Katrina Lantos Swett

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.

Read more : https://world.wng.org/2017/04/her_father_s_daughter

The Catalyst: "Protecting Religious Freedom Abroad Makes America Safer", Essay by Katrina Lantos Swett

"The protection of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief should be a significant priority of our nation. To permit the rampant abuse of this essential human right not only violates the core of our humanity, it harms the order and well-being of societies, including our own.

In short, protecting religious liberty is not just the right thing to do. It is almost always the smart thing to do."

Read full essay: http://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/freedom/swett-protecting-religious-freedom.html

Katrina Lantos Swett Remarks - UN Hungarian Holocaust Commemoration

Prepared remarks of Katrina Lantos Swett at UN Hungarian Holocaust Commemoration, January 23, 2014

"Good Evening, Dear Friends.

As has already been noted by the earlier speakers, we meet tonight with hearts that are both heavy and full - heavy over the sudden and serious illness of our friend Gyorgy Vamos who has been in so many ways the moving force behind this exhibit and full because we gather today to remember a dark time in history and to commemorate and honor the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lost their lives in the tragedy of the Hungarian Holocaust. As you know my own family is included in the numbers of those who became victims, and my own dear mother and father were saved only because of the selfless heroism of one of the most extraordinary diplomats and humanitarians of the 20th century- Raoul Wallenberg. A monument to Wallenberg stands just a stone’s throw away from where we are, across the street from the UN, and perhaps the most notable part of the Memorial is the bronze suitcase, left on the ground to symbolize the unfinished work of Raoul who as we all know was kidnapped and imprisoned by the Soviets when they came to Budapest. I think that image of the suitcase left behind as he was taken is an important symbol and reminder for us here today of our own unfinished business.

This powerful exhibit tells an unforgettable story which we are honor bound to remember and bear witness to. But exhibits such as these have another, even more important purpose. In that sense coming here is quite different from going to admire a Matisse at the Met. We are here tonight not only to remember and to learn but even more importantly to prepare and to arm ourselves to face the very real dangers of the present moment. And as far as anti-Semitism in Europe is concerned, its alarming resurgence in recent years reminds us all of the truth of William Faulkner’s words, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

In just the last few days the dark past has re-emerged in Hungary in a disturbing and outrageous way. In 1941, long before the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, nearly 20,000 Jews were deported by the Hungarian authorities to German occupied Ukraine where they were murdered en masse in the infamous Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre. This was the first mass atrocity directed at Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. And yet, a few days ago, the director of a government funded Historical Institute described this unforgivable deportation as simply a “local police action against illegal aliens.” It is hard to properly express my outrage at this appalling attempt to rewrite history and to attempt to evade the Hungarian government’s deep moral complicity in the massacre of these innocent people - the vast majority of them native-born Hungarians. Such an effort to evade, avoid, whitewash and desecrate history is utterly unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by any nation that hopes to command the respect of the world community.

I urge the leadership of the Hungarian government to speak out forcefully against these reprehensible statements and to take appropriate steps to rectify this situation. Hungary is too proud and too decent of a nation to let such shameful remarks stand unrebuked by those at the highest level of government.

When I first learned of these events, I thought immediately of my dear father, Tom Lantos, who was truly fearless when it came to confronting those who would seek to once again fan the flames of bigotry and hatred in Hungary. I know if he were still alive, he would take to the floor of his beloved Congress to denounce these comments and to call upon the government of Hungary to stand proudly and unshakably for the values of human rights, tolerance, democracy and decency. There are many in Hungary who do just that, and I have come to know many of them both as leaders I admire and even more as friends. Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi and State Secretary Zsolt Nemeth are two such individuals; I have been moved to witness their eloquent defense of persecuted minorities, and I’ve been touched by their courageous willingness to honestly face Hungarian history – even its darkest chapters. They do much to bring honor to their country, and I know they represent the millions of decent Hungarians who reject the old prejudices of the past.

I spoke a moment ago about Raoul Wallenberg’s suitcase, now sitting in bronze outside this great Parliament of Man as a reminder of his unfinished work.

His suitcase is waiting there for me.  It is waiting there for you. It is now up to us to pick up that suitcase and carry his work forward for as long as we are able in the fight for human rights and justice for all of humanity. That is the work of this exhibit, and we must make it our work as well.

Thank you."

ROLL CALL Opinion - Swett: Lautenberg Amendment a Lifeline for Iranian Refugees

By Katrina Lantos Swett
Special to Roll Call
Sept. 6, 2012, 11:44 p.m.

An unmarried Baha'i woman spent three years in Iran's notorious Evin Prison charged with being a spy for Israel and the United States. She was told: "To destroy you, we have to destroy your community, your meetings and your prayers." She hopes to live "as a free Baha'i in the U.S." and wants to be sure that "no one will look at me as someone who doesn't belong in society."

An unmarried Christian woman fled Iran after she was forced to join a mosque and develop a relationship with a mullah who stalked her daily. She fears the mullah would kill her if she were forced to return.

