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Commission on security and cooperation in Europe

U. S. Helsinki Commission

Mission

We are a US government agency that promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Nine Commissioners are members of the Senate, nine are members of the House of Representatives, and three are executive branch officials.

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Chairman

Senator Roger F. Wicker

Co-Chairman

Representative Christopher H. Smith

  • Our International Impact
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  • The Rule of Law: Justice for the Bytyqi Brothers

    By Robert Hand, Policy Advisor From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. OSCE commitments recognize that adherence to the rule of law is essential to democratic governance and to ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They also emphasize the importance of providing justice in cases of criminal acts which egregiously violate human rights and fundamental freedoms. Justice not only punishes the perpetrator of the crime; it also brings closure to the victim or surviving family and friends, and it allows the society in which it took place to move forward. The Murder of the Bytyqi Brothers Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were all United States citizens, born near Chicago, Illinois, to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo.  (Previously an autonomous province of Serbia within the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo has been an independent state since 2008.) The three brothers, all in their 20s, responded to the brutality of the 1999 Kosovo conflict by joining the so-called “Atlantic Brigade” of the Kosovo Liberation Army.  Hostilities ceased in June of that year, following a NATO air campaign designed to stop Serbian forces from repressing the local population and committing atrocities.  About two weeks later, the Bytyqi brothers agreed to escort an ethnic Romani family, who had been neighbors of the Bytyqi family in Kosovo, to a place of greater safety.  Dressed in plain clothes and unarmed, the brothers accidently strayed across an unmarked administrative border and were arrested by the Serbian police.  They were jailed for two weeks for illegally entering the country.  Rather than being released, Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were instead placed in the custody of a special operations unit of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs and taken to a training facility where all three were murdered.  Two years later, their bodies were found with hands bound and gunshot wounds to the back of their heads, buried atop an earlier mass grave of approximately 70 murdered Kosovo civilians. Justice Denied While an investigation reportedly continues, no individual has been found guilty – or even charged – for the murder of the Bytyqi brothers.  Senior U.S. officials and Members of Congress, including several serving on the Helsinki Commission, repeatedly have urged that action be taken by Serbian authorities, including war crimes prosecutors in regard to this case; a resolution to that effect is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.  While serving as Prime Minister from 2014 to 2017, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic promised quick action on several occasions, both in public gatherings and in private meetings with the Bytyqi family.  Recently, however, he has reportedly criticized those who remind him of his promises or who express concern about the close connections the leading suspect in the case, former Interior Ministry official Goran “Guri” Radosavljevic, has with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. The execution-style murder of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi was clearly an extrajudicial act committed by government forces, a horrific crime like so many committed by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic throughout the 1990s.  The surviving Bytyqi family, currently residing in New York state, has asked for nothing more than bringing those responsible to justice. U.S. Government officials have also called for justice in a case of the three murdered U.S. citizens, even as they otherwise express support for Serbia and its European aspirations. Human rights groups in Serbia have joined the call for justice, including as a way to distance their country from a period in its recent past marked by aggressive nationalism and egregious human rights violations on a massive scale. All that remains if for Serbian authorities to take the action promised by their political leaders.            

