married in 1950, and settled in California.

The Lantoses regularly took their two daughters abroad and, often around the dinner table, instilled a sense of optimism about life and a conviction that one person can make a difference. This produced tangible results: Katrina and her sister Annette took it upon themselves to rebuild the family and had a combined 17 children.

Swett attributes her “double education” at home and school for rapidly preparing her for college. After skipping high school, she earned a political science degree from Yale University at age 18, graduated from law school 2½ years later, and landed on the staff of then-Sen. Joe Biden at age 21.

Four years later, Tom Lantos became the first and only Holocaust survivor to win a seat in Congress. He would go on to help found the Congressional Human Rights Caucus—renamed the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission after his death—and chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Her father was a great man,” said Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan administration official who frequently worked with Lantos on human rights issues.

Step into Swett’s office in downtown Concord, N.H., and it takes only seconds to see how much the legacies of father and daughter intertwine. Atop a bookcase sit separate photos of her father shaking hands with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—near a photo of her smiling parents with Condoleezza Rice. Her mother’s Holocaust-era ID card sits on a shelf. On the wall hangs a painted portrait of her father casting an adoring glance at his wife.

Swett flashed one of her frequent smiles and said she has her father “looking down on me from every corner of my office. He keeps me flying straight.”

Following her father’s 2008 death, Swett, her mother, and her sister launched the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice to continue advancing causes around the globe. The foundation uses three primary means to do so: The Lantos Congressional Fellows program provides mentoring and support for about 10 young human rights activists each year; the Front Line Fund awards grants to small organizations and individuals doing unheralded work; the Lantos Prize for Human Rights annually honors a person for outstanding advocacy—like Vian Dakhil.

“We like to think we punch above our weight,” Swett said before taking me on a tour of her orderly office. She explained her father’s love for animals and the significance of the Wallenberg portrait hanging beside her desk and read a framed letter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent to recognize a Lantos statue unveiled last year in Israel.

The family’s political connections have aided the foundation’s growth, but Swett’s persistent work has swiftly turned the organization into a respected human rights institution.

FOR MANY YEARS Democrats took a strong role in advocating for human rights—both at home and abroad. Among his many international battles, Lantos frequently criticized abuses in China, spoke out against Communism, and steadfastly supported Israel. On the domestic front, Democratic Rep. Chuck Schumer—now the Senate minority leader—introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton later signed into law.

The tide turned after 9/11, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a fear of over-engagement, especially among Democrats. During the Obama presidency, Republicans more often championed traditional human rights, while many Democrats seemed to pull back from them.

Some observers cite a reluctance to criticize one’s own president as the prime cause for the shift, but Swett sees issues that won’t be solved with a Republican in the White House. She said the Iraq War and the rise of LGBT activism have caused some to back away from global human rights issues—especially religious freedom. “Sometimes,” she said, “Democrats hear religious freedom and they transpose it into this domestic context where they may feel that religious freedom claims conflict with what they view as robust protection of civil rights for everybody in our society.”  

Swett argues the hesitancy on international issues is unnecessary: Democrats and Republicans can and should agree on, among other things, the danger of blasphemy laws and the economic and security benefits of promoting freedom of speech, religion, and conscience. She said the Obama administration often took the right positions, but then didn’t back them up with policies.

“Rhetoric is always easier than policy,” Swett said. She named Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as consistent advocates, but said, “It pains me that in some instances leaders in my party are not leading the charge any longer on human rights.”

Swett would know. USCIRF’s mandate requires it to collect facts and offer independent policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress on religious freedom issues—putting commissioners in close contact with policymakers.

Swett charted an aggressive course on the issues, calling out oppressive governments and even joining with six other commissioners who each offered to take 100 of the 1,000 lashes the Saudi Arabian government sentenced to a liberal blogger. In 2015, Swett supported USCIRF’s call for the U.S. government to recognize ISIS genocide against all affected groups—in the face of pressure to name only Yazidis.

