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Commission on security and cooperation in Europe

U. S. Helsinki Commission

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We are a US government commission 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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  Senator Ben Cardin

Chairman

Senator Ben Cardin

  Representative Steve Cohen

Co-Chairman

Representative Steve Cohen

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  • Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-Introduction of HARM Act

    Today, Helsinki Commissioners Steve Cohen, Joe Wilson, Marc Veasey,  Richard Hudson, Ruben Gallego and Brian Fitzpatrick along with Representatives Ted Lieu, Maria Salazar and Marcy Kaptur, re-introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the House of Representatives, bipartisan legislation that would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).  The Commission applauds this vital piece of legislation to hold Wagner accountable for the terror it inflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere.  For more information click here.   The HARM Act was first introduced in the last Congress by Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (MI), along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives led by Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, Richard Hudson, and Marc Veasey.

  • Bipartisan reps introduce bill to designate Russia’s Wagner Group as foreign terrorists

    A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday to designate Russian mercenary company Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, sponsored by nine members of the lower chamber, would require the State Department to designate the Wagner Group an FTO within 90 days of becoming law. The lawmakers cited the paramilitary company’s history of human rights violations in Africa and ongoing deployment of private soldiers in Ukraine to fight with Russia, adding that the Wagner Group has received weapons from North Korea, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism. “Where the Wagner Group operates, atrocities follow,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in a statement. “The HARM Act will identify Putin’s private mercenary group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and let the world know that its activities are both malign and illegal.” The Biden administration designated the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization last week and announced countries and entities supporting it would run afoul of the U.S. government. But an FTO designation would authorize the U.S. to slap criminal penalties on entities supporting Wagner Group, according to the lawmakers sponsoring the HARM Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said in a statement the Biden administration’s designation “does not go far enough” against Wagner, adding it should use the FTO label to “expose them in their true state as a murderous, criminal enterprise.” “The Wagner Group has been engaging in nefarious atrocities around the globe, all at the behest of war criminal Putin and his cronies,” Wilson said. Legislation to designate the Wagner Group an FTO was also introduced last year in both the House and Senate. There was a standoff between the Biden administration and some U.S. lawmakers last year over designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The administration said the designation, which comes with a raft of restrictions and penalties, could do more harm than good for Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, formed the Wagner Group in 2014. The mercenary outfit has since meddled in conflicts across the world, from Africa to Syria and now Ukraine, where Wagner forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers in the eastern Donetsk region. DOJ disrupts global ransomware gangTop FDA safety official resigns In November, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the European Council to adopt a measure that would place Wagner Group on an EU terrorist list. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is vying for a Senate seat in 2024, also sponsored the HARM Act and called for “rebuking mercenary terrorist organizations like the Wagner Group.” “While Ukrainians stand up for freedom and democracy, the Wagner Group stands with authoritarian regimes like Russia,” Gallego said in a statement. “Declaring them a Foreign Terrorist Organization is a commonsense step to hold them accountable for their atrocities in Ukraine and across the globe.”

  • Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-introduction of Combatting Global Corruption Act

    On Tuesday, Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep. Joe Wilson, and Senator Ben Cardin re-introduced the Combatting Global Corruption Act in both the House and Senate, along with Rep. Bill Keating, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Senator Todd Young. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation formally designates global corruption as a key U.S. national security policy. It would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries around the world and publicly rank their levels of corruption in a three-tiered system. For more information click here. The Combatting Global Corruption Act was first introduced in the 117th Congress. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Senator Todd Young introduced the Act in the Senate, along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, Commissioner Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Rep. Dean Phillips are original co-sponsors of the legislation. 