  • American Scientist Suffers Under Turkey’s Faltering Rule of Law

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. This feature article on Turkey coincides with the September 19 session of HDIM 2017, which focuses on whether OSCE participating States are implementing their commitments related to rule of law. On September 11, the first day of the meeting, the Turkish delegation walked out to protest that an NGO it alleged has ties with the Gulen movement was allowed to register for HDIM. A NASA scientist based in Houston, Texas has spent the last 14 months in a Turkish prison, caught in the same dragnet that has ensnared tens of thousands of Turkish nationals since the failed coup attempt that played out in Turkey during the night of July 15, 2016. The scale of the Turkish government’s crackdown since that chaotic night is difficult to comprehend, but this scientist’s story illustrates the kind of ordinary lives that the sweeping purges upended with only the slimmest of justifications. A 37-year old dual citizen of the United States and Turkey, Serkan Golge is married to Kubra, also a dual US-Turkish national. The couple has two young sons, aged eight and one.  They have lived in a two-story home in a quiet suburb of Houston since 2013, when Serkan landed a contract as a senior research scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, focusing on the effects of solar radiation on the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Serkan’s mind, once immersed in scientific observation and the boundless expanse of outer space, is now mostly trapped in the contemplation of his small prison cell and the national political drama that landed him there. For the past 14 months, he has been detained in Iskenderun prison on the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Turkey, 25 miles from the Syrian border—he has spent the last 12 months in solitary confinement, allowed outside his cell just one hour every day. *** On the morning of July 23, eight days after the failed coup, Serkan and his family were wrapping up a month-long stay with his parents in Antakya, Turkey. The surreal night of the coup attempt, including pitched street battles between rebel military units and civilians in Istanbul and Ankara, had seemed a world away to the Golges on vacation in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. But as Serkan and his family were loading up a car to go to the airport to begin their return trip to Houston, the coup’s aftermath arrived at their doorstep. Plainclothes state security officials approached Serkan as he emerged from the house and detained him on suspicion of membership in the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (FETO) that the Turkish government has accused of plotting the overthrow attempt. “FETO” is the pejorative term coined by the Turkish government for a major social and religious movement in Turkey led by the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Once a political ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gulen movement fell out with AKP officials in recent years as the movement asserted its independence in various state organs, particularly the courts. President Erdoğan perceived the Gulen movement as a threat and started to purge its allies in state ministries, followed by the private sector. It was no surprise to most observers when Erdoğan declared “FETO” responsible for the coup and moved to eviscerate every last remnant of the group in Turkish institutions, whether in the public sector, business, media, civil society, or education.  Serkan is currently on trial and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted of belonging to “FETO.” Yet the evidence that ostensibly links him to the organization, establishing his complicity in the coup and justifying his prolonged detention, is astonishingly thin. A distant disgruntled relative appears to have denounced Serkan to authorities to settle an old score relating to an inheritance dispute. Based on the relative’s statements, authorities arrested Serkan and raided his parents’ home where they seized upon a single one-dollar bill as evidence. Turkish authorities claim that Fethullah Gulen gave blessed American dollar bills to his followers; thus, national security trials around the country have scrutinized countless dollar bills in their deliberations. His relative further testified to his suspicion that Serkan worked for the CIA. When questioned about this at trial, the relative acknowledged that his claim was based solely on the fact that Serkan lived in the United States. Authorities have also questioned Serkan about his college degree from a major Gulen-affiliated university that the government closed in 2016. He reminded authorities that he attended the university on a government-funded scholarship—a reminder of the ruling party’s formerly cozy relationship with the organization it now denounces as public enemy number one. A dollar bill, a U.S. passport, and a college degree: this is the evidence that has landed an American citizen in solitary confinement for a year in Turkey. *** Serkan’s experience reflects the plight of the tens of thousands of people arrested, imprisoned, or fired from their jobs for suspicion of involvement in the attempted coup. The state of emergency decrees that paved the way for these massive purges did not specify the criteria for detention and dismissal. As a result, baseless assertions about an individual’s suspected links to “FETO” have caused people to lose their jobs, be stripped of their professional licenses, or thrown in jail without even the most minimal due process. In all, the government has detained more than 110,000 people, of whom 50,000 are under arrest. These detentions have swelled Turkey’s prison population and prompted the government last year to release 38,000 inmates just to make room for the influx. Reliable information is not available for the number of ongoing trials or convictions but last month the government issued a decree extending the maximum pre-trial detention period from five to seven years, underscoring how prolonged detention without conviction can serve as punishment itself. Of the 140,000 people who lost their jobs, so far 30,000 have been allowed to return to work. Meanwhile, 80,000 people who lost jobs have appealed their cases to a temporary State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission established by Ankara in July 2017. The case load created by the purges would strain the judicial system under normal circumstances, but the situation faced by the Turkish judiciary today is anything but normal.  Prior to the coup attempt, President Erdogan had already embarked on a campaign to extend his influence over the judicial branch and promote party loyalists within its ranks. In the coup’s aftermath, this campaign kicked into high gear. Since July 2016, President Erdogan dismissed more than 4,200 judges and prosecutors—approximately a quarter of the total—on suspicion of subversive loyalties.  Of the 900 new judges recruited as replacements in April, opposition leaders claim 800 have ties to the ruling party.  The independence of the Turkish judiciary further eroded in April 2017 when a controversial nationwide referendum narrowly approved constitutional changes that increased the President’s influence over the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (CJP). The powerful CJP “oversees the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplining, and dismissal” of judges. Under the newly enacted constitutional amendments, the President now appoints nearly half of the CJP and the Turkish parliament appoints the rest, easily giving the ruling party a majority on the council.  Straining under the weight of an overwhelming case load and immense political pressure, Turkey’s judiciary appears to lack the capacity and capability to deliver timely and credible justice for Serkan Golge and thousands like him. *** Back in Houston, the Golges’ house is now on the market. Kubra has opted to remain in Turkey, living with her in-laws in Antakya; she fears that even if the government let her and her sons out of the country it might not let them back in.  She covered the mortgage from abroad for the past year, but the mounting financial pressure was unsustainable. Her eldest son should have begun second grade this month at his local public school in Houston. He says he misses his old room, his books and toys. She is able to visit Serkan once a week where she and the children can speak to him by phone through a glass pane. Once every two months, they can meet in person and embrace, always under the watchful gaze of prison guards. Serkan’s next trial date is set for October 13th. For now, the Golge’s homecoming in Houston is postponed indefinitely: every new hearing brings with it the hope of acquittal and the dread of an unjustified conviction.  In May, the Helsinki Commission’s leadership, joined by the co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to raise Serkan’s case, among others, with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington. The letter highlighted the cases of other American prisoners and a detained veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in Adana accused of supporting a Kurdish terrorist organization. The letter further encouraged the President to seek consular access for U.S. diplomats to detained Americans in Turkey—a courtesy the government has so far denied them. The Commission will continue to highlight these and other cases in Turkey and urge Ankara to uphold its commitments as a participating State of the OSCE to human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law.

