Rep. Chris Smith and the Religious Right’s Narrow View of Human Rights

Advocating for human rights only to enforce conservative ideals

Representative Chris Smith is sometimes lauded as a champion of human rights, but does this claim withstand scrutiny?

Smith, who is currently in his 36th year as the U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 4th Congressional district, serves as chairman of the Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee as well as the chairperson of the Human Trafficking congressional caucus.

Despite these leadership roles, he’s been shockingly ineffective as a human rights advocate. Prominent human rights groups do not rank him favorably: he has earned a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign and a 5% rating from the American Civil Liberties Union. What is Smith doing wrong?

Narrow-Minded Legislation

Let’s take a closer look at a bill Smith recently introduced: the “Bindu Philips and Devon Davenport International Child Abduction Return Act of 2017.” The bill seeks to automatically revoke tariff exemptions to countries that do not comply with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

For those unfamiliar, the Hague Convention is a controversial international treaty that requires the return of children who have been taken out of the country by a parent without the consent of the other parent. Problematically, the law ignores any underlying custody cases.

image credit: Hindustan TImes

Since the law makes no distinction for cases in which the “abductor” is a victim of domestic violence, it disproportionately affects against mothers who have fled with their children to safety. This accounts for as many as 70% of International Abduction cases. As a result, many human rights organizations vocally oppose the Hague Convention. Many countries, such as India and Brazil, have refused to sign the law for the same reason.

However, Smith has a radically different, unnuanced view of the issue. In 2012, he stated in no uncertain terms: “Parental abduction is child abuse[…] Abducted children often lose their relationship with their mom or their dad, half of their identity and half of their culture.” With that context, it’s clear that the sole focus of his bill is to preserve the conservative ideal of a nuclear family, regardless of the collateral effect of shielding domestic abusers.

Enforcing Conservative Culture

It’s admirable to help families to remain intact, but Smith seems incapable of acknowledging the reality of domestic violence and its relevance to this bill. Clearly, this bill isn’t about human rights; it’s about enforcing conservative culture. Rep. Smith has spent his entire Congressional career confusing the two.

This bill is far from an anomaly in Smith’s record. As one of the Religious Right’s favorite Congressmen, he consistently dismisses the basic rights of people who deviate from his radically narrow conservative ideal.

Smith’s No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act impacts low-income women the most, making it impossible to use Medicaid or ACA plans for almost all abortions.

His notorious statement that he does “not construe homosexual rights as human rights” was universally condemned. His controversial redefinition of “forcible rape” drew bipartisan outrage and was thrown out. His humanitarian efforts in Africa center solely around enforcing bans on abortion in countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, that are beset by widespread famine and poverty.

Neglecting Current Issues

Instead of creating new legislation to impose his views on other countries, it would be more productive for Smith to focus on cases in his own district that are enforceable under current law.

Viviane Ferreira Leite is currently battling for the return of her two sons who were abducted to Brazil by their abusive father. Being an undocumented immigrant, Leite is seeking a U visa, which gives legal statuses to immigrants who are victims of crimes and cooperate with law enforcement. As a victim of domestic violence, this is an open-and-shut case.

But since there is a large backlog of U visa requests, her petition may not be approved until next year — too late for Brazilian courts to grant her custody. Smith could easily expedite this request with the USCIS and ensure her children a safe return to their mother in the United States. Leite was residing in District 4 at the time of the abduction, but because she is an immigrant, her case has been ignored by Smith.

An Ignored Constituency

If Smith truly cared about human rights, he would be listening to his constituents. Immigrant activists in Smith’s own district have been decrying the Trump administration’s policies regarding the aggressive deportation tactics of undocumented immigrants, which actually do rip apart loving families who have mixed immigration status.

image credit: Red Bank Green

Smith’s human rights record would more accurately be depicted as an advocate for the chosen few. He has aligned with the Religious Right to enforce his narrow beliefs and conservative values upon others under the guise of “human rights.” As he’s stated himself, those exist outside his worldview — as an immigrant, as a woman, as a member of the LGBT community — have no rights in Smith’s eyes.

A Representative should serve all people in their constituency, regardless of their status, lifestyle, or orientation. After 36 years, it’s time for new representation in New Jersey’s District 4.