  • Russian landmines will pose dangers to Ukraine long after the fighting is over

    Russia’s 10-month-old invasion is leaving an enduring scar on Ukraine even beyond the lives lost, the homes, the roads and the factories destroyed, and the cultural landmarks demolished.  The government in Kyiv said this month that an area of Ukraine slightly larger than the state of Georgia — about 60,000 square miles — is virtually uninhabitable because of the presence of land mines and other deadly explosives, planted in the frozen conflict dating to 2014 and the war that has ravaged large swaths of the country since Russian forces invaded in February. Even after the guns are silenced and even if the last Russian soldier has been forced back across the border, the challenges for Ukraine to return to normal will be staggering, analysts say. Countries around the world are offering support for Ukraine’s de-mining needs. U.S. officials expect it to be one of the largest such efforts since the end of World War II. Undertaking such a task is difficult enough during peacetime but seemingly insurmountable while the fighting continues. “Clearing this explosive contamination is a top priority for the government of Ukraine,” said Michael Tirre, with the State Department’s office of weapons removal and abatement. “The sheer magnitude of explosive hazard and contamination is overwhelming.” Since the start of the largest war in Europe since World War II, land mines and other unexploded ordnance have killed or maimed more than 1,100 civilians, U.S. officials said. Ukraine is one of the world’s top exporters of agricultural commodities such as wheat, barley and corn, but at least 10% of the country’s agricultural lands have been rendered untillable since the Russian invasion because of the presence of land mines and other explosives. A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that has driven back Russian forces in the south and east has only shed a more glaring light on the problem. “Russian forces in retreat have intentionally booby-trapped homes and civilian infrastructure. The consequences go well beyond the immediate danger to civilians and are far-reaching and potentially long-lasting,” said Demitra Pappas, an official with the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. A Human Rights Watch survey this summer reported that Russians had deployed at least seven anti-personnel mine models in parts of Ukraine, including at least one fragmentation mine that had never before been reported in combat. Both sides have used anti-vehicle mines as well. The human rights group noted that Russia, like the U.S. and China, did not sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty but remains bound by mine, booby-trap and other device restrictions included in the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Ukraine has signed the 1997 pact. The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a report this month that mines caused major problems in the clashes between the government in Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in the Ukrainian civil war that began in 2014. The first full winter of the Russian invasion has compounded the danger, the report said. “The misery and destruction inflicted by such hidden threats are immense,” ICRC Eurasia Director Ariane Bauer said in the report. “Blasts can be fatal or cause injuries such as blindness, burns, damaged limbs and deep shrapnel wounds. In addition to the loss of life and injury, unexploded ordnance frequently hinders or prevents access to essential services like hospitals or they make repairs to water and power facilities unsafe or prolonged.”  The Biden administration is providing more than $91 million worth of de-mining assistance to Ukraine over the coming year. About $47 million will go to Tetra Tech Inc. The consulting and engineering company, based in Pasadena, California, has been hired to help expand Ukraine’s ability to locate and remove mines. The first step is to establish a joint training facility that will allow government agencies in Ukraine to standardize and refine their training in clearing explosives and similar hazards. “Once the conflict ends, the work will shift from reactionary to stabilization and then into long-term clearance activities,” Todd Biggs, Tetra Tech’s vice president for munitions response, said from Kyiv during a de-mining briefing hosted this month by the Helsinki Commission. Building up resources Ukraine has more than 200 de-mining teams — about 1,000 personnel — and plans to double that figure next year. The teams have different specialties. Some conduct interviews with the public to find evidence of explosives, while others clear minefields and battle areas. “The teams will also include explosive ordnance risk education teams that are critical for teaching civilians how to recognize, avoid and report hazards,” Mr. Biggs said. “There are not enough teams to adequately cover all high-priority areas.” The explosive hazards left by Russian military forces kill and maim innocent Ukrainian civilians and block access to farmland, impede reconstruction efforts and prevent displaced people from returning to their homes.  U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Russian troops have booby-trapped children’s toys and even the bodies of people killed in the invasion, in a style reminiscent of the Islamic State group’s terrorist operations in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials said.  “ISIS terrorists sought to inflict as many civilians as possible and made people afraid to go home,” Mr. Tirre said.  Explosive experts said Russian munitions might have dud rates of 10% to 30%, meaning a massive number of unexploded munitions could remain in the ground for years to come, U.S. officials said. What they may lack in top-of-the-line equipment, the Ukrainian de-mining teams make up for it with grit and expertise, international explosive experts said. “The Ukrainian people are incredibly resilient [and] incredibly determined to resolve the problem,” said Tony Connell, with the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action. “I’ve never been in a country where the national staff is so determined to get rid of the problem.” Ukrainian personnel, including local police units, the military and state emergency services, are doing most of the de-mining work.  “These incredibly brave and skilled Ukrainian de-mining and explosive ordnance disposal teams have found and destroyed more than 500,000 explosive hazards,” Mr. Tirre said. “Clearing this explosive contamination is a top priority for the government of Ukraine.” Tetra Tech plans to deploy at least 100 de-mining teams into Ukraine by early next year, a dramatic increase from the 22 teams it was supporting at the start of the invasion. The company’s plan would create the only large-scale de-mining school operating within Ukraine. Other training was typically conducted outside the country. “Ukraine has substantial expertise, and our project is designed with this in mind,” Mr. Biggs said. “Ukrainian operators have experienced severe casualties. They urgently need this training and equipment.” The de-mining course usually takes four to five weeks, and the company recruits from local populations. The work doesn’t require any specialized background.  The local teams are taught how to recognize types of mines and how to carry out excavations. They also receive first-aid training. A 10-member team usually has an international leader, a driver, a translator and local staff. The Ukrainians appreciate offers of de-mining help by the U.S. and other countries but say it’s ultimately their responsibility to complete the task, Mr. Biggs said. “They definitely want to be in the lead. They want to fix the problem,” he said. “They don’t want to just rely on others doing it.” It’s hard to determine how much it will cost to completely clear Ukraine of the explosive hazards because a national land mine survey has not been conducted. Mr. Biggs said he had seen estimates of $73 billion. When asked how long it could take, Mr. Biggs said, “Several decades.”

  • The Case for Designating Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization Is Still Compelling