  • Our Impact by Country

  • Profile: Dr. Petra Gelbart

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.  In particular, OSCE agreements address issues relating to the human rights of Roma, Holocaust remembrance, and preserving sensitive sites of remembrance. During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, an internment camp in the Czech village of Lety became a concentration camp for Roma. Around 1,300 people were imprisoned there, including many children.  Some died in Lety as a result of the horrible conditions in the camp.  Many more were deported and perished at Auschwitz. An estimated three hundred survived.  In some ways, Lety is as emblematic of the experiences of Roma both during the and after the Holocaust. During the communist period, a pig farm was established on the site of the former concentration camp.  After the fall of communism, the existence of the pork processing facility became an enduring controversy, generating progressively more frequent protests. In recent years, Czech officials moved closer to a decision to remove the pig farm.  In August, the Czech government announced agreement had been reached with the owners of the site on a purchase price, paving the way for the farm’s removal. The United States subsequently welcomed the progress made by the Czech Republic.  Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker observed, “[t]his achievement is the culmination of decades of work on the part of survivors, human rights groups, members of the Helsinki Commission, and others. It paves the way for a dignified and appropriate memorial for the thousands of men, women, and children who suffered and died there.” At the opening of this year’s OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Czech Republic – the only European Union country to speak at the opening in its national capacity, in addition to supporting a joint EU statement – drew attention to this breakthrough: “Against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the OSCE, heightened attacks leveled at civil society, media and persons belonging to minorities, it remains crucial to continue promoting and protection fundamental OSCE commitments and principles.  In this context, we would like to highlight the recent positive developments in the implementation of the Czech Republic’s Roma Integration Strategy 2015-2020.  I have in mind the issue of the former Gypsy Concentration Camp in Lety u Pisku.” In light of these developments, the Helsinki Commission had a conversation with Dr. Petra Gelbart.  Dr. Gelbart is a Romani ethnomusicologist who uses music and academic research to advocate for the remembrance of Romani victims of the Holocaust.[iv] She frequently speaks to a wide range of audiences about Romani music, culture, and their persecution during the Holocaust.  She has also served as a Public Member on a U.S. delegation to an OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. Born in Czechoslovakia and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Gelbart was introduced to Romani language, music, and culture at a young age. Her personal background drove her passion to study Romani culture further and to become an educator in Romani music, history, and other socio-political issues. “My family’s experience during the Holocaust was the primary motivator in my decision to become involved in commemoration efforts,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Increasingly, I am also coming to terms with how much this background has shaped my personal identity and psychological makeup, so continuing the work is important for my mental wellbeing.” She first studied musicology at UC Berkeley. Shortly after finishing her degree, she went on to pursue her postgraduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Harvard University. Dr. Gelbart co-founded the Initiative for Romani music at New York University and is currently the music curator for RomArchive. She has also taught ethnomusicology, music psychology, as well as Romani music and language at the university level.  Her research has focused on interethnic communication, the Holocaust, music psychology, and institutional ethnography. “I try to take what people think they know about so-called ‘Gypsies,’ and replace it with something that's much more based in reality,” she explains. Dr. Gelbart passionately advocates for the use of music to not only educate about Romani culture, but also to reflect upon the difficult aspects of this community’s history. “Oral traditions and personal memoirs have kept the memory of the Holocaust alive among Roma and Sinti even in the absence of sympathetic institutions,” she observes. “The song Chajori Romani, for example, is considered an anthem of both Czech and Slovak Roma. It has a generic, happy text about a Romani girl, but also an alternate text that recounts the conditions of a concentration camp. Thus, even though the Holocaust-related text is sung less frequently, it