A husband and wife who are Mandaeans - religious followers of John the Baptist - fled Iran with their two children after enduring a lifetime of religious persecution. Suffering from physical developmental delays and epilepsy, the daughter had been denied medical care because of her religion.

What do these people have in common, besides fleeing Iran? They were able to seek safety and freedom in the United States thanks to a provision in U.S. law known as the Lautenberg Amendment. Authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), this law is a needed lifeline for religious minorities, including Jews, Christians and Baha'is, to escape religious persecution in former Soviet nations and now Iran.

They also share the fervent hope that the Lautenberg Amendment will continue offering a lifeline to others. It is now up to Congress to make sure that happens. Enacted as part of the 1990 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, the Lautenberg Amendment has been reauthorized ever since. Unless Congress extends its life, it is set to expire Sept. 30.

The Lautenberg Amendment offers vital protections for historically persecuted groups seeking refugee status by establishing a presumption of eligibility and allowing fast-track processing to prevent undue backlogs in "third" countries that host their processing. Such processing is vital for those who flee countries, such as Iran, which do not have U.S. embassies. Without such assurances, "third" countries probably would not provide transit visas permitting persecuted individuals to be processed in safety on their soil.

The amendment neither increases the number of refugees the United States accepts each year nor requires any special appropriated funds. Rather, it recognizes the unique situations these groups continue to face. The small number of refugees who qualify each year are fully screened and vetted.

The Mandaeans, Christians, Bahai's and others who have fled Iran seek refuge from a country that the Secretary of State each year since 1999 has designated a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for egregious, ongoing and systematic violations of freedom of religion or belief.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which I chair, religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution more than 30 years ago. Religious minorities, including Baha'is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims, along with recognized non-Muslim religious minorities - Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians - who are protected under Iran's constitution, face increased discrimination, arrests and imprisonment.

The Lautenberg Amendment enjoys strong support from both parties in Congress. Given the many issues that Congress must wrestle with in September, we urge lawmakers to put the Lautenberg Amendment at the top of the agenda and swiftly reauthorize this measure, sending the unmistakable message that religious freedom matters, as do the lives and safety of the persecuted.

Katrina Lantos Swett is chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Katrina Lantos Swett Testimony - Escalating Violence Against Coptic Women and Girls: Will The New Egypt Be More Dangerous Than the Old?