    Earlier this year, we argued in Lawfare that the secretary of state should use his authority under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) to designate Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group and its affiliates as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Since then, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the 117th Congress (S.5164 and H.R.9381, respectively). The HARM Act would direct the secretary of state to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO and has bipartisan co-sponsorship. Though the bill did not make it to a floor for a vote before the conclusion of the 117th Congress, it is expected to be reintroduced in the 118th Congress. On Dec. 2, 2022, the secretary of state also designated the Wagner Group as an entity of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 for its indiscriminate targeting and murder of members of minority religious groups in the Central African Republic. This was followed on Dec. 21, 2022, by a ruling from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), which amended the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) based on BIS’s determination that the Wagner Group is to be considered a Russian or Belarusian “military end user” under § 744.21 of the EAR. This determination restricts the Wagner Group’s access to certain foreign-produced items (primarily but not exclusively weapons and munitions) that use U.S. technology.  While the IRFA designation and the Commerce Department’s actions are important steps, the need for effective tools to suppress the malign activities of the Wagner Group continues to grow. In the wake of Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, some committed by the Wagner Group, there also have been calls to designate Russia itself as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST).  However, an FTO designation, rather than an SST designation, provides greater latitude for the U.S. and is thus the preferable option between the two. We maintain that designating the Wagner Group as an FTO continues to be necessary, and the HARM Act is the right way to achieve that outcome. Since our original article was published, Prigozhin has given up all pretenses that the Wagner Group is a private company unaffiliated with the Russian state. Over the past several months, Wagner Group forces, with criminals recruited directly from Russia’s prisons, are reportedly fully integrated into Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. Reporting continues to tie Wagner Group members to regular violations of the law of armed conflict and the human rights of innocent civilians worldwide. Take, for example, the Wagner Group’s release of a horrific video similar to those recorded by the Islamic State. In this video, a Wagner Group deserter, Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was repatriated to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange, was murdered by Wagner Group members using a sledgehammer. Not only did Wagner Group owner Prigozhin not deny the video’s authenticity, but he also went so far as to comment publicly that “Nuzhin was a traitor” and “the dog died a dog’s death.” Beyond Ukraine, the Wagner Group continues to use murder and intimidation in the Central African Republic and other African states to obtain access to gold,  diamonds, and other natural resources to circumvent both financial sanctions on Russia and international sanctions against marketing diamonds from conflict zones. Reporting from the New York Times at the end of last year indicated that Wagner Group operatives, working in concert with the Russian Embassy, orchestrated the firing of the head of the Central African Republic’s Supreme Court to ensure that the country’s current president remains in power beyond his two-term limit as a puppet of the Wagner Group. Why the concern about controlling the Central African Republic? As the New York Times describes it, the country is rich in gold and diamonds, as well as timber. Prigozhin, several of his associates, and the Wagner Group are already subject to U.S. sanctions authorized under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which allows the Treasury Department to freeze assets within its reach and to prevent the entry of designated individuals into the United States. These sanctions also allow the U.S. government to block any transactions that are subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and that involve sanctioned individuals and entities (50 U.S.C. § 1702). Sanctions under IEEPA are most effective in discouraging banks with any presence in the United States from engaging in financial transactions with any sanctioned entities. For instance, BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to sanctions violations and was fined $8.9 billion in 2014 for processing financial transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities in the Sudan, Iran, and Cuba.  The December 2022 designation of the Wagner Group as an entity of particular concern under the IRFA highlights its persistent violations of human rights and use of terror worldwide. (On the IRFA, see this primer.) As an entity of particular concern under the IRFA, the Wagner Group joins the ranks of international terrorist groups like the Taliban, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab, and other international terrorist groups designated under this Act. While IRFA designation does publicly condemn the Wagner Group for religious-based human rights violations, such designation does not bring additional sanctions to the Wagner Group. The Dec. 21, 2022, amendment of the EAR is intended to prevent Wagner Group’s access to any U.S. products, to include products produced overseas using U.S. technology, by expanding U.S. sanctions under the Foreign Direct Product Rule (15 CFR § 734.9). We note, however, that the murders and massacres attributed to Wagner Group mercenaries over the years have been accomplished using Russian-made weapons and equipment and that therefore this action is likely to have limited impact in terms of preventing the Wagner Group’s paramilitary activities. It is not clear how effective the new sanctions will be in limiting the Wagner Group’s expansive mining and logging activities in a number of African countries, which do require commercial equipment, some of which may be subject to the Foreign Direct Product Rule. The expanded Commerce Department sanctions do not extend to non-U.S. products, nor do they cover the vast array of services required for commercial operations. The actions taken under authorities of IEEPA, the IRFA, and the EAR are unlikely to have a serious impact on the Wagner Group’s current ability to operate, especially in Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East.   It remains our view that the most effective tool against the Wagner Group remains the tool that has been used against other international terrorist groups: a designation of the Wagner Group as an FTO under the AEDPA. The major difference between an FTO designation and existing sanctions is that an FTO designation would bring into effect the U.S. material support to terrorism statutes. The extraterritorial reach of these provisions would make it a crime to provide material support to the Wagner Group and its affiliates. The Wagner Group relies on an extensive network of companies and foreign government officials to enable its various nefarious activities. Designating the Wagner Group as an FTO would put these individuals and entities on notice that their continued commercial dealings with the Wagner Group in all of its guises will put them at risk of violating the material support to terrorism statutes of the United States. Designation as an FTO will make it legally dangerous to provide support to the Wagner Group as it currently is to provide support to other FTOs, such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The HARM Act was proposed based on a legislative finding that the Wagner Group meets the statutory definition of a foreign terrorist organization and that the activities of the Wagner Group and its affiliates pose a threat to the national interests and national security of the United States, its allies, and partners. The HARM Act details specific activities of the Wagner Group and its affiliates that demonstrate that the Wagner Group engages in premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets. The HARM Act also demonstrates bipartisan congressional support for designating the Wagner Group as an FTO.    Since clear statutory authority already exists to allow the secretary of state to designate the Wagner Group as an FTO, it is not necessary for the Biden administration to wait for this legislation before taking action. The secretary of state could achieve the goal of the HARM Act in short order by designating the Wagner Group under the existing authority of the AEDPA.  We continue to believe that the designation of the Wagner Group as an FTO, which will enable use of the material support to terrorism authorities of the AEDPA, will be the most effective tool to combat the Wagner Group’s activities. Sanctions to date under other authorities are important but appear to have had limited impact in hindering Wagner Group’s operations either in Ukraine or in Africa. FTO designation and the use of the material support to terrorism statutes can severely hamper its ability to maintain its business ties with nation-states in Africa and elsewhere, conduct financial transfers, provide corrupting financial support to certain African leaders, and obtain logistical support for its overseas operations. This would be a significant step forward in severely limiting one of Russia’s most malicious instruments in its foreign policy toolbox. If it is unable to attract new clients, maintain its current ones, or recruit new personnel (beyond jailhouse recruitments), the Wagner Group’s viability as a private military company supporting the Kremlin’s foreign policy and financial gain will be seriously degraded.  Designating the Wagner Group as an FTO also strikes at a powerful Kremlin resource without endangering other equities in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations, especially important diplomatic lines of communication. Over the past several months, a number of people have argued that Russia itself, and not just the Wagner Group, should be designated as an SST—a designation currently applied to Syria, Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. As Jocelyn Trainer argues in a Nov. 29, 2022, Lawfare article, it is not clear what advantage would accrue to the United States by this designation, beyond making it more difficult to maintain lines of communication with the government of Russia necessary to ensure the two countries do not inadvertently stumble into a direct conflict. Diplomatic and military-to-military channels are essential to help avoid U.S.-Russia conflict and clearly communicate to Moscow the consequences it faces if, for instance, it uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Similar channels in Syria must also be maintained to prevent inadvertent conflict between Russian and U.S. armed forces conducting combat operations in close proximity to each other. Designating Russia as an SST is likely to lead to a break in diplomatic relations, which would hamper, if not destroy, those lines of communication. Unlike naming Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, designation of the Wagner Group and its affiliates as an FTO would have real-world consequences but with far less risk to bilateral relations than designating Russia as an SST. This designation could be revisited if Russia ever uses a nuclear weapon against the non-nuclear state of Ukraine. In the meantime, the best approach to ending Russia’s use of terrorism as a tool of its predatory statecraft is to concentrate effective U.S. government sanctions against the Wagner Group to deprive it of the resources it needs to operate. 

