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PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 105th CONGRESS, 1st SESSION

Vol. 144 Washington, Tuesday, October 13, 1998 No. 145

House of Representatives


CONCERNING PROPERTIES WRONGFULLY EXPROPRIATED BY FORMERLY TOTALITARIAN GOVERNMENTS



Tuesday, October 13, 1998


Concerning Properties Wrongfully Expropriated By Formerly Totalitarian Governments
Honorable Christopher H. Smith
of New Jersey
Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume. Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from New York (Mr. Gilman), the chairman of the Committee on International Relations, and the ranking member of my subcommittee, the gentleman from California (Mr. Lantos), for working with me and with my friend and colleague, the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Hamilton) to help bring this resolution to the floor. Mr. Speaker, House Resolution 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscation by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. House Resolution 562 stemmed from a Helsinki Commission hearing that I held in 1996 that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the witnesses at that hearing explained that under the international law and practice, the U.S. government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time that their property was taken. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Mr. Speaker, this resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners, or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide prompt, just, and effective compensation. This compensation language derives from the Bonn agreement on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in which the participating states, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' This resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution and compensation laws to implement those laws effectively and expeditiously. By adopting this resolution, Mr. Speaker, the Congress will lend its voice and persuasive power to that of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which have both passed strongly-worded and similarly-worded resolutions calling on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt legislation for the restitution of plundered properties. I hope this will have the full support of the body. Mr. Speaker, I thank the Chairman of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Gilman, and the Ranking Member of my Subcommittee, Representative Tom Lantos, for working with me to bring this resolution to the floor. Similar legislation was introduced in the 104th Congress, reintroduced in this Congress, and offered as an amendment to the foreign relations authorization bill which has not been passed by the Congress. H. Res. 562 is cosponsored by my colleagues Mr. Gilman, Mr. Lantos, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Rohrabacher, and Mr. Fox, and by my fellow members of the Helsinki Commission: Mr. Christensen, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Markey. Mr. Speaker, H. Res. 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscations by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout much of this century, individuals and religious communities in Central and Eastern Europe saw their private property plundered by totalitarian regimes. In particular, Communist regimes expropriated real property, personal property, financial property, business property, and religious property in fulfillment of a main tenet of communism--the abolition of private property. Moreover, Communist-era expropriations often compounded Fascist-era wrongs. The restitution of property in Central and Eastern Europe today has a multitude of possible effects: restitution will demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, will advance these countries in the establishment of free market economies, will encourage foreign investment, will help the newly-democratic regimes distance themselves from their totalitarian predecessors, and will provide a measure of justice to the victims of fascism and communism. H. Res. 562 stemmed from a 1996 Helsinki Commission hearing that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. Our witnesses at that hearing--Stuart Eizenstat, then the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, and Delissa Ridgway, the then-Chairwoman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission--explained that under international law and practice, the United States Government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time their property was taken. Under one common scenario, the United States obtains payment of such claims by having the Secretary of State, on behalf of the President, negotiate a government-to-government settlement agreement that settles a block of claims by American citizens against the foreign government in exchange for a lump-sum payment from the foreign government to the United States. Before or after such a settlement is reached, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC)--an independent, quasi-judicial Federal agency within the Department of Justice--determines the validity and valuation of property claims of U.S. nationals against that foreign government. The FCSC informs the Secretary of the Treasury of the results of the FCSC's adjudications and the Secretary of the Treasury then distributes funds from the lump-sum settlement on a pro rata basis to the U.S. nationals that obtained awards from the FCSC. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Considering these realities, Congress has a role in helping enable these dispossessed property owners to file claims in their former homelands with a real possibility of achieving a just resolution. Since that 1996 hearing, the Helsinki Commission has actively encouraged the governments in Central and Eastern Europe to adopt nondiscriminatory property restitution laws and has sought to intervene on behalf of several claimants whose rights under existing restitution and compensation laws are not being respected. While some progress has been made, the Helsinki Commission nonetheless continues to receive hundreds of letters from American and foreign citizens with unresolved property claims in Central and Eastern Europe. The writers plead for help from the Helsinki Commission and from Congress. Many have been struggling for seven or eight years to regain possession of their family properties. Many are elderly and are losing hope that they will ever recover their property. The issues addressed by this resolution are timely and, Mr. Speaker, they demand our attention. Some countries in the region have not yet adopted restitution or compensation laws. In those that have, certain requirements imposed on claimants involve so many conditions and qualifications that something just short of a miracle seems necessary for the return of any property. In Communist countries, expropriated properties were often given to Communist party officials or collaborators. In many cases, these former officials still live in the properties. Regrettably, a number of the democratic governments now in place are stalling and delaying the return of those properties to their rightful owners. Worse yet, some governments are offering meager compensation to the rightful owners and then allegedly reselling the properties for a