JULY 18, 2012
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today before the Helsinki Commission on “Escalating Violence against Coptic Women and Girls:  Will the New Egypt be More Dangerous than the Old?”  I have been asked today to give an overview about the general status of and conditions for religious freedom in Egypt, especially for Coptic Christians. I request that my statement be entered into the record.
Since its inception nearly 15 years ago, USCIRF has been deeply engaged on Egypt and for good reason:  For our entire existence, and indeed, prior to our creation, religious freedom conditions, including those of Egypt’s Coptic population, have been extremely problematic.  This situation continues into the present and with the election of Mohammed Morsi, the first freely elected President of Egypt, on June 30. The Egyptian transitional government continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religious freedom.   Discriminatory and repressive laws and policies remain that restrict freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Given these concerns, and for the second year in a row, USCIRF recommended in its 2012 Annual Report that Egypt be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). I also request that USCIRF’s 2012 Annual Report chapter on Egypt be entered into the record.
From the evidence we have seen, the biggest problem faced by the Copts, who comprise about 10 to 15 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million people, continues to be one of impunity.  Simply stated, for decades, Egypt’s government has fostered a climate conducive to acts of violence against Copts and members of other minority communities. It has done so in at least two ways. First, Cairo’s long history of restrictive laws and policies -- from blasphemy codes to an Emergency Law to across-the-board discrimination -- has drawn unwelcome attention to religious minorities, further marginalizing them and leading to violent words and deeds launched by intolerant individuals as well as by radical religious groups.  
Second, the government’s continued failure to protect innocent people from these attacks and to convict those responsible has served to encourage further assaults. For years, President Mubarak’s government tolerated widespread discrimination against religious minorities and disfavored religious groups, from dissident Sunni and Shi’a Muslims to Baha’is, as well as Copts and other Christians, while allowing state-controlled media and state-funded mosques to deliver incendiary messages against them.  The consequences of the climate of impunity are especially apparent in Upper Egypt. 
After Mubarak’s departure, a breakdown in security and a rise in sectarian violence made 2011 one of the worst years for Copts and other minorities. Last year alone, violent sectarian attacks killed approximately 100 people, surpassing the death toll of the previous 10 years combined.    As during the Mubarak regime, Copts were the primary target, and most of the perpetrators still have not been brought to justice: perpetrators have not been convicted or alleged perpetrators have been detained for short periods, but eventually released without charge.   While USCIRF’s 2012 Annual Report chapter on Egypt includes a list of some of the most tragic acts of violence committed against the Coptic Orthodox community, let me note the following significant incident: Last October, Egypt’s state media falsely accused Copts of attacking the military when Muslim and Christian protestors marched toward the state television station.  Following the state media’s call on civilians to counter this imaginary threat, on October 9, in downtown Cairo, armed men attacked peaceful demonstrators, killing at least 26 of them, most of them Copts, while injuring over 300 more. Responding to the violence, Egypt’s military used live ammunition and also deployed armored vehicles that deliberately crushed and killed at least 12 protestors. 
In addition, reports in recent years support claims that there were cases of Muslim men forcing Coptic Christian women to convert to Islam.  The State Department has asserted that such cases are often disputed and include “inflammatory allegations and categorical denials of kidnapping and rape.”  For example, there were credible cases in which Coptic girls voluntarily converted to Islam to marry Muslim men, and subsequently, when the relationship failed, sought to return to Christianity.  Nevertheless, during the reporting period, experts and human rights groups have found that there were also credible cases where Coptic Christian women were lured deceptively into marriages with Muslim men and forced to convert to Islam.  According to these reports, if a woman returns or escapes from the marriage and wants to convert back to Christianity, she faces the same legal hurdles in changing her religious affiliation on official identity documents as discussed above.
In recent years, in response to sectarian violence, Egyptian authorities have conducted “reconciliation” sessions between Muslims and Christians as a way of easing tensions and resolving disputes.  In some cases, authorities compelled victims to abandon their claims to any legal remedy. USCIRF has stated that reconciliation efforts should not be used to undermine enforcing the law and punishing perpetrators for wrongdoing. In recent years, the State Department concluded that reconciliation sessions not only “prevented the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution” but also “contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults.” 
For all Christian groups, government permission is required to build a new church or repair an existing one, and the approval process for church construction is time-consuming and inflexible.  Former President Mubarak had the authority to approve applications for new construction of churches.  Although most of these applications were submitted more than five years ago, the majority have not received a response.  Even some permits that have been approved cannot, in fact, be acted upon because of interference by the state security services at both the local and national levels. 
In 2005, former President Mubarak devolved authority to approve the renovation and re-construction of churches from the president to the country’s governors.  Several years later, some churches continue to face delays in the issuance of permits.  Even in cases where approval to build or maintain churches has been granted, many Christians complain that local security services have prevented construction or repair, in some cases for many years.  In addition, local security services have been accused of being complicit in inciting violence against some churches undergoing routine maintenance or repair.  In recent years, the government repeatedly has pledged, most recently in October 2011, to adopt a new law that would apply to all places of worship.  In June, after consulting with religious leaders and other experts, the SCAF released publicly a draft version of the law.  The draft was criticized widely by Muslims, Christians, and Egyptian human rights groups. While a subsequent version has not been made public, some reports have indicated that the revised draft law covers only churches and not other places of worship.
This is not to say there has been no progress since the end of the Mubarak regime.   To be sure, we have seen some hopeful developments.  Last year, the Grand Sheikh at Al-Azhar began several initiatives expressing support for freedom of religion or belief.  In May of last year, the government began to reopen more than 50 churches that had been closed, in some cases for years. Last July, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that reconverts to Christianity could obtain new national identity documents indicating their Christianity but not their former Muslim faith. And following the October violence, the transitional government took steps to reduce discrimination in Egypt’s Penal Code. 
Yet despite this progress, the bottom line is this: Copts need to be protected, Copts aren’t being protected, and Copts must be protected -- along with every other member of Egyptian society -- from attacks on their right to order their lives and practice their beliefs in dignity and peace.   
As long as Copts and other religious minorities aren’t being sufficiently protected, USCIRF will continue to spotlight the problem and recommend that the U.S. government take strong action in support of religious freedom.  Our recommendations to the United States government are as follows:
First, the United States should press Egypt to improve religious freedom conditions, by repealing discriminatory decrees against religious minorities, removing religion from official identity documents, abolishing the blasphemy codes, and passing a unified law for the construction and repair of places of worship.  
Second, the United States should urge Egypt’s government to prosecute government-funded clerics, government officials, or any other individuals who incite violence, while disciplining or dismissing government-funded clerics who preach intolerance and hatred.
Third, the United States should increase pressure on Egypt to bring to justice those who have committed violence against fellow Egyptians on account of their religion.
Fourth, Washington should press Cairo to include robust protections for religious freedom in a new constitution.
Fifth, the U.S. Congress should require the Departments of State and Defense to report every 90 days on the Egyptian government’s progress pertaining to religious freedom and related rights.
Sixth, until genuine progress occurs, USCIRF renews its call for the United States to designate Egypt a “country of particular concern” as one of the world’s most serious religious freedom abusers.
And finally, if Egypt demonstrates a commitment to progress on freedom of religion and related rights, the United States should ensure that a portion of its military aid to Egypt is used to help Egypt’s police implement a plan to enhance protection for religious minorities, their places of worship, and places where they congregate.
Today, as Egypt confronts the rigors of democratic transition, will it uphold the rights of Copts and other religious minorities?   The world is watching, the Helsinki Commission is watching, and USCIRF is watching, too. Thank you again for this opportunity to testify.

Katrina Lantos Swett Testimony - Escalating Violence Against Coptic Women and Girls: Will The New Egypt Be More Dangerous Than the Old?