  • The Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh Highlights Russia’s Waning Global Influence

    Mariam Abrahamyan is a hard woman to get in touch with. She appears on the screen for just a few moments before the picture freezes and she drops off the video call. “Sorry,” she says after phoning back a minute later, “our power went out again and the internet went down.” For more than a month now, the 30-year-old Armenian mother of three has been cut off from the rest of the world by a near-total blockade on the only road in or out of Nagorno-Karabakh—a disputed territory nestled between Armenia and Azerbaijan—that she and her family call home. Regular supplies of food and medicine have been stopped by Azerbaijan, and locals say supermarket shelves are empty and pharmacies are running out of essential prescriptions, while officials warn a famine could now be on the cards. “We didn’t think it would last this long,” Abrahamyan says. “But what’s really frightening is not knowing when it will end. We made the decision to stay here, and I dread the day one of my children might turn around and ask why we chose to live in a place like this.” Nagorno-Karabakh has already seen two wars within Abrahamyan’s lifetime. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union unraveled, erstwhile members Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a series of fierce battles over the mountainous region, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris displaced from the region, and thousands killed on both sides. Nagorno-Karabakh is located inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders, but locked behind a line of landmines and defensive positions, and for three decades it was accessible only from Armenia. Governed as the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, its officials point to two referendums held in 1991 and 2006 as proof that those living there have chosen independence. But in 2020, Azerbaijani troops launched an offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, conquering swathes of territory and leaving Karabakh Armenians in control of just their de facto capital, Stepanakert, and the surrounding area. Only a Moscow-brokered ceasefire ended the war, putting the sole highway linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—known as the Lachin Corridor—under the control of a 1,500-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent, with Azerbaijani troops stationed behind the wire fence on both sides of the road. Yet with Russia bogged down in Ukraine, there are fears the battle-scarred Nagorno-Karabakh could see conflict once again as Moscow fails to step in. Road to nowhere On the morning of Dec. 12, a group of self-described Azerbaijani eco-protesters pushed past the Russian peacekeepers and set up camp on the Lachin Corridor, stopping traffic. They allege Karabakh-Armenians have been using the road to export illegally-mined gold at the expense of the environment, while importing landmines and other military hardware as the Russians watch on. Now, officials say the Russian peacekeeping convoys and a smattering of Red Cross relief vehicles are the only ones that are able to pass—nowhere near enough to replace the 400 tons of goods that used to arrive daily from Armenia. “We don’t see much of the Russians,” Adnan Huseyn, one of the Azerbaijani organizers of the sit-in says. “During the first few days, we had eye-to-eye contact with the peacekeepers, but there were no problems. We watched the World Cup together, which was actually nice. Most of the time they kept quiet.” While Huseyn’s group insists it is moving aside for humanitarian convoys and denies it is staging a blockade, Armenia alleges they were sent by Azerbaijan in order to spark a crisis and lay the ground for “ethnic cleansing” of the region. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, whose government has repeatedly cracked down on political protests at home, has described the demonstrators as the pride of the nation, while observers have been quick to point out few have any prior record of environmental activism. Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and author of several books on the conflict, has argued that the protesters had “evidently been sent there by the government in Baku,” and Western nations including the U.S. have called on Azerbaijan to unblock the road. Now, anger is building as the humanitarian situation grows dire and Russia appears reluctant to force a reopening of the road. “Armenia is a firm supporter of the Russian peacekeepers,” the country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in December, as it became clear the protesters were there to stay. “But it is unacceptable for us that they are becoming a silent witness to the depopulation of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Broken promises In Stepanakert, propaganda posters of the Russian peacekeepers hang in shop windows, looking out over the rows of empty shelves. “Karabakh, live in peace,” one reads. For many ethnic Armenians in the breakaway region, Russian is a native language on par with Armenian, and Moscow has long been seen as a close ally. But since the 2020 war, many locals say their existence feels more precarious than ever and that Azerbaijan is intent on asserting control over their unrecognized state. In a poll published by the Caucasus Research Resource Center in January, fewer than half of 400 Karabakh-Armenian respondents said independence would help settle the conflict in the disputed territory. Almost one in four said they would prefer to be annexed by Moscow and given special status as part of the Russian Federation—slightly more than the number that back unification with Armenia. “I’m not political,” says Abrahamyan. “I only know that the Russians have a duty to protect us, and they’re not doing that.” On Dec. 24, a delegation of Karabakh-Armenians marched to the peacekeepers’ checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor, where the Azerbaijanis have been staging their sit-in, to demand the road be reopened. “The Russian officer there told us to go home and not to worry,” says Marut Vanyan, a 39-year-old blogger from Stepanakert who joined the group. “He told us the road would be reopened within two days, like it was before. That never happened.” According to Vanyan, one of the protest organizers told the peacekeepers that locals were losing trust in them and, if the worst comes to the worst, they would take their families and leave—with Moscow losing its foothold in the region. Three days later, dozens of men, women, and children walked to the gates of the peacekeeping headquarters to demand answers. “Putin, keep your word,” read one sign carried by a young boy. Guards told the crowd that they were unable to get hold of their commander, Major General Andrey Volkov, and he was the only one who could answer their questions. Many Karabakh-Armenians now fear a protracted blockade or another Azerbaijani military offensive could see them forced to flee their homes for good. Man from Moscow? Azerbaijan has long accused Armenia of being a Russian puppet state, pointing to Yerevan’s membership of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and the close economic ties between the two countries. At the same time, just two days before Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Aliyev himself traveled to meet with President Vladimir Putin and sign a deal upgrading their relations to alliance level. But the standoff between the two sides has only worsened in recent weeks after an enigmatic Russian-Armenian oligarch, Ruben Vardanyan, announced he was moving to Nagorno-Karabakh in September. The Yerevan-born billionaire was initially coy about seeking political office but, two months later, was suddenly appointed State Minister of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, making him effectively the most powerful man in Stepanakert overnight. Since then, talks with Azerbaijan have broken down, with Aliyev accusing Vardanyan of having been “sent from Moscow with a very clear agenda.” Officials in Baku point to the fact that he has been sanctioned by Ukraine as proof of his close ties to the Russian state. Kyiv says his business interests “undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine.” Speaking via video link from his office in the blockaded region, Vardanyan rejects those charges. “People don’t understand when someone like me decides to give up his family and his lifestyle,” he says with a half-smile. “I decided it is the right time to be with my people and [the Armenian] nation.” The 54-year-old banking magnate is careful to avoid directly criticizing the role of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, but firmly denies Moscow has any undue influence over the region. “I can’t just pick up the phone and call Vladimir Putin,” he laughs, “the peacekeepers are only 2,000 people standing between the Armenian population and the sizable Azerbaijani army. It’s tough, and it’s clear Russia’s attention isn’t here—it’s in the West, given Ukraine.” Crisis in the Kremlin “For Putin, conquering Ukraine has become an all-encompassing issue and there’s little interest at the top for anything else,” says Jade McGlynn, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “Moscow’s quest to increase its influence has left it a diminished and less formidable power in the South Caucasus. Putin may not see that, but the Foreign Ministry does—it’s just being sidelined. Junior diplomats are in despair.” While Karabakh-Armenians fear their calls for help are falling on deaf ears, others are questioning whether Moscow was ever a reliable security guarantor in the first place. “Russia is exploiting the conflict to further its own interests. Ultimately, its strategy is about maintaining an imperial grip on the region,” says Michael Cecire, a senior policy advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a U.S. government agency. From Yerevan, Pashinyan is now calling on the international community as a whole to step up and put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing a U.N. peacekeeping mission should take over if the Russians cannot fulfill their commitments. The U.S., along with the U.K. and a number of European nations, have expressed concern over the situation, while France has emerged as a leading ally for Armenia, tabling an unsuccessful motion condemning Baku at the U.N. Security Council. On Tuesday, RFERL reported that the E.U. has now agreed to send a monitoring mission to Armenia for as long as two years, in a sign that Brussels is concerned about the prospect of new clashes along the internationally-recognized border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the civilian team will not enter Nagorno-Karabakh, the move has been interpreted as a sign that the West is stepping up to fill the power vacuum left by Russia. But Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain, says that no outside power will be able to impose a solution to the standoff over the region. “Armenia’s problem is structural dependency—and now they’re looking to the West and hoping France will be their big daddy.” For Vardanyan, confined to the blockaded region he moved to just months ago, the outside world feels a very long way away, and he warns the Karabakh-Armenians can’t expect to depend on anyone but themselves. “It’s like a Russian fairytale—there’s a hero standing in front of a crossroads,” he says. “One way, you lose your independence, another, you lose your home. The third way is to fight. We don’t want war, but of these three options we have to make a choice, even if it is dangerous and you can lose your life. We need to be ready for this.”