looms in the background of this popular memory, which has come to be known as ‘the Romani lament’ regardless of which lyrics are being sung.” “When people pay close attention to Romani music, they can learn not only things they may not have expected to find out about Roma and Sinti, but also about themselves,” Dr. Gelbart notes. “For example, many people associate Manouche (French Romani) people with Gypsy Jazz, and Gypsy Jazz with emotive passion. On objective analysis, however, it turns out that strong sentiments tend to be projected onto Gypsy Jazz and its performers, based on stereotypes of ‘Gypsies,’ rather than being inherent in the music itself. Also, some of the composers and performers who may be perceived as wild musicians have in fact produced decidedly tame, deeply reflective musical pieces, including a few with Holocaust-related themes.” She continues, “Students and lecture audiences are surprised by the existence of Romani Holocaust songs, and as a consequence some of them ask why they were previously never exposed to the voices of Roma and Sinti in Holocaust education. At that point, it is useful to point out that just as Roma and Sinti expressed their grief and ongoing fears for their safety in songs during and after World War II, some of them also wrote memoirs or formed organized commemoration narratives. The image of Romanies as unschooled or illiterate is persistent, and yet Holocaust-related education shows Romani traditions in a rather different light.” Dr. Gelbart works to educate her students and colleagues about the discrimination Romani face in Europe and to correct the offensive misconceptions many hold about them. One challenge she faces in educating people about the Romani experience during the Holocaust is undoing the erasure of Romani victimhood from historical narratives. Throughout much of Europe, the Romani were formerly not a legally recognized ethnic group and thus were excluded from regional Holocaust memory and discouraged from speaking out about their experiences. “It is absolutely true that the continued, state-sponsored shaming of Romani cultures made surviving Romani families very unlikely to speak out about their wartime experiences,” Dr. Gelbart explains. “There is an enduring misconception that Romani Holocaust remembrance is typically private,” she continues. “In reality, Romani attempts to give public testimony about genocide have largely paralleled post-war developments in Jewish families, albeit at a slower pace.” In August, the Czech government agreed to remove the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site. Dr. Gelbart believes that this decision is symbolic of the gradual inclusion of Romani Holocaust experiences in mainstream discourse. “The pig farm at Lety, along with the recreational complex on the site of the Hodonin camp (where my great-great-grandmother was murdered by a Czech guard), are symbolic of not only the imperative to include Roma and Sinti fully in mainstream discourse on the Holocaust, but also the need to examine why the Romani Holocaust tends to be relegated to footnotes,” she says. Though she sees improvement in the perspectives and treatment of Romani communities and history, Dr. Gelbart argues that the Romani experience during the Holocaust is understudied and that this trend reflects itself in lasting discrimination towards the community. “In my opinion, the most important part of remembrance is making connections to present-day perils,” she explains. “We can honor the work of the Roma and allies who have fought for the dignity of the Lety victims, but we must not stop publicly pointing out the larger context of this struggle.” Dr. Gelbart is committed to expanding the study and inclusion of Romani history and culture in the public sphere. She urges governments to take greater care in promoting Romani rights and society to learn more about the Romani, while elevating their memory above mere victimhood. “Every book, every college course, every school curriculum and every ceremony commemorating the Holocaust should strive to make its audience aware of the difference between how Romanies are assumed to be and how they actually live their lives. It can be as simple as saying that ‘Roma and Sinti are a highly diverse ethnic group, with many communities striving for social integration. The same ideologies that labeled Romanies as subhuman in times of genocide are hindering their education, employment, and even physical safety in the twenty-first century.’ If nothing else, we need to show Romani students in both Europe and the Americas that their existence and their heritage are worth as much as any other group’s,” she says. Dr. Gelbart’s activism within the Romani community extends beyond the classroom. She works with Czech families who foster or adopt Romani children. She is also interested in the role music plays in therapy, specifically in rehabilitative and developmental therapy. She is based in New York.

