Two bills working their way through Congress,the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 and the Consular Notification Compliance Act,are intended to increase protections for American citizens in foreign countries.
The former,S.1280,which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Tuesday,would amend the Peace Corps Act of 1961 to require the federally run volunteer program to develop protocol for dealing with sexual assault cases and offer protection to victims and whistleblowers.
“The objective of the legislation is to codify the reforms we have put in place to ensure the Peace Corps continues to be safe and secure for Americans who serve,” Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams said.
The bill is named after Kate Puzey,a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Benin,Africa,who was murdered in 2009 after she accused Peace Corps employee and Benin native Constant Bio of sexually abusing children at the school where she taught. At a congressional hearing in May,Puzey’s mother and three former Peace Corps volunteers who were raped testified that the program did not provide adequate safety training and reacted inappropriately when sexual assaults were reported.
In 2009,the most recent year data is available,the Peace Corps recorded 15 incidents of rape or attempted rape and 96 other cases of sexual assault. There are about 8,600 volunteers serving in the Peace Corps in a given year. In 2009,60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers were women.
Peace Corps regional recruiter Jason Beach said the organization has taken recent steps to prevent sexual assaults,including tailoring volunteer training to the cultural norms of each region and encouraging volunteers to report every incident to their supervisors. The program has formed several panels to study sexual assault,hired a victim advocate and established a case tracking system to better serve effected volunteers.
In light of these measures,Charles “Chic” Dambach,a volunteer in Colombia from 1967 to 1969 and former CEO of both the Alliance for Peacebuilding and the National Peace Corps Association,said he did not feel the bill would make a significant difference in volunteers’ safety.
“The Peace Corps is so conscious about this,” he said. “It’s first and foremost in their minds. It makes it an absolute priority.”
Dambach,who now serves as chief of staff for Rep. John Garamendi,D-Calif.,said he never worried for his safety during his time in Colombia,and that life in the U.S. is not necessarily any safer than life abroad.
“Yes things happen,but things happen here,” he said. “A year after I left the Peace Corps,my best friend in the world was murdered in Dallas.”
Dambach and Beach said that there is inherent risk in serving overseas.
“The whole point of the Peace Corps is that you’re out there exposed in the community,” Dambach said.
The Consular Notification Compliance Act,S.1194,would authorize federal courts to review cases of foreign nationals currently on death row in the U.S. who were not told of their right to contact their consulate under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,which the U.S. signed in 1963.
The bill,which was discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday,would encourage foreign countries to guarantee the same rights to Americans incarcerated abroad,sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.,said.
“We must bring the United States in compliance with our legal obligations,” he said. “We cannot continue to ignore the treaty and expect other countries to honor it.”
Leahy cited the 2008 execution of Mexican national Jose Ernesto Medellin in Texas. Mexico sued the U.S. in the International Court of Justice,claiming Medellin was sentenced to death even though U.S. officials did not tell him of his right to notify the Mexican consulate when he was arrested.
In a similar case,Texas executed Mexican national Humberto Leal Garcia on July 7,despite officials’ failure to inform him of his consular rights. Mexico claimed it could have provided legal help to Garcia had the consulate been informed of his arrest. The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to postpone the execution to allow time for Congress to pass the Consular Notification Compliance Act,but the body refused in a 5-4 decision.
Such treaty violations strain the U.S.-Mexico relationship,State Department Undersecretary Patrick F. Kennedy said,and endanger the 4.5 million Americans living in foreign countries who depend on consular protection.
“We need this legislation urgently to protect Americans abroad,” Kennedy said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham,R-S.C.,said 3,500 Americans were detained abroad last year,including military service members and journalists in war zones. Journalist Clare Gillis,who was jailed for six weeks while reporting in Libya in April,testified in favor of the bill.
Objections to the bill were raised by David B. Rivkin,a lawyer specializing in constitutional law,who said that it infringed upon states’ rights.
Reach reporter Rebecca Koenig at [email protected] or 202-326-9867
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