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March 24, 2004 - PCOL Exclusive: Executive Summary of House International Relations Committee hearings on Safety and Security of Peace Corps Volunteers :
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Executive Summary of House International Relations Committee hearings on Safety and Security of Peace Corps Volunteers
Read and comment on this executive summary from the House International Relations Committee hearings on Safety and Security of Peace Corps Volunteers held on March 24, 2004. We have taken excerpts from the written statements of each of the witnesses at the hearings that we think characterizes the main points each participant made. Read the complete statements by each of the witnesses by following the link at:
Executive Summary of House International Relations Committee hearings on Safety and Security of Peace Corps Volunteers*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
Executive Summary of House International Relations Committee hearings on Safety and Security of Peace Corps Volunteers
Excerpts from Chairman Henry Hyde's Statement
The first excerpt is from a GAO report on Peace Corps safety and security, dated in July 2002: The Peace Corps is embarking on a major expansion of its volunteer workforce during a time of heightened risk for Americans living abroad. Providing safety and security for its volunteers is the Peace Corps' highest priority. Our review of the agency's efforts to ensure compliance with its basic safety and security policies and guidelines shows that there are cases of uneven implementation of key elements of the safety and security framework that could pose risks to volunteers. These include uneven performance in developing safe and secure housing and work sites, responding to volunteer concerns, and planning for emergencies..
"We believe that the Peace Corps severely failed their people, their volunteers, and knowing what I know, there is no way I would let my children volunteer for the Peace corps unless there were some immediate changes and serious changes in the Peace Corps" said that General Accounting Office's Patrick Sullivan, who spent 23 yeas as a US Secret Service special agent. "There's no way I'd put my children or recommend to anybody I know to put their loved ones in that situation.".
The hearing will provide members with an opportunity to understand the policy and organizational changes made within the Peace Corps over the past two years toward the goal of improving safety and security of volunteers. The hearing will also provide members with the context for the additional legislation to be considered next week, the "Peace corps Safety and Security Act of 2004". That bill will create a more independent Inspector General, will establish the position of "Ombudsman" of the Peace Corps, and will statutorily create the Office of Safety and Security.
Read Henry Hyde's complete statement here.
Excerpts from Ranking Member Tom Lantos' Statement
I have stated on numerous previous occasions before this Committee my belief that we have been neglecting our many traditional public diplomacy efforts. In addition to repairing the damage to public diplomacy instruments of the State Department, I believe that the expansion of the Peace Corps, particularly in predominately Muslim countries, can go a long way to helping the people of other nations achieve a better understanding of the United States.
I am equally concerned about the plans of the agency to expand its programming in certain regions, most notably the inter-American and Pacific Regions where incidence of major sexual assaults were 63 percent higher than in Africa, Europe, or Asia over the same six-year period. Although Latin American should be a top priority for receiving US development assistance, we must make sure that we do not place more volunteers into high-risk areas without first augmenting safety and security precautions for them.
Mr. Chairman, the problems confronting us today around the world are towering, but they are neither unprecedented nor insurmountable. Through the dedication, sacrifice, and self-reliance of Peace Corps volunteers, our country is better able to meet these challenges. I salute them for their service, and pledge to ensure that they have the support they need to continue to accomplish the idealistic goals set before them more than four decades ago.
Read Tom Lantos' complete statement here.
Excerpts from Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez's Statement
Safety and security issues are fully integrated in all aspects of Volunteer recruitment, training, and service, with an emphasis on Volunteers taking personal responsibility at all times and assimilating into communities. Information provided throughout the recruitment and application process -- to recruiters, on the recruitment website, in printed application materials, informational booklets and educational videos, during the two days of staging, and the 10 to 12 weeks of in-country pre-service training -- all includes the key messages that being a Volunteer involves risk, that Volunteers can and are expected to adopt safe lifestyles, and that the Peace Corps has an effective safety support system in place.
It is vital that Volunteers know how to handle emergency situations, whether it is one Volunteer in an accident or all Volunteers in one country who need to be evacuated. As you may know, we recently suspended our program in Haiti, due to the civil unrest, and brought our 76 Volunteers home. This has been the sixth successful evacuation during my tenure as Director -- the 10th since the fall of 2001 -- impacting 908 Volunteers. Whether it is civil unrest, war, or the outbreak of SARS, the Peace Corps is diligent in monitoring the safety and security at each post and will not hesitate to take action should the need arise to move our Volunteers out of harm’s way.
Last October, I issued a new Peace Corps “Protocol on Violent Crimes Against Volunteers,” which helped clarify the existing duties of the Inspector General when a Volunteer is a victim of a violent crime. Specifically, the Inspector General has a coordinating role and is charged with reviewing the investigation efforts of local officials, conducting appropriate follow-up actions to support an investigation, and assisting in the prosecution. As appropriate, the Office of the Inspector General escorts the Volunteer or former Volunteer back for host-nation investigative and prosecutorial proceedings.