Her independence at times ran afoul of other Democratic-appointed commissioners who wanted to mitigate criticism of the Obama administration and move USCIRF from nonpartisan to bipartisan—including Republican and Democratic staffs. Swett was at times the lone Democrat voting with four Republicans on the nine-member commission.

“Katrina wouldn’t have it—she just wouldn’t vote a party line,” Abrams said. “She voted her conscience all the time.”

Principled stands don’t come without risk: As a political appointee, Swett could be less likely to receive a future appointment. (Her husband, former U.S. Rep. Richard Swett, was a Clinton-appointed ambassador to Denmark.) But Swett said she didn’t find it difficult: “If I felt it was the right thing to do, it never bothered me to ally with Republican colleagues.”

Some international religious freedom advocates credit Swett with saving the commission. They say the reforms she helped defeat would have rendered the body impotent.

Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who served for 27 years with Lantos, wrote the 1998 legislation that created USCIRF and called Swett one of the best commissioners the body has ever had: “She’s a tribute to her dad. I think her father would be very proud.”

An advocate’s religion

Katrina Lantos Swett recalls her father as a proud and patriotic Hungarian before his country turned against him. After watching his mother and close friends die in the Holocaust—at the hands of both Nazis and Hungarian sympathizers—Lantos became a religious agnostic upon his immigration to the United States.

“He had become a hunted animal because he was a young Jewish man,” Swett said. He later rediscovered his Jewish identity but was “not eager to raise his two daughters in any particular religion.”

One day, young Katrina sent chills up her mother’s spine when she wished the family happy new year—in the fall. Her parents explained it wasn’t a new year, but the little girl insisted otherwise. That day was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year no one had ever told Katrina existed.

Mother Annette Lantos eventually joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She read Bible stories to her daughters but showed deference to her husband’s wishes.

As a young adult, Swett also became a Mormon and went on to raise her seven children in both religious traditions. —J.C.D.

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Lantos Foundation Chair Calls on Hungary to Defend Academic Freedom

April 10, 2017
For Immediate Release
Contact: Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
(603) 226-3636

Mrs. Annette Lantos, Chair of the Lantos Foundation and the widow of the late Congressman Tom Lantos, today issued an open letter to the people of Hungary decrying controversial legislation that targets the prestigious Central European University for closure. Late last week, Mrs. Lantos sent a letter to the President of Hungary urging him to use his power to prevent the law from taking effect. It is reported that President Ader signed the law earlier today.

The Budapest born Mrs. Lantos describes CEU as "an outstanding, world class academic institution" and a "jewel in Hungary's crown". In her open message she calls upon the Hungarian people to defend academic freedom and the values of a free society.

Dear Hungary,

I write to you today as one of your daughters, who was fortunate to be born and raised in the incomparable city of Budapest. When just a teenager, I was forced to leave my Hungarian home during the terrible days of the Holocaust. I was blessed to find refuge and a new home in my adopted country, the United States of America. Despite all that had happened, neither I nor my late husband Tom Lantos ever lost our deep love for our native land. During the nearly three decades that he served in the U.S. Congress, Hungary had no greater friend in America.

We rejoiced in 1989 when Hungary overcame decades of Soviet rule to become an independent democracy. We also rejoiced when Budapest became the home of Central European University (CEU) – an outstanding, world class academic institution that brought respect and great prestige to the country we love.

You can imagine, then, that I am heartbroken by the recent decision of the government to target this distinguished university with unfounded attacks and threats of closure. I am also very disappointed by the decision of President Ader to sign this ill–conceived legislation into law. Why would the Hungarian government invite controversy and condemnation through this action and jeopardize a successful 23 year academic partnership with a respected American university? It is frankly baffling and illogical. Were my husband still alive, I know he would be speaking out forcefully against these actions. Though I am nearly 86 and a great grandmother many times over, I feel I must do the same.