  • How first transgender war correspondent is now fighting with Ukraine

    On a summer day in Zolochiv, Ukraine, a rocket dropped from the sky and exploded into a building across the street from journalist Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, who caught the blast on cellphone video. The artillery, one of many seen in the country for weeks, didn't just crater the sidewalk. It also led Ashton-Cirillo – the world's first openly transgender war correspondent – to be hit with a new perspective.  "There was this crazy shift in my perception of where my place was in the war," she said. "My mind had undergone a metamorphosis because it was not anymore me covering the war, I was basically living the war. ... I had become very conflicted regarding my feelings as to where I belonged." In Ukraine she had seen bodies of injured or killed civilians, moved food supplies for the military effort and befriended many a servicemember, all of which caused her to reflect on her work and eventually turn from photographing and writing about gunfire to being a part of it. Now a member of the Ukrainian armed forces, first as a combat medic and now focusing on hybrid warfare, the 45-year-old Las Vegas native is unshakable in the cause for Ukrainian freedom. "If I knew now what I knew nine months ago, I'm not certain I would have chosen this path," she said. "But because I did choose this path, the only way to go is forward, focused on mission, focused on my convictions and values as to why I'm doing this." A story of pivotal moments Ashton-Cirillo had covered the consequences of war before, reporting from the Syria-Turkey border on the refugee crisis during the country's civil war in 2015. With hesitation but no regret, she moved forward into the war zone in Ukraine. "When I went ahead and saw that the invasion had happened, I basically thought to myself: Am I really going to do this?" she said.  Even before entering Ukraine, Ashton-Cirillo faced expected obstacles getting into the country as a transgender woman. She intentionally flew into Berlin on her origin flight with an awareness that the city might be more progressive about her gender identity not matching the photo and details on her passport. At the Ukrainian border, she brought press clippings to prove her identity, fearful of being barred from the country. But in less than an hour, she heard all she needed: "Welcome to Ukraine." 'I was basically living the war' Initially without a combat helmet, a chest protector or press plates, she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter the city of Kharkiv, further into a dangerous area of the war zone. Ashton-Cirillo said that at the time, the risks of her decision weren't something she could process, but she now knows the choice was pivotal for her future. In Kharkiv and later Zolochiv, she witnessed bombings and rockets cratering buildings, hid in bomb shelters with Ukrainians, and shared photos, videos and dispatches of it all on her Twitter account.  Working as a freelancer for LGBTQ Nation, she largely focused on the effect of the war on LGBTQ Ukrainians, including Russian military forces targeting LGBTQ civilians in Ukraine and the expression of LGBTQ acceptance among Ukrainians through the arts. She grew closer with members of the Ukrainian forces and served as an army volunteer to deliver food supplies. In Zolochiv, the village's mayor even appointed her an official outreach coordinator so she could advocate for aid to its citizens. How war gave Ashton-Cirillo a changed perspective The gradual shift in Ashton-Cirillo's place in the war, from the professional to the personal, led her to consider what steps would be required for her to join the Ukrainian military. By August, Ashton-Cirillo was working so closely with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, she stopped reporting for LGBTQ Nation to avoid a conflict of interest. She began to write policy papers and analysis for units of the Ukrainian government, all the while considering how she could become more involved in the war effort. Il'ko Bozhko, former press officer for the Operation Command East for Ukraine and close friend of Ashton-Cirillo, said he shared his own experience and motivations behind joining the armed forces with her as she made the decision and went with her to formally apply to serve. "We had many conversations about it. It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision for her," Bozhko said.  She enlisted with the armed forces in October. 'The whole gender thing' In her time as a reporter and now as a servicemember, Ashton-Cirillo says, she experienced next to no pushback to her gender identity from Ukrainians, whose country has made slow but gradual progress in LGBTQ inclusivity. The country, like many in Eastern Europe, has a long history of oppression of sexuality and expansive gender expression. But in recent years it has become somewhat of a haven for those seeking gay nightlife and a marginally more accepting environment. Being LGBTQ is legal in Ukraine, but same-sex marriage is not. Ashton-Cirillo said she has seen progress in LGBTQ acceptance in the country because of the equity created by war and doesn't believe it will be reversed. As for how being transgender comes into play for her in her unit on a daily basis, Ashton-Cirillo called her gender identity a "non-issue" for those around her in Ukraine. "It didn't register as any big deal that I'm a trans soldier and in Ukraine," she said. "It turned out to be the easiest part of my time there. ... You are judged on your character, you are judged on your courage, and you are judged on your belief in freedom and your loyalty to Ukraine. I mean, nothing else matters." A unexpected role: Liaison between the US and Ukraine Initially, Ashton-Cirillo also didn't fully grasp the informal role she'd be playing as a sort of liaison between the U.S. and the Ukrainian Armed Forces because of her enlistment. When returning to the U.S. for the first time in December, she made two trips to Capitol Hill to speak with more than a dozen legislative offices, including members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Politicians regardless of party or perspective on the LGBTQ community have trusted her to deliver an unvarnished message from the other side, she said. "Where we are right now, in this moment, the Ukrainian government entrusted an American soldier to represent them in Washington, D.C., in the middle of a war," she said. "And oh, yeah, she's transgender." Ashton-Cirillo hasn't entirely abandoned writing. She is writing about her perspective on the war as a contributing columnist for media website Resolute Square. After the war, Ashton-Cirillo hopes to work on veterans rights in the U.S. or elsewhere with her knowledge of the challenges of reintegrating into life after a war zone. "It's easier to fight a world war against Russia as a transgender female than it used to be in the United States, trying to have to live a life where my gender identity is the No. 1 thing that comes up no matter what."