To maintain our effectiveness in an era of continued growth and opportunity requires that management has the flexibility to make decisions that best serve the agency and, most importantly, the Volunteers. We do not believe that it is in the best interest of this agency to pursue any of the legislative changes that we understand the committee plans to consider. .
Secondly, we find it unnecessary to permanently institute an Office of the Ombudsman. This new statutory requirement would be duplicative on many levels, diluting the authority already granted to the Office of the Inspector General. Given the broad parameters that we understand the legislation would create for the Ombudsman, it could actually conflict with the Inspector General’s existing jurisdictional authority and could artificially interrupt standard review procedures. In addition, the agency is in the process of considering establishing an internal liaison to facilitate post-medical services issues on behalf of returning Volunteers -- an item I will address further at the close of my remarks. Again, while the idea may have merit, we do not see the creation of such an office as an appropriate use of our agency’s funds.
The Post Service Unit in our Office of Medical Services facilitates post-service medical benefits to returned Peace Corps Volunteers with service-related medical conditions as their care is transferred to the U.S. Department of Labor. Volunteers are considered Federal employees for the purpose of health benefits provided through the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA) program administered by the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs at the Department of Labor. The FECA program provides post-service medical and compensation benefits for conditions exacerbated, accelerated, or precipitated by service in the Peace Corps.
The safety of the Volunteer is the number one priority of the Peace Corps, and remains the primary focus of many of the research, planning, training, and compliance components of the agency. As noted above, our agency has accomplished a great deal over the past 22 months -- in both safety and security and the growth of our programs. Our FY 2005 budget request of $401 million will support this continued growth and maintain the infrastructure we presently have in place.
Read Gaddi Vasquez's complete statement here.
Excerpts from Walter Poirier's Statement
We believe that the Peace Corps response was too little too late. There are numerous reasons for this. The aforementioned lack of oversight is one, but more importantly, there is a prevailing attitude of acceptance within Peace Corps management that many volunteers take off from their assignments without leave.
We have also found the Peace Corps to be obstructive. Simple requests for information were always met with the response that the FOIA act came into force for our requests and that we must follow procedure. Now when we did submit for the information we wanted, we were met with stonewalling and denial of information. This practice seems to be consistently used to stop discovery of information, which could damage the Peace Corps image, from being obtained. Only after the Dayton Daily News sued to obtain the information, was it begrudgingly dispensed.
In closing, we have been met at every turn with the attitude at Peace Corps that it doesn’t need fixing as it isn’t broken and that our son is/was responsible for whatever has happened to him. There is also an attitude that there should be no outside governmental oversight of Peace Corps, other than within its own Agency. The Director sent a letter to the Senate, outlining the Peace Corps proposed changes to the practices and protocols for volunteer safety. The changes are necessary and should be adopted immediately. However, in order to insure that the change doesn’t only take place on paper, the Poirier family feels that there should be an entity doing oversight which has no vested interest in Peace Corps.
Read Walter Poirier's complete statement here.
Excerpts from Dayton Daily News Editor Jeffrey Bruce's Statement
The newspaper's investigation showed that many assaults were linked to a decades-old practice of sending young volunteers just out of college to live alone with virtually no supervision in remote, often violent, regions, in unsafe housing.
The Peace Corps didn't start collecting worldwide crime statistics until 1990, 28 years after it first sent volunteers overseas, and the statistics it now makes available to the public and Congress make it appear volunteers are safer than they actually are. Though the Peace Corps calculates a crime rate based on the number of volunteers, it doesn't use the actual number of crime victims when calculating the rate -- only the number of "incidents." So, for example, when three women were raped in El Salvador in 1996, statistics reflect a single rape incident.
Compare that to the Peace Corps, which refused to even acknowledge some of our FOIA requests and when they did send records (and only after being sued), the agency removed the names of countries where assaults occurred, the dates assaults occurred, the names of country directors responsible for safety and other information routinely released by police departments here in the United States every day.
However, within weeks of publication of our series, the Peace Corps redesigned its web site to include extensive information on safety and security. The additional information includes a video message from the director and, for the first time, the agency's annual report on assaults -- a report the U.S. General Accounting Office had been trying to get the agency to post for two years.
Read Jeffrey Bruce's complete statement here.
Excerpts from GAO International Affairs and Trade Director Jess Ford's Statement
We reported that Peace Corps’ headquarters had developed a safety and security framework but that the field’s implementation of the framework had produced varying results. While volunteers were generally satisfied with the agency’s training programs, there was mixed performance in key elements of the framework such as in developing safe and secure housing sites, monitoring volunteers, and planning for emergencies.
