Outside editorial: Human rights panel isn't being allowed to do its job

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A favorite tactic in despotic regimes is to create toothless, ineffectual human rights commissions that are really fig leafs designed to cover for the regimes' abuses. If such a commission happens to overstep its narrow brief by actually advocating human rights and making criticisms, the regime is generally quick to neuter it. Now it seems the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, Va., is taking its cues from just such cynical regimes.

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That's the impression given by a remarkable letter sent by Corey A. Stewart, R-At Large, chairman of the board, to the county's Human Rights Commission in the wake of the board's vote last month to crack down on illegal immigrants by intensifying police enforcement and denying them some county services. Quite reasonably, the human rights commission formed a panel that began hearings on what the possible effect of the resolution might be, not just on undocumented immigrants but, given the risk of racial profiling, on Hispanics generally. The panel's intent was to issue a cautionary report that would point out potential risks to human rights and that might guide the policy's implementation.

Fair enough, right? Wrong. Never mind that the human rights commission had reached no conclusions, written no report and made no public comments. The very idea that it might do so - and specifically, that it might be critical (gasp!) - appeared to inflame Stewart and his fellow county supervisors. Writing for the board, he warned the commission that if it had any criticisms, it should keep them to itself. "It is not the role of Board-appointed citizen advisory groups to critique the Board's policies after those policies have been adopted," he cautioned haughtily. Rather than second-guessing the board, he suggested, it would be more helpful if the commission would assist in selling its anti-illegal-immigrant resolution to the public.

So much for freedom of speech, open debate and any notion that the commission might do its job aggressively. By imagining that the county's human rights watchdogs perform a public relations function for policy-makers, Stewart and the board betray their disdain for the commission's work.

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