  • Standing with Russia, or staying silent, protects genocide

    This month, in a unanimous vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed Senate Resolution 713, which correctly identifies and designates Russian atrocities in Ukraine as genocide. Led by Ranking Member Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the resolution looks poised to pass the Senate, sending a clear message to the world where the United States stands during this moment of supreme moral urgency. This resolution, and its companion in the House, brings clarity and attention to Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. Every day seems to bring fresh, compounding evidence of Russia’s genocidal intent and patterns of action — mass graves and torture chambers that seem to pockmark every liberated territory; homes, schools, hospitals and kindergartens repeatedly and deliberately targeted by Russian firepower; civilians, including children and infants, kidnapped and herded into Russian so-called “filtration” concentration camps, where they are sorted for either Russification or the gulag or worse; and flagrant attacks against refugee and humanitarian convoys.  If you care to look, these images repeat themselves throughout Ukraine, and it is as safe a bet as any that newly liberated areas will bear the blistering scars of this genocide. Sure enough, mass graves and torture chambers have been identified in recently liberated Mykolaiv and Kherson, including an archipelago of torture sites specifically for children. This is the apogee of depravity. The physical evidence is shocking enough, but the Russian government’s very public embrace of a campaign of terror and genocide is incredible to behold. The summer before the invasion, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin penned, by his own hand, a 7,000-word ahistorical screed denying the existence of Ukraine as a state and a nation, highlighting his eliminationist agenda for all the world to see. And even since then, Russian government figures at every level have repeated this noxious and ridiculous denial of Ukrainian nationality, deliberately dehumanizing and mass violence-encouraging rhetoric about “denazification,” and outright, even gleeful, calls for mass killing and destruction. The official state mouthpiece, RIA Novosti, even published in April a detailed plan laying out the intended destruction of the Ukrainian nation. What is striking about this genocide is perhaps the clarity and openness by which it has been prosecuted. And the pattern of action is startlingly predictable; not just in Ukraine, but also in Russia’s past colonial wars in Syria, Georgia and Chechnya, where ethnic cleansing, deliberate and widespread targeting of civilians, torture and rape were employed widely and purposefully as rote tools of Russian warfare. So, what can we do about it? For one, we can and should give Ukraine every tool that it needs to win its war against Russia’s genocidal war of imperial conquest. The faster Russia loses — and lose it must — the faster its genocidal program is halted. But also crucially, Congress, the U.S. government, and the world must be willing to call this genocide for what it is. In June, our co-chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) introduced House Resolution 1205, which later would be introduced in the Senate as S. Res.713. Both resolutions draw on the definition of genocide in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, to which the U.S. and Russia are both parties and which is codified in U.S. law.  The bill text illustrates how, as is well documented, Russia’s actions in Ukraine exhibits both genocidal intent and pattern of action along all of the Convention’s five acts in Article 2: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Only one must be in evidence for genocide to exist. But what can a nonbinding resolution do? In this case, speaking out is more than some mere symbol. Ukraine’s war for its homeland is being won not because of Ukrainian material superiority, but because of the justness of its cause and the morale of its people. For the United States to officially recognize the extent of Russia’s horrors is tremendously meaningful to Ukraine and Ukrainians who still, despite their victories, endure the unendurable. Around the world, such a designation also demonstrates that we do not tolerate such heinous crimes. Calling out Russia’s genocide demonstrates the gravity of the stakes not only for Ukraine and Europe, but for global peace and stability. It can marshal further support for Kyiv, help sap Moscow’s fraying relationships, and further isolate this repugnant, totalitarian regime in the Kremlin. If you stand with Russia, or stand silent, you protect genocide. And here at home, these bipartisan, bicameral resolutions can help signal to the American people the true stakes in Ukraine. That Europe’s security, and the principles that undergird it, is a bulwark for freedom around the world and under great threat by a regime that purposefully and unflinchingly engages in genocide for its own imperial, corrupt ends. It is important to emphasize, too, that the 1948 Genocide Convention is about not only punishing genocide, but preventing it, and if we are to be true to our collective commitment to “never again,” we must act now. Of course, the ongoing legal investigations remain important and authoritative. But in the interest of prevention, a political declaration and congressional action is not only justifiable but essential. Congress, particularly Reps. Cohen and Wilson in the House, and Sens. Risch and Cardin in the Senate, should be applauded for their leadership. And the Senate, particularly Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), should be credited for bringing this resolution to fruition. Hopefully the House will do the same, in this Congress or the next, inspire the whole world to speak out as well — just as we were inspired by similar legislative actions in Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Canada and Ireland.  Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Follow him on Twitter @mhikaric. https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/3780873-standing-with-russia-or-staying-silent-protects-genocide/

