Ilhan Omar confronts Elliott Abrams over human rights

In her first committee hearing since apologizing for what were widely condemned as anti-Semitic remarks, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., confronted the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, over his record of support for right-wing governments in Latin America.

Abrams was appearing at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee titled “Venezuela at a Crossroads.”

Omar, a freshman, began by pointing out that Abrams had pled guilty in 1991 to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress over the Iran-Contra affair, a plot hatched by the Reagan administration to assist rebels trying to overthrow the left-wing government of Nicaragua. Abrams was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under Reagan and a key figure in the scandal. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service for giving false testimony, but was pardoned President George H.W. Bush as Bush was leaving office.

Omar suggested Americans would have reason to doubt Abrams’s testimony about the United States role in Venezuela.

“If I could respond to that,” said Abrams.

“It wasn’t a question,” replied Omar.

“It was an attack,” said Abrams.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Venezuela is enmeshed in both an economic crisis and a power struggle between the elected president, Nicolas Maduro, and National Assembly head Juan Guaidó. Abrams was appointed special envoy last month by President Trump, who has recognized Guaidó as interim president.

Omar then turned to Abrams’s role in dissembling about a 1981 massacre in El Salvador. Abrams had dismissed the murder of hundreds of residents of the village of El Mozote by Salvadoran army units trained by the U.S. military advisers during a civil war. A 1992 Human Rights Watch report said that Abrams’s Senate testimony had “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre.”

Abrams later said of the United States that the “record in El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement” despite evidence later surfacing that the U.S. government had helped hide Salvadoran human rights abuses. When Omar asked if Abrams thought the El Mozote massacre was a fabulous achievement, he refused to answer.

“That is a ridiculous question and I’m not going to respond,” said Abrams. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack which is not a question.”

“Yes or no,” continued Omar, “would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests as you did in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua?”

Medea Benjamin, right, and Elliott Abrams
Activist Medea Benjamin confronts U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams prior to a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“I’m not going to respond to that question, I’m sorry,” said Abrams. “I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions so I will not respond.”

“Will you make sure human rights not violated and that we uphold international and human rights?” Omar continued.

“I suppose there’s a question in there,” replied Abrams, “and the answer is the entire thrust of the American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country. That’s our policy.”

“I don’t think anybody disputes that,” said Omar. “The question I had for you is that does the interest of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide?”

“That is always the position of the United States,” said Abrams.

The hearing had been disrupted earlier in the day by protesters opposing Abrams’s appearance.

Omar apologized earlier this week for tweets that made sarcastic reference to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC. President Trump called on her to resign from Congress, or step down from the influential committee.


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