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Human Rights Leadership

A Man of the People U.S. Representative Benjamin A. Gilman

by Thomas G. Whittle

Benjamin A. Gilman

n 1933, as the Nazis’ grip on Germany tightened, a young Benjamin A. Gilman journeyed from New York to Berlin with his father.

Their purpose, in his words: “to try to persuade my aunt, my father’s sister, to come and live in the States and to bring her children.”

From the living room window of his aunt’s Berlin home, he said, “We saw the storm troopers already marching in the streets, painting signs in the Jewish shops and housing. I was just a boy of about 10 or 11 at that time, but my father gave me an opportunity to take it all in.”

His aunt elected to remain in Germany. She and her children later perished in the Holocaust.

What he witnessed in that tortured nation kindled a lifelong commitment to the cause of human rights—a dedication reaffirmed by his relatives’ subsequent fate.

“One Long Effort to Help”

In November 2000, nearly seven decades after that trip to Berlin, a newspaper in U.S. Representative Benjamin A. Gilman’s 20th Congressional District, the Rockland County Times, endorsed him for reelection to a 15th term, calling him “a man of the people, who has spent his entire life in blameless public service, saving thousands of lives from tyranny. ... Mr. Gilman has been preeminent in the fight for human rights throughout the world.”

Indeed, since first elected to Congress in 1972, Gilman has established himself as a leading international champion of liberty, renowned in America and abroad for his unflagging support of freedom, individual rights, democracy and open government. “Democracies will always naturally conflict with closed forms of government,” he said.

Working with the House Committee on International Relations, for three decades he has traveled to Africa, Asia, Europe—including countries then under Communist rule—and South America, struggling to improve individual freedoms where they have been most heavily suppressed, while never losing sight of their importance in America as well.

In the 1970s, Gilman’s stature on the world’s human rights stage grew as a result of successful work to free prisoners in Cuba, East Germany, Mozambique and other nations through “prisoner exchanges.”

In 1978, as a result of these and other efforts, People magazine commented, “Ben Gilman sees his political life as one long effort to help individuals in distress.”

Benjamin A. Gilman and President George W. Bush
Rep. Gilman surveys damage to lower Manhattan with President George W. Bush after the September 11 tragedy.

In 1980 he campaigned—again with positive results—to free 30 American citizens from Cuban jails. Later, journalist Jacobo Timerman would acknowledge Gilman’s work to free him from incarceration in Argentina during the junta years, recounting the congressman’s visit to him in Buenos Aires as part of those efforts.

Gilman has pressed for peaceful resolutions to oppression, as in Tibet, and for an end to conflict, as in Kashmir and the Middle East. He has supported the emergence of democracies in areas as diverse as Nigeria and Russia, and battled for freedom of information, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion throughout the world.

Although the work can be difficult, time-consuming, and often thankless, his efforts have continued over all obstacles, a fact which has led to commendations from many, ranging from the Dalai Lama to the U.S. Committee for UNICEF. He counts among his proudest recent accomplishments successful efforts to improve religious freedom in Germany and legislation to require that at least 1 percent of the U.S. State Department’s budget be appropriated to its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Focus on Youth

Young people have always been at the forefront of his concerns. “Children are our future,” he states on his website, which details numerous issues of benefit to children that he supports, including Community Learning Centers that provide tutoring and other academic help to enable students to meet scholastic standards in such fundamental subjects as reading and math.

Project Children began in his congressional district, launched by police officer Denis Mulcahy in the mid-1970s. The program shattered barriers between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, helping to build a foundation for understanding and permanent peace by bringing 10- to 14-year-old youths to the United States for six-week summer visits with host families, away from the violence and strife. Over the years, Gilman has staunchly supported Project Children, through which more than 14,000 young people have come to the United States. It has expanded to include placement of young adults in internships in business and government throughout the country, including congressional offices and the White House.

“Ben is one of Congress’ strongest champions of human rights. Throughout his career, he has fought tirelessly to protect the freedoms we cherish for the world’s downtrodden and persecuted.”
– U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos
Children, of course, are particularly hard-hit by economic pressures and thus often fall as first victims to the resultant hardships. Inspired by singer and songwriter Harry Chapin’s crusade to end world hunger, in the 1970s Gilman wrote the legislation that created the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and, in 1984, authored the measure that created the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Hunger.