Since we issued our report, Peace Corps has taken steps to strengthen its efforts for gathering and analyzing crime data. The agency has hired an analyst responsible for maintaining the agency’s crime data collection system, analyzing the information collected, and publishing the results for the purpose of influencing volunteer safety and security policies.
Our review of recent Inspector General reports identified emergency action planning weaknesses at some posts. For example, the Inspector General found that at one post over half of first year volunteers did not know the location of their emergency assembly points. However, we analyzed the results of the most recent tests of post emergency action plans and found improvement since our last report. About 40 percent of posts reported contacting almost all volunteers within 24 hours, compared with 33 percent in 2001.
The agency has taken steps to reduce staff turnover, improve supervision and oversight mechanisms, and clarify its guidance. In February 2003, Congress passed a law to allow U.S. direct hires whose assignments involve the safety of Peace Corps volunteers to serve for more than 5 years. The Peace Corps Director has employed his authority under this law to designate 23 positions as exempt from the 5-year rule.
These efforts have enhanced Peace Corps’ ability to improve safety and security practices in the field. The threefold expansion in the field-based safety and security officer staff has increased the agency’s capacity to support posts in developing and applying effective safety and security policies.
Read Jess Ford's complete statement here.
Excerpts from National Peace Corps Association President Kevin Quigley's Statement
Although there was considerable ongoing fighting in Dan Sai district, including frequent firings of 105 millimeter shells, common sightings of helicopter gunships and ambushes of government outposts, at my site I never felt threatened or in danger. This was due to the fact that I was included in and identified as part of the community. It seemed that all the people in Dan Sai understood who I was and that I was teaching their children. Since I was incorporated into the community, filing the emergency action plan that Peace Corps required of all volunteers seemed a bit unnecessary if not unreal.
Within this community there is a broad spectrum of opinion. However, among those of us who have served we agree that safety and security of volunteers must be a paramount concern. All our members grieve for the 252 volunteers who have lost their lives in service and have enormous sympathy for our fellow volunteers who have experienced harm. Whenever a tragedy occurs or whenever a volunteer is harmed we expect-in fact demand-that Peace Corps do everything humanly possible to be responsive.
There is also some concern that the resources required to address safety and security concerns may undermine Peace Corps' unique and vital contributions to U.S. foreign policy. This is especially the case if adequate funding is not provided to enable Peace Corps to meet the President's goal of doubling the size of Peace Corps, which is endorsed by the community.
Speaking simply as someone who has served, I would say that: changing the status of the Inspector General is unlikely to have any effect on volunteer's safety and security; creating an Office of Ombudsman would be perceived by the Peace Corps community as being responsive to many former volunteers, especially those who have been harmed or become ill during their service and not received promised post-service support. They will perceive that their concerns are being addressed by a strong, vibrant mechanism advocating for their interests; establishing statutorily the Office of Safety and Security would be a way to underscore the Congress's concern with and commitment to ensure the safety and security of volunteers and a recognition that these issues are a current reality and will be with us for many decades to come. This Office should be charged with notifying any volunteer victimized by crime be notified about the processing of criminal charges.
Read Kevin Quigley's complete statement here.
Excerpts from Peace Corps Inspector General Charles Smith's Statement
In the new safety and security design, the IG now has principal responsibility for the agency’s response to violent crimes against Volunteers. With the Director’s office and the General Counsel, we developed the “Protocol: Violent Crimes Against Volunteers,” which clarified the IG’s responsibility and authority to assist and coordinate in the prosecution of serious crimes against Volunteers. In January 2004, the Director advised all overseas offices and headquarters that the Protocol is agency policy.
It would establish the Peace Corps Inspector General as a Presidential, Senate-confirmed appointee by amending the Inspector General Act. This change would directly address the Peace Corps IG’s independence through the appointment and removal power and the term of office for the IG and OIG staff. It would cure the serious independence issue that the Peace Corps IG, uniquely among all IGs, currently faces: periodic but uncertain reappointment within a set, non-renewable time-frame.
The idea of an ombudsman is useful. In some situations, the OIG acts as an ombudsman. Staff or Volunteers come to us seeking the kind of help that we conclude is best referred to an office in the agency for their attention.
Read Charles Smith's complete statement here.
Excerpts from RPCV Congressman Sam Farr's Statement
I am here today because I really want to urge the committee not to change the nature of the Peace Corps and essentially have a "Fortress America" Peace Corps Volunteer - because that would destroy it.
...until the United States learns how to cross the cultural divide, we will not have peace in this world. And the only successful way for the United States to cross the cultural divide, the really successful way, is the Peace Corps.
Try to preserve that initial spirit that has served us so well.
Read Sam Farr's complete statement here.
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