  • Preventing Modern Slavery through Education of Children

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. As traffickers seek to lure adolescents into exploitation, holistic anti-trafficking education of teachers and children directly in schools is emerging as a critical tool to fight modern day slavery across the OSCE region.  Education has long been used in the prevention of human trafficking, the first of “3 Ps”—prevention, prosecution, and protection—around which most of the OSCE participating States have structured their laws to combat trafficking in human beings.  For instance, embassies and consulates include trafficking warnings and trafficking hotlines in information to individuals seeking visas, especially those individuals coming to be domestic servants. Tourists are educated in airports about the legal penalties of sexually exploiting vulnerable children.  Flight attendants and hotel operators are trained in how to recognize and safely report potential trafficking victims. Members of the law enforcement community are educated in the procedures for identifying trafficking victims among migrant and refugee flows through programs like the OSCE Extra Budgetary Project, which successfully concluded its third training last week in Vicenza, Italy.  International organizations have targeted aid for trafficking awareness education in countries where severe lack of economic opportunity makes teens extremely vulnerable to sham offers of jobs abroad. However, traffickers are increasingly preying upon children’s social vulnerability, not just economic need.  Social vulnerability—such as feelings of alienation, unresolved emotional or physical abuse, learning disabilities, or unfamiliarity with a new culture and language—means that children of every socio-economic background across participating States are at risk of being taken advantage of by traffickers.  Children’s often unlimited and unmonitored access to the internet can also endanger them.  Traffickers scout social media with fake profiles, looking for children they can extort into trafficking.  A child sends a half-naked photo to their “new friend” on social media, who then threatens to send the photos to the child’s parents and friends—unless the child does as they say.  No child is immune, but some are now smarter than their would-be traffickers. Non-governmental organizations in the United States and United Kingdom have been taking prevention to new heights through programs to train children in schools how to avoid being ensnared by human traffickers.  The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives PROTECT project, and Just Enough UK, to name a few, have pioneered curricula that helps children—and their teachers—navigate the new faces and ploys of modern day slavery. Including age-appropriate, anti-trafficking education of teachers and school children in the standard curriculum for all children means that the suffering and harm caused by human trafficking can be halted early—or avoided altogether.  At a recent hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, Robert Benz, observed, “The cost benefits to taxpayers, for preventing or mitigating human trafficking at an early stage, are enormous. The human benefit for preventing someone from being victimized is incalculable.” Such educational initiatives may soon benefit from new federal government grants in the United States.  Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith, Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and author of the U.S. laws that establish and fund the “3Ps”, included in the new Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2200) authority for the training of teachers and students to recognize and avoid human trafficking.  H.R. 2200 passed the House of Representatives in July and awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate.

  • The Daily 202

    ...How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. “In their weakness, the Kremlin bets big. So far, the gamble has paid off — because for years they have been strolling across an open battlefield,” testified Molly McKew, an information warfare expert. “To secure our information space, we need an integrated understanding of the threat, and an integrated set of measures that can be taken to counter it[.]” Here's what the experts recommend to stop similar attacks: A whole-of-government response, which includes reevaluating the role of U.S. military and counterintelligence actors to secure cyber space. “Our most experienced assets should not be boxed-out of defending the American people,” McKew said. More information. This includes telling Americans about Russian information operations, and what they aim to achieve. Stopping the bots, which robotically amplify information and articles based on an algorithm, since “the U.S. does not protect the free speech of computer programs,” said Human Right’s First Melissa Hooper, who specializes in Russian policy and human rights law. Hooper also stressed the need for creating an appeals process where consumers can contest instances of content removal “and receive quick and efficient redress.” “We cannot use the same means of information control as the Kremlin to secure our information space,” McKew said. “Our mirror-world version of Russian information control: not to control the internal information environment, but ensure its integrity; not to harden views, but to develop positive cognitive resistance efforts to build resilience in our population; not to argue that there ‘is no truth,’ but to promote the values and idea that we know matter.”

  • At Forum, Experts Slam Russian 'Disinformation' Campaigns Aimed at West

    WASHINGTON — The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks. The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad. “Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Republican Senator Corey Gardner. “Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.” US election meddling Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign. “I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said. McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day. In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies. RT, Sputnik broadcasts U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda. When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement: "We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false." However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information. “The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.” Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world. The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction." "The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information." Germany, France elections Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media. Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks. But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.

  • Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Meets with New ODIHR Director Gísladóttir

    On September 13, Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Ambassador David T. Killion met with the new Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Ingibjörg Gísladóttir, during the 2017 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. Ambassador Killion stressed the Commission’s commitment to the autonomy and work of ODIHR, and highlighted several Commission priorities including fighting anti-Semitism and racism; combating trafficking in persons; promoting religious freedom; and strengthening democratic institutions. He also noted the Commission’s support for the work of the ODIHR Contact Point on Roma and Sinti Issues. Ambassador Killion urged Director Gísladóttir to continue ODIHR’s positive collaboration with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, noting strong Commission support for OSCE election observation. Turning to the HDIM, he emphasized the importance of the continued open participation of civil society in the event, which is a singular feature of the annual meeting. He said the Commission will continue to fulfill its mandate to monitor the participating States’ compliance with their OSCE commitments, with particular regard to those relating to human rights.  