profit that the State then pockets. The resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide `prompt, just and effective compensation.' This compensation language derives from the Bonn Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) in which the participating States, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' The resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution or compensation laws to implement those laws effectively. Several examples help illustrate the state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe with respect to property restitution. The Helsinki Commission staff met recently with a group known as the Committee for Private Property that has collected information from more than fifteen hundred people with outstanding restitution claims in Romania. Most of these claimants are American citizens--hundreds of whom filed legal claims in Romania and followed the proper judicial process to obtain decrees reinstating their property titles. After obtaining what they believed to be final and irrevocable decrees, the property owners began paying taxes on their properties or, in at least one case, thousands of dollars due on an old mortgage, only to have the Romanian Special Prosecutor appeal the cases to the Supreme Court and win reversals of the judicial decisions. On the other hand, some positive advancements have been made in regard to communal property restitution in Romania. In April 1997, the Romanian Government adopted a resolution restoring Jewish community ownership rights over six buildings, including the National Jewish Theater, and issued a May 1997 decree that established a committee with joint government and community participation to review communal property claims. This past June, the Romanian Government pledged to return an additional seventeen buildings to several minority ethnic communities. These efforts are positive steps forward in the restitution of more than three thousand communal properties, such as orphanages, cultural centers, apartment buildings, ethnic community centers, and houses of worship, lost by religious and minority communities under communism. Regrettably, however, legislation to return properties to the Greek Catholic Church was blocked in Romania's parliament last year and has yet to be enacted. Another group, American Owners of Property in Slovenia, has also contacted the Commission about property claims. This group estimates that a least 500 emigres from the former Yugoslavia are now American citizens with property claims in Slovenia. Despite clear mandates in Slovenia's restitution and compensation law requiring action on filed claims within one year, government officials have not implemented the law; the vast majority of claims remain pending without resolution seven years after the law was passed and five years after the filing deadline. Of the approximately 40,000 applications filed by the 1993 deadline, only 35 percent of the individual claims filed had been resolved by the end of 1997; sixty-five percent of the claims had received no action or only dilatory action. The Slovenian Government has not shown the political will to return property and has failed to take the administrative measures needed to implement the legislation. Moreover, it is of particular concern that this past September, the Slovenian parliament adopted amendments to its restitution law that contain numerous provisions that may further restrict the ability of victims of the Communist regime to regain ownership and access to their properties. Similarly, in Lithuania, despite enactment of a restitution and compensation law, Lithuanian Government officials also appear disinclined to return properties. Property claimants there encounter a variety of roadblocks to restitution, including citizenship requirements, unreasonable bureaucratic delays, and the sudden, suspicious inclusion of claimed properties on an official `Register of Immovable Cultural Properties' as the basis for non-restitution. In one case, Mr. Vytautas Sliupas, an American with dual Lithuanian citizenship, has struggled for seven years to regain ownership and possession of inherited property in Palanga, Lithuania. One building is controlled by the Ministry of Culture and Education and is reportedly used by the National Museum of Lithuania primarily as a vacation site for Museum personnel The second property is controlled by the City of Palanga and is rented to a commercial entity. These properties belong to Mr. Sliupas' family and were nationalized, without compensation, by the Communist regime. In 1993, the Minister of Culture and Education issued an official letter stating that the Ministry agreed to return the first property to Mr. Sliupas. In 1997, the City of Palanga passed a resolution to return the second property to Mr. Sliupas. Nonetheless, the groups occupying the properties have failed to comply with the orders to vacate. Mr. Sliupas has sought unsuccessfully to obtain the assistance of various government entities, including the courts, in enforcing his right to regain possession of these properties. The Lithuanian Government recently informed the Helsinki Commission that the property has been placed on the Register of Immovable Cultural Properties and, therefore, cannot be restituted to Mr. Sliupas. In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and other countries, the existing restitution and compensation laws only allow people who are currently residents or citizens of the country to apply for restitution. The Czech Republic's citizenship requirement discriminates almost exclusively against individuals who lost their Czech citizenship because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism; as many as 8,000-10,000 Czech-Americans are precluded from even applying for restitution or compensation because of this requirement. Citizenship and residency requirements have been found to violate the nondiscrimination clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international agreement that these countries have voluntarily signed onto, and yet the countries mentioned have been unwilling to eliminate the restrictions. The resolution calls on these countries to remove citizenship or residency requirements from their restitution and compensation laws. Mr. Speaker, the examples given only begin to show the obstacles faced by property claimants in formerly totalitarian countries. This past August, Stuart Eizenstat--now the Under Secretary of State or Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe--testified before the International Relations Committee about the need for Congress to pass a resolution that encourages Central and East European countries to return wrongfully expropriated property. While that hearing focused on Holocaust-era assets, in reality many Holocaust victims who suffered the loss of their property at the hands of the Nazis were victimized again by Communist regimes. I comment Under Secretary Eizenstat for his tireless efforts on behalf of Holocaust victims and I hope that the Untied States Government will make property restitution and compensation a priority in Central and Eastern Europe--as it has done in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Countries

Croatia
Czech Republic
Lithuania
Romania
Slovenia

Issues

Property Restitution


   
 

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