WASHINGTON — Rebiya Kadeer always wondered why her treatment in one of the harshest prisons in China suddenly got better: The guards stopped yelling so much, and she was let out of solitary confinement.
"Since my husband and children were in the United States, I thought it might have something to do with Washington," says the rights activist for China's Uighur minority.
It did, she is now certain. For more than five years, her case was a top priority of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which held briefings on her case and rained letters on Beijing and the US State Department to make sure her name was not forgotten. "The caucus played a very big role in her release last March. They never stopped raising my mother's case," says Ms. Kadeer's daughter, Akida Roussi, who translated her mother's telephone interview for this article.
Like some 300 other informal member groups on Capitol Hill, the Human Rights Caucus works outside the official committee structure. As an informal group, it doesn't write bills or appropriate funds and can't even maintain an independent Web page. Yet it is a venue for members to set aside party ID and work together on issues they care about. Sometimes, as with the case of Rebiya Kadeer, it makes a difference.
"The human rights caucus shines a spotlight on issues that wouldn't otherwise get attention from the mainline congressional committees," says Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, which also worked for her release. "They stick to it."
Congress also has formal committees that take up human rights issues, such as the Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, which invited Kadeer to be part of a July 21 panel on the persecution of minorities in China. But the caucus had her speak three months earlier and has held public briefings on the issue since 2001.
Such informal groups have been part of congressional life since the first Congress, but dramatically increased in the 1980s and '90s. They range from well-established groups like the Congressional Black Caucus to newer groups, such as the Mental Health Caucus.
For some lawmakers, these are venues to work on issues that haven't yet made it onto the official agendas. For others, it's a passion. "I don't believe my marriage would have lasted 55 years if I hadn't started this [Human Rights] caucus," says Rep. Tom Lantos (D) in an interview, coincidentally, on the day of his wedding anniversary. Mr. Lantos, who fought with the Hungarian resistance in World War II, is the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress.
His wife, Annette, also a Holocaust survivor, works full-time in his office as an unpaid assistant, mainly on human rights issues. "If a Holocaust survivor does not have human rights as his No. 1 concern, there's something wrong with his learning capacity," she quips.
The Kadeer case is one of the many quiet victories of the 188-member caucus, founded in 1983 by Lantos and former Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois. For the past 22 years, it's been an island of bipartisan cooperation in an increasingly polarized House. The Human Rights Caucus was the first to hold hearings on the deteriorating human rights situation in East Timor. It was the first to invite the Dalai Lama to Capitol Hill. "It was a meeting with five members [of Congress] in a crummy room," says Lantos. "The next meeting was in the Rotunda with 600."
The caucus holds events about every week when Congress is in session. While it has none of the powers of a full committee to make laws or shift federal spending, it can link congressional names and prestige to an issue or to bring issues to the attention of official committees. Lantos is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, where he works closely with chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois.
Caucus cochair Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia says there is less interest today in the issue of human rights than any time since he was elected to Congress in 1980. "One half of the [pro-democracy] demonstrators in Tiananmen Square are still in prison.... Now, you couldn't get a Jackson-Vanik Amendment passed here if you hired every lobbyist in town," he says, referring to the 1972 trade bill that denied preferences to countries, such as the Soviet Union, that did not allow citizens to emigrate.
In recent months, the Human Rights Caucus has taken up the issues of Sudan, disaster relief in Sri Lanka, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, human rights for indigenous people in Colombia, and the status of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
A panel on human rights in Egypt last month was chaired by Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, a Democrat - a rare image in a Congress where Republicans hold all the gavels. Rep Phil English (R) of Pennsylvania, who joined her on the panel, says that such bipartisanship is a key to the caucus's strength, especially at a time when much of the emphasis in Congress is on economics and trade. "There's now a great deal of institutional resistance to bringing up human rights issues," he adds.
"It shows we are capable of working together. It shows that lack of civility is not a universal solvent," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, another caucus member. "Some things survive, and this one does."