That committee brought the world’s hunger problem to center stage in the United States; its efforts sent hundreds of millions of dollars in food to sub-Saharan Africa in 1985, saving countless lives of children and adults in a region devastated by drought and famine.

“Respect for Human Rights in All Societies”

Gilman identifies education as the foremost activity the average American can undertake to advance the cause of human rights.

“That’s the key to understanding troubles in the world and learning about problems of oppressed people,” he said, suggesting the State Department’s 2001 Human Rights Report as a place to start “because it recites all the countries where there is suppression of human rights.” The report was issued in March 2002.

He advocates individual support of groups such as Amnesty International that promote people’s inherent rights and keep them informed on relevant issues.

His voice is one that fosters tolerance, encourages cultural differences, and promotes reason and communication. “One of the great strengths of our nation is diversity,” he said. “As individuals, we should reach out to those in our community who have different religious, ethnic, cultural or racial backgrounds.”

Gilman knows whereof he speaks. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, he grew up in nearby Middletown, in the heart of the district he still calls home. “I’ve had the pleasure in our own district of representing Buddhists, Falun Gong, Greek Americans, Haitian Americans, Latin Americans, Irish Americans, Jamaican Americans—you could go on and on,” he said.

Benjamin A. Gilman
Rep. Gilman has pressed for an end to conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, stressing the importance of increased communication and understanding. Above, with former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and below that, with an Arab delegation to Congress.

This diversity, he said, has made America the great nation that it is, with people from all walks of life and myriad backgrounds contributing. His own contributions at an early age included service in the Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1945—earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal (both with oak leaf clusters) for heroism on 35 combat missions.

Following the war, he received degrees in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and Finance and in law from the New York School of Law. After starting a legal practice in Middletown, he went on to serve as assistant attorney general in New York State’s law department and as counsel to the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Local Finance. Then, in 1966, he ran for State Assemblyman, winning election to the first of three successive terms.

In 1997, he described his own role in Congress to the Middletown Times Herald Record: “Helping people. Just like when I was a lawyer ... we’re doing the same sort of things here, helping people with problems.”

When accepting an award in 2001 for his efforts on behalf of international educational and cultural exchange programs, he emphasized actions that have guided his own career: “to work with young leaders to strengthen their commitments to the values of democracy and open societies, and to advocate the rule of law and, most importantly, the respect for human rights in all societies.”

Benjamin A. Gilman with children
“CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE,” says Gilman, a longtime supporter of programs that empower young people.
It provided a measure of the man when a special “Tribute to Ben Gilman” took place that same year—featuring a performance by jazz legend Chick Corea and attended by numerous colleagues from House and Senate, as well as an array of human rights advocates. Those who spoke about the Republican congressman’s lifetime of devotion to the cause of freedom included Representatives Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), and Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

“Ben is one of Congress’ strongest champions of human rights,” Rep. Lantos, the ranking Democratic member on the House International Relations Committee, said in a statement to Freedom. “Throughout his career, he has fought tirelessly to protect the freedoms we cherish for the world’s downtrodden and persecuted. Ben is a man of great integrity I proudly call an ally in the human rights struggle and a dear friend.”

Those feelings are echoed by the many others throughout the world whose lives Benjamin A. Gilman has touched and bettered.

Freedom Human Rights Leadership Awards

Statue of Liberty's torch

Freedom Human Rights Leadership Awards feature individuals who have distinguished themselves through exemplary contributions to human rights in the following fields:

  • Freedom of Speech and Expression
  • Freedom of Information
  • Government Reform
  • Children’s Rights
  • Mental Health Reform
  • Religious Freedom
  • Social Justice

Nominations are welcome. Please include in your proposal:

1. Your name, address and phone number, and those of the person you are nominating;

2. The nominee’s current job/position, as well as any previous positions relating to his or her human rights contributions;

3. What the person has done to qualify for Freedom’s Human Rights Leadership Award;

4. Documentation that demonstrates his or her contributions.

Send details to:

Human Rights Leadership Awards, Freedom Magazine,
6331 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 1200,
Los Angeles, CA 90028-6329

For further information about nominations to the address above or by calling (323) 960-3500.

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