  • The Scourge of Russian Disinformation

    Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region. Russian disinformation helps support rampant violations of OSCE norms by the Putin regime, ranging from internal human rights abuses to military intervention in neighboring states to interference in elections in several countries. On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian disinformation in the OSCE region. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) presided over the hearing on behalf of Commission Chairman Sen. Robert Wicker (MS). Witnesses included Mr. John F. Lansing, CEO and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors; Ms. Molly McKew, CEO of Fianna Strategies; and Ms. Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society Programs at Human Rights First. In his opening statement, Sen. Gardner described the serious threat that Russian disinformation poses to the liberal international order, and underscored “how it undermines the security and human rights of people in the OSCE region.” Russia’s goal, he said, is “to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU.” Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) highlighted the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine in conjunction with the recent invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. He also noted the extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and observed that such disinformation campaigns take advantage of our democratic institutions to advance Russia’s strategic agenda. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) characterized Russia’s disinformation efforts as a part of a strategy of “hybrid war,” and emphasized the need for the United States and its allies to develop counter-disinformation strategies as part of a “hybrid defense.” Mr. Lansing, the first witness to testify, outlined the structure and scope of the BBG’s broadcasting operations, and the role it plays in countering disinformation abroad. “The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts,” he said. “The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences an alternative to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent, and professional news and information.” He also described the BBG’s recent expansion of programming in the Post-Soviet space, and its flagship Russian-language program "Current Time," launched in February 2017. In her testimony, Ms. McKew described Russia’s disinformation campaign as “the core component of a war being waged by the Russian state against the West, and against the United States in particular.” She noted, “These manipulations don’t create tendencies or traits in our societies.  They elevate, exploit, and distort divides and grievances that already are present.” She also emphasized the need for a coordinated response from the United States Government and its allies, and proposed an increased role for the U.S. military in countering disinformation. Ms. Hooper reminded the Commission that, while Russian disinformation has taken center stage in recent U.S. policy debates, it is only one of many methods employed by the Russian government to advance its agenda. “It’s part of a coordinated effort to disrupt and attack liberal norms wherever the opportunity arises using economic influence, electoral disruption, [and] the weakening of multilateral institutions,” she said. She also discussed the upcoming German parliamentary elections, and the potential for disinformation to influence its outcome. She commended the German government’s efforts to warn the public about disinformation, but criticized recent legislation that would increase censorship on social media. In response to a question from Sen. Gardner, Ms. Hooper noted that countering disinformation requires more than fact-checking false claims, and emphasized the need for a strategy of proactive narrative communication. Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) concurred with Ms. McKew’s statement that, in order to combat the threat of Russian disinformation, it is necessary for the Administration and Congress to come to a consensus on the existence of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) inquired about the potential for Russian influence in upcoming elections by means of anonymous campaign spending, and about the role that the international banking system plays in sustaining corruption in Russia and neighboring states. Rep. Smith and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) sought the witnesses’ opinions on the recent news that Russian state-owned networks RT and Sputnik are being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Ms. McKew spoke in favor of stricter enforcement of FARA, while Mr. Lansing responded that he has concerns about retaliatory restrictions on U.S.-funded media in Russia. “I believe that this disinformation is one of the biggest threats that our democracy faces today,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy. It has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.”

  • Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan: The Case of Teymur Akhmedov