  • Congress Wants to Boot Russia From U.N. Security Council

    Two U.S. lawmakers heading up an independent U.S. government human rights watchdog have introduced a resolution that calls on President Joe Biden to boot Russia from the United Nations Security Council, just days before the Kremlin’s flagging full-scale invasion of Ukraine is set to hit its 10-month mark.  The bipartisan Helsinki Commission, which called on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to protest Russia’s standing as a permanent Security Council member in October, wants Congress to argue that Russia’s war has violated the “purposes and principles of the United Nations” and asks U.S. government agencies to take steps to limit Russia’s privileges at the U.N., though it gives the administration some free rein to determine how it might act.   In the congressional resolution shared with Foreign Policy, Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson said that Russia had committed “flagrant violations” of the U.N. Charter that call into question its right to hold a Security Council seat, including the illegal annexation vote in four Ukrainian oblasts, the perpetration of atrocities in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha, nuclear saber-rattling, and creating risks to the world’s food supply.  Ukraine has also advocated for Russia to be removed from the council, though experts remain skeptical that such efforts will work. The U.N.’s governing charter doesn’t contain any provisions for removing a permanent member of the Security Council. While countries can be removed from the United Nations altogether, doing so would require a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly, including the consent of the council itself. “Russia would have to agree to it, and it’s just not going to happen,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director with Human Rights Watch. China is also unlikely to agree to such a precedent.  Though House resolutions are not binding law, the move solidifies thinking both on Capitol Hill and within the Biden administration about how to curb Russian influence in Turtle Bay. The resolution pushes forward a previous effort from the Helsinki Commission—which was created in 1975 as part of a U.S. law that solidified the brief detente between the United States and the Soviet Union—calling on the State Department to initiate a process to strip Russia’s seat on the top U.N. body. One idea, backed by the commission as well as some legal scholars, seeks to challenge Russia’s status as the heir of the Soviet Union’s seat at the Security Council. As one of the initial signatories of the treaty that founded the Soviet Union, alongside Russia and Belarus, Kyiv could make a convincing claim to be the only successor state of the Soviet Union not to have flagrantly violated the principles of the U.N. Charter and issue credentials for one of its own diplomats to take the seat. As deciding on credentials is a procedural matter, it would only require nine of the 15 members of the council to vote in support of Ukraine, Thomas Grant, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, has noted.  The feasibility of such a plan remains a subject of debate. And three decades after Russia took over the Soviet Union’s seat, challenging such precedent could also prove to be an uphill battle. “You’re looking at three decades of recognition of Russia in this place,” Charbonneau said.  But Russia’s long-standing intransigence, along with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has gotten both the United States and Ukraine to begin thinking about alternatives to diminish Moscow’s influence. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Biden called for reforms of the Security Council, including the possibility of adding more permanent and nonpermanent members, such as for countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The United States also succeeded on Wednesday in ousting Iran from a United Nations panel on women’s rights.

  • Ukrainian official rips Russia for ‘kidnapping’ more than 13,000 children

    A Ukrainian official slammed Russia for “kidnapping” more than 13,000 Ukrainian children amid its invasion of the country “under the guise of an alleged evacuation,” during a hearing held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Wednesday.  Nikolay Kuleba, the commissioner for children’s rights in the Ukrainian president’s office and co-founder of the Alliance for Ukraine Without Orphans, said Russia has deported 13,124 children during the war, citing a government portal.  He also noted that Russian state media had reported a “horrifying number of 712,000 deported Ukranian children.”  “The occupiers are kidnapping Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation,” he told lawmakers, accusing Russia of facilitating the deportations by simplifying their adoption process and bribing Russian citizens to adopt displaced Ukrainian children.   “To encourage ordinary Russian to adopt forcibly removed children they offer a one-time payment of maternity capital and state aide,” Kuleba said, adding adoptive parents were paid $300 per year for each child, and about $2,000 a year for children with disabilities. He also noted the Ukrainian children were not being deported into border territories but to areas of Russia further away from the border.   “The Russian authorities made a conscious decision to resettle deported children into the territories thousands of kilometers away from Ukraine,” he said.    Kuleba also claimed that Russian adopters were allowed to change an adopted Ukrainian child’s name and date of birth. “This means that it will be very difficult for us to personally find and identify our children in the future,” he said.   Kuleba said that there were several reasons Russia was stealing Ukrainian children, including making up for the demographic losses caused by Russian casualties in the invasion. He also said the Kremlin was pushing propaganda that Russians are saving the children from Ukrainian Nazis.   James Gordon, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, told the commission that roughly 60 percent of Ukrainian children had been displaced from their homes since the conflict with Russia began, and that these children were highly distressed.  “Every child in Ukraine and all Ukrainian children who have left, are experiencing some level of distress,” Gordon said.  In addition to kidnapping, Kuleba said he had recently received reports from the Ukrainian Parliament’s Commissioner for Human Rights that Russians were torturing Ukranian children, “and have even set up separate torture chambers for this.” The Hill reached out to the Russian Embassy for a response to Kuleba’s claims.

  • Saving Ukraine's Children

    Ukraine’s children are suffering serious injury and trauma due to Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine. Almost two-thirds of the country’s children have been displaced. Thousands have been injured and, although UNICEF has said more than 1,000 children have been killed, that number is likely much higher as there is no reliable way to verify how many civilians have been killed in the most decimated areas of Ukraine, like Mariupol, where, for example, Russian forces bombed a theater housing hundreds of civilians despite clear markings that children were present. And in addition to its immediate danger, the effects of war on children could have lasting consequences. Many Ukrainian children have witnessed unimaginable violence, including the murders of their own parents or family members. They have had to endure the stress of almost constant bombardment, in fear for their safety. Others have experienced hunger, cold, and weeks spent hiding in wet, frigid basements without daylight or fresh air and without sanitation or healthcare. Disruptions to education may never be fully recovered. Ukrainian children are also being forcibly taken to Russia and put up for adoption into Russian families in an apparent effort to assimilate them, a practice that genocide scholar Timothy Snyder has said could be considered genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The U.S. State Department has said Russian authorities have deliberately separated Ukrainian children from their parents during so-called “filtration” procedures and abducted others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia and estimated that the number may be as high as 260,000. Unaccompanied minors are also vulnerable to falling prey to human trafficking.