The glory of any nation is its willingness to honor the past while simultaneously sustaining freedom and embracing the future. CEU represents these shining goals. It embodies the ideals of free, robust, and exacting academic inquiry and it has become the training academy for some of the best and brightest future leaders in Hungary, Europe, and the world. Truly, it is a jewel in Hungary's crown and it would be a tragic mistake to pluck it out and cast it aside. I know that millions of Hungarians agree with me about this and I was heartened to see so many thousands of you take to the streets just a few days ago to voice your support for the continued ability of CEU to be part of Hungary’s rich academic tradition. 

Now more than ever, it is up to the people of Hungary to defend this bastion of learning and liberty and to persuade your government to reconsider this misguided policy. Your fellow countrymen and the world will salute your determination to do so.

Mrs. Annette Lantos
Chair, Lantos Foundation

Statement on President Trump's Meeting With Egyptian President

"While we recognize that every American administration must, to some extent, deal with so-called "Friendly Tyrants" as they pursue America's complex interests abroad, we nonetheless believe that  we betray both our values and our interests when we give authoritarian regimes a "free pass" on their outrageous abuses of human rights. This is particularly true in the case of a country like Egypt which has been the recipient of vast sums of foreign aid from the United States for over 4 decades. We must use our leverage with the Egyptian government to encourage greater respect for international human rights and the fundamental principles of rule of law. A good place to begin would be by demanding that the Egyptian government release the American prisoners it is holding. Human rights organizations, congressional leaders, and legal experts have all agreed that individuals like Aya Hijazi have been unfairly targeted with outrageous and false charges. It is time for our government to stand up and demand their release."

Joy and relief supplant fear and frustration at Logan - Boston Globe

"The decision is expected to pave the way for Iraqi doctor Deelan Dakhil to travel to Washington, D.C., Monday with her sister, Vian, who is receiving a human rights award from the Lantos Foundation, a New Hampshire organization.

Vian Dakhil, a member of Iraq’s Parliament, is being recognized for her efforts to combat terrorism, a crusade which made her into one of ISIS’s “Most Wanted” women.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson granted her special permission to travel, said Katrina Lantos Swett, the foundation’s president.

Deelan Dakhil said her sister is eager to visit the United States to discuss the Yazidi people, a religious sect in Iraq that faced mass genocide and religious persecution by the Islamic State."


BuzzFeed News - She Defied ISIS. Now The Trump Administration Won’t Let Her In.

"She has spent the last two and a half years rescuing and tending to girls and young women kidnapped, enslaved, and raped by ISIS fighters, and children orphaned by the war. For her efforts, this year she won the prestigious Lantos Human Rights Prize, whose previous recipients included the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel. But she will almost certainly be unable to accept the award in person, because of President Donald Trump’s ban on all Iraqis visiting the US for 90 days — a move intended to block terror groups like ISIS that Dakhil has risked her life opposing."


Religion News Service - Yazidi human rights leader won’t be able to pick up her award

"Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, urged Trump to overturn the immigration order, saying it will have a “devastating effect” on human rights activists who work with the U.S. to promote religious freedom.

“When we have to question whether a hero like Dakhil, who has risked her life to fight the genocidal terrorists of ISIS, will be allowed into our country to receive a human rights prize in the shadow of the Capitol dome, we should all be deeply concerned,” said Lantos Swett.

“This ban undermines America’s security and our values by turning our backs on the friends and allies we desperately need by our side to defeat the butchers of ISIS,” she added."


"Yazidi human rights champion banned from coming to Washington to accept award" - The Washington Post

"Vian Dakhil was set to receive the Lantos Human Rights Prize at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 8. The prize is given by the foundation named after the late Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who championed human rights for decades while serving in the U.S. Congress. Dakhil’s case is a startling example of how the executive order signed by President Trump is having unintended consequences and ensnaring not only those who have no links to terrorism but also those who have risked their lives to fight terrorism in cooperation with the United States."

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