    By Nathaniel Hurd, Policy Advisor The case of Teymur Akhmedov, a 61-year-old Jehovah’s Witness in Kazakhstan, illustrates the life-threatening consequences that can result from attacks on religious freedom. Restrictions on Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan Becoming an OSCE participating State includes the voluntary accession to all OSCE commitments, including those related to freedom of religion. From the founding Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the language is clear: “The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” Yet of the 10 countries currently designated by the U.S. State Department as “Countries of Particular Concern” with regard to religious freedom, three of them – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – are in the OSCE region. Since the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requirements came into effect, the U.S. Secretary of State has annually reviewed and reported annually on the status of religious freedom in foreign countries. When there is evidence the government of that country has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom in that country,” the Secretary is supposed to designate the country as a CPC. Although Kazakhstan has not been designated as a CPC and its constitution includes provisions providing for religious freedom, in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, the State Department reported “the government continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech ‘inciting religious discord,’ question congregation members about their choice of faith, punish individuals for ‘illegal missionary activity,’ and label ‘nontraditional’ religious groups as ‘destructive sects’ in the media.” This has led the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to classify Kazakhstan as one of three OSCE participating States – along with Azerbaijan and Turkey – on its “Tier 2” list, which identifies countries where religious freedom violations do not meet the criteria for the State Department’s CPC designation, but that still need ongoing scrutiny. Kazakhstan has been on the Tier 2 list every year since 2013. USCIRF notes in its 2017 annual report, “The country’s restrictive 2011 religion law bans unregistered religious activity and is enforced through police raids, detentions, fines, and the closing of religious institutions. Increasingly, terrorism and religious extremism laws with multiyear prison sentences are deployed against religious nonconformity and political opposition, blurring the line between violent extremism and peaceful dissent.” The Case of Teymur Akhmedov A retired bus driver, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov is a married father of three. In 2016, he was approached by several men who identified themselves as students who were interested in the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They invited Akhmedov to an apartment to discuss his faith and later visited his home. Acting on behalf of the National Security Committee (a Kazakh intelligence agency), the men secretly recorded their discussions. In January 2017, Akhmedov was arrested and charged with violating Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code (Article 174) regarding “inciting religious hatred.” The presiding judge concurred with the charges and also accused Akhmedov of “inciting religious discord” and promoting the “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority of citizens on grounds of their religion.” He sentenced Akhmedov to five years in a labor camp and banned him from “ideological religious activity.” His appeal was denied in June 2017. Since his pre-trial detention began in January, authorities have denied Akhmedov access to cancer treatments at a hospital. He also says he has been tortured in detention. His family and his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned that his health will rapidly deteriorate. Jehovah’s Witnesses have asked for him to be immediately released and for the Kazakh government to stop using the Criminal Code and legislation to violate religious freedom in the name of combating extremism. Jehovah's Witnesses in Kazakhstan There are 18,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan, more than in any other central Asian country. Over the years, the Kazakh government has fined more than 60 Jehovah’s Witnesses for engaging in missionary activities without registration. In May 2017, a government inspection of Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Almaty alleged non-compliance with Kazakh law regarding requirements for the number of security cameras at public venues, although the government had approved – and Jehovah’s Witnesses had implemented – a camera plan for the headquarters earlier that year. In June, a judge suspended all activities at the headquarters and imposed fines. At an appeals hearing on August 3, the judge amended the sentence, ordering Jehovah’s Witnesses to refrain from holding religious meetings in the headquarters, but permitting all other activities at the headquarters to continue. This has forced 14 congregations to meet elsewhere.  

  • Political Participation and Ethnic Division in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. While denial of equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the political life of their country is a concern in many OSCE countries, the ethnic restrictions in the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina which deny Bosnian citizens the right to run for certain political offices is perhaps the most blatant example of this problem among the OSCE participating States. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Democratic Elections in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the OSCE participating States adopted, by consensus, watershed commitments on free and fair elections. They stated that the participating States: “. . . solemnly declare that among those elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings are the following: [ . . . ] — free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives; [ . . . ] — a clear separation between the State and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the State;”  Accordingly, the participating States rejected the concept of a one-party state or “modified” democracy (e.g., communist- or socialist-democracy).  In a summit held later that year, the OSCE Heads of State or Government declared, “We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” In spite of the OSCE commitment to hold free and fair elections, some OSCE participating States have demonstrated even more resistance—if not complete unwillingness—to hold free and fair elections. In a few, a transfer of power is more likely to be the result of death than an election.  In some cases, a generation has come of age under a single ruler or ruling family. Download the full report to learn more. Download highlights of conclusions and recommendations drawn from OSCE election reports (October 2016 to September 2017).

  • Criminal Defamation and "Insult" Laws in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments do restrict speech, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law. Criminal defamation and "insult" laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression, but they are not consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech. Despite this, criminal defamation and insult laws continue to be abused for political purposes in several OSCE participating States. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Russian Disinformation Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE SCOURGE OF RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION Thursday, September 14, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce091417 Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region.  Russian disinformation helps support rampant violations of OSCE norms by the Putin regime, ranging from internal human rights abuses to military intervention in neighboring states to interference in elections in several countries. The hearing will examine Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation, both domestically and abroad, as well as U.S. efforts to set the record straight with Russians, Ukrainians, and other speakers of Russian in the region.  Witnesses will also discuss the effectiveness of U.S. counter-measures across a variety of platforms; whether resources available correspond to the threat; and whether coordination amongst key players within the U.S. Government at the Department of State, Department of Defense, and USAID, and with European partners is adequate.  Finally, with German elections scheduled for September 24, one of the witnesses will highlight attempts by Russia to use NGOs and think tanks in Germany to try to influence the outcome. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: John F. Lansing, Chief Executive Officer and Director, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society Programs, Human Rights First Molly McKew, CEO, Fianna Strategies

  • Bride Kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic

    Each year in Kyrgyzstan, an estimated 12,000 1 young women are kidnapped and forced to marry their abductors. As many of one out of five are raped in the process. An illegal practice justified by perpetrators as “traditional,” particularly in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, bride kidnapping not only violates the human rights of women, but can also result in higher rates of depression and suicide among women, higher rates of domestic violence and divorce, and, according to a recent study from Duke University, perhaps even lower birthweights for babies. What Is Bride Kidnapping? Although bride kidnapping can be a form of staged elopement, in the majority of cases it is forced abduction, and generally targets young women, including those under 18. The kidnapping is usually planned in advance, often with the assistance of the man’s family. The most common scenario is that a woman is abducted off the street as she goes about her daily routine by a group of young men, stuffed into a vehicle, and taken to the “groom’s” home, where she is held against her will, subjected to psychological pressure, and sometimes even raped to force her to submit to the marriage. In some cases, the woman may not even have met the man before the abduction. In Kyrgyz society – and particularly in rural areas – an unmarried woman’s reputation can be irrevocably damaged if she spends even a single night outside her family home.  As a result, victims often feel that the honor of their families is at stake, so they have no recourse other than to consent to the marriage. Even their families may pressure them to acquiesce. For the same reasons, incidents are underreported to the authorities, particularly if the woman stays with her abductor. Why Does Bride Kidnapping Occur? Bride kidnapping is socially accepted as a Kyrgyz tradition, although non-consensual bride kidnapping does not appear to have been common before the early 20th century and the practice has been illegal in Kyrgyzstan since1994.   Since Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, Kyrgyz have often asserted their ethnicity and traditions as a way to distance themselves from their Soviet past and affirm the country’s independent identity. Bride kidnapping may be just one way to express that ethnic nationalism. In its consensual form, bride kidnapping may be a way for couples to avoid parental permission or expensive dowry payments. When non-consensual, it may be that the perpetrator feared rejection or had trouble finding a willing bride, or that the groom’s family wants to avoid a costly large wedding.   Lasting Negative Impact Bride kidnapping not only violates Kyrgyz law and women’s human rights, but it also causes lasting damage to both victims and families.  An NGO-run hotline for domestic violence victims estimates that some 15 percent of their calls are related to bride kidnapping; the same NGO estimates that 60 percent of marriages based on bride kidnapping end in divorce2. There have also been several cases of women committing suicide shortly after being abducted and forced to marry. Kidnapped brides may not have finished school. After their marriages, many are denied access to educational or economic opportunities, resulting not only in the loss of their personal dreams but also in a negative impact on the national economy at large. According to various studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations, and the World Bank, when women work, economies develop faster, and women are likely to spend household income in ways that benefit their children. Oftentimes, the forced marriage is a religious ceremony performed by a local imam, and not registered with state authorities. This lack of registration can create significant problems later on, because women in unregistered marriages are not entitled to property settlements, alimony, or child support in the case of divorce or abandonment. Ending Bride Kidnapping As a participating State of the OSCE, Kyrgyzstan is party to several OSCE commitments related to gender equality, and the Kyrgyz government is making efforts to end bride kidnapping. In 2013, the penalty for bride kidnapping was increased from three to seven years in prison, and in 2016 a new law was enacted against underage marriages and forced marriages that also hold accountable those who perform such marriages and relatives who participate in organizing them. The government is supporting awareness raising campaigns, and the NGO “Women Support Centre” has been working with the government to monitor the impact of the new legislation. These measures should be stepped up, along with community leaders speaking out, more legal accountability for perpetrators, and increased assistance and recourse for victims. 1 Current statistics are difficult due to the illegality of the practice and underreporting by victims. This estimate is based on figures from the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations working in Kyrgyzstan. 2 According to the Sezim Crisis Center in Kyrgyzstan.    

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Czech Government Decision to Memorialize Lety Concentration Camp Site

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s formal announcement that the Czech government intends to remove a pig farm on the site of the World War II concentration camp at Lety, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker issued the following statement: “This achievement is the culmination of decades of work on the part of survivors, human rights groups, members of the Helsinki Commission, and others. It paves the way for a dignified and appropriate memorial for the thousands of men, women, and children who suffered and died there.”  In 1940, during the Nazi occupation of the present-day Czech Republic, a forced labor camp for adult male prisoners opened at Lety. In 1942, Lety was converted into a concentration camp exclusively for Roma of any age. More than 1,300 prisoners were held at Lety, and at least 326 people perished in the camp, including 241 children. In 1943, 540 people were deported in two mass transports from Lety to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Most were murdered there or in other concentration camps. In 1973, the Czechoslovak communist government built an industrial pork processing farm on the site. After the fall of communism, the farm was privatized. In 1994, the Helsinki Commission was made aware of the existence of a unique, surviving archive of original documents from the Lety camp and subsequently worked to secure the transfer of a complete copy of those archives to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).  The first copies of the Lety archive were hand-delivered to the USHMM by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous in January 1999; the final set of documents was delivered in March 2000.  In a statement at the time, then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (NJ-04) said, “The long process of transferring these documents has ended; a new chapter of understanding the Romani Holocaust has begun.”

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