  • Leaders warn social media ‘a ticking time bomb’ for antisemitism

    U.S. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, who is special envoy to combat antisemitism, on Tuesday called the rise of anti-Jewish tropes on the internet and social media “a ticking time bomb,” during a hearing held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  Lipstadt’s comments come just a day after President Biden’s announcement that his administration would establish a task force to coordinate government efforts to address antisemitism and other forms of religiously motivated bigotry.   Her comments also come just a few weeks after rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, delivered an antisemitic rant on Infowars in which he stated that he liked Adolf Hitler.  Witness Rabbi Andrew Baker, much like Lipstadt, emphasized the dangers of how easily antisemitism can spread online during the hearing.  “Today antisemitism moves effortlessly around the world via the internet and social media. It infects groups and individuals who then carry out attacks on Jewish targets,” said Baker.  Though Lipstadt said that it was important to recognize the dangers social media presents in making antisemitic content more easily accessible, she was cautious not to blame social media for the recent rise in antisemitism in the U.S.   “I’m not sure we have an internet or social media problem, we have an antisemitism problem,” said Lipstadt. “I like to talk about or compare social media to a knife, a knife in the hands of a murderous person can take a life, a knife in the hands of a surgeon can save a life.” Lipstadt also made clear during the hearing that she wasn’t calling for more censorship or content moderation, but for more public condemnation of hate speech.   “The United States will always uphold free protections of speech in our Constitution, but having said that, we also have to condemn hate speech,” said Lipstadt. “We cannot legislate it out of existence, but we can certainly condemn it. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have to sit idly by.”  Baker also said that content moderation wouldn’t be able to solve the problem of antisemitism spreading online.  “Content monitors are no match for algorithms designed to push grievance as the basic business model,” said Baker. “We must find new ways to bring this under control.”   “We know that it spreads immediately, exhaustively, through social media, and that is a real fight we’re all up against.”   Lipstadt said that one of the best ways to fight against the rise of antisemitism online and in general was for high-profile individuals to decry antisemitism whenever and wherever they see it.  “Leaders have to speak out,” said Lipstadt. “Political leaders, religious leaders, celebrities, opinion makers, they have to speak out and say this is wrong.”  “So, I think the public profile people speaking out and saying this is unacceptable, is extremely important.”  Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.) reiterated this point and said that he was proud that so many of his colleagues denounced former President Trump’s dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Ye and white supremacist Nick Fuentes.   “Leaders must put a spotlight on any type of antisemitic activities and be willing to condemn it. We saw just the opposite at Mar-a-Lago when the former president had dinner with Kanye West, a known antisemite, and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist,” said Cardin.    

  • No Safe Haven: Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions

    Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing united seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA.

  • Demining Ukraine

      Russia’s invading forces have left more than a quarter of Ukraine’s territory contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO), including areas in the Donbas that had already been riddled with mines since 2014.  Humanitarian demining will be integral to recovery and reconstruction efforts across Ukraine.  As Ukrainian forces liberate territory in the east and south, landmines and UXO pose an enormous challenge.  In one day, Government of Ukraine explosive ordnance disposal teams removed nearly 1,500 explosive items including mines from the Kherson region alone.  Russian forces have also planted victim-activated booby-traps as they retreated from positions taken during the initial phase of the invasion.  Agricultural production is further affected by the use of landmines in fields and on rural roads as well as UXO, making an estimated ten percent of Ukraine’s farmland unserviceable.  This briefing explored the scope of landmine and UXO contamination in Ukraine as well as United States and international efforts to assist with humanitarian demining.  The Department of State has allocated $91.5 million to help train and equip Ukrainians to conduct demining operations and to deploy U.S.-funded contractor and NGO demining teams.  Addressing this problem will take years, if not decades, but Ukraine and the international community must start now – reclaiming its territory from mines and UXO is not only a pre-requisite for Ukraine’s recovery and post-war reconstruction, but will also save untold numbers of civilian lives.  

  • THE ALARMING RISE IN ANTISEMITISM AND ITS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

    Antisemitic speech and attacks have been rising at an alarming rate in both the United States and Europe. Popular entertainers and public figures such as rapper and producer “Ye,” formerly Kanye West, have spread antisemitic tropes to their followers on social media or through public statements. Antisemitic disinformation and conspiracy theories proliferated in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Statements by public figures and online disinformation not only serve to normalize prejudice and discrimination, but they also can incite extremism and violent attacks. Antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. Synagogues have been attacked in Colleyville, TX, Pittsburgh, PA, and San Diego, CA. The spread of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and blaming of minority groups, as well as replacement and conspiracy theories have also spread to the political arena where they threaten to undermine democratic institutions. President Putin has even tried to justify Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine through perversely antisemitic statements claiming the invasion was an effort to “de-Nazify” the country, notwithstanding its Jewish president. In response, Senator Cardin earlier in December convened an initial roundtable at the U.S. Capitol of high-level officials across the government and the non-profit sector who are actively engaged in countering antisemitism to encourage better communication across government agencies and between the government and civil society organizations. The goal is to promote a unified, whole-of-society approach, including a national strategy to fight antisemitism. In addition, strengthening efforts to fight antisemitism at home also raises the ability of the United States to engage successfully with other countries to counter rising antisemitism abroad. Building on this roundtable, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on December 13, 2022, featuring experts on combatting antisemitism. Witnesses testified on how to best respond to the global rise of anti-Semitism, reinforcing the important role multilateral coordination plays. In an environment where anti-Semitism spreads rapidly online, witnesses stressed that every country has a responsibility to combat anti-Semitism, as it has serious implications for democracy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) expressed his alarm at the shocking rise of antisemitic speech and attacks in recent years. He highlighted the destructive role of disinformation and the importance of educational programs, calling for a unified strategy to combat antisemitism across government and society. “We must speak out loudly and clearly against anti-Semitism when it occurs. As leaders, we must lead and fight against hate. We cannot allow anti-Semitism or any type of prejudice or intolerance to be normalized,” he said. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) raised questions about the cause of the recent rise in anti-Semitism. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) condemned the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, highlighted the important work the U.S. Helsinki Commission and the OSCE have done to combat anti-Semitism, and called on countries to take more action. “And it is clear what I stated last week, that anti-Semitism cannot be tolerated in any situation or under any circumstances.  I’m very concerned by the rise of antisemitic incidents over the past several years, both in the United States and Europe,” Rep. Wilson said. Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-03) expressed his disgust at the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe, raising concerns about Holocaust denial and securing places of worship. “It seems that every day and every week there’s another bomb threat at a Jewish day school, another discovery of antisemitic graffiti spraypainted on a college campus, or, at its worst, a shooting at a synagogue,” he said. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX -33) inquired about what Congress should do to prevent the proliferation of old anti-Semitic tropes on platforms like Twitter or Meta. “According to the ADL, there was a 61 percent increase in antisemitic tweets referencing Jews or Judaism since they have – since Elon Musk has taken over the company,” Rep. Veasey said. Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT), discussed how to improve hate-crime legislation as well as come to terms with the history of anti-Semitism in U.S. institutions. “One of the innovations that we included in hate-crimes legislation was to give judges the option in sentencing to require that the convicted defendant, the perpetrator, perform acts of community service that put him or her in direct – in direct contact with the community who was the victim of the hate crime,” he said. Senator Rosen (NV) described how she co-led a bipartisan and bicameral letter signed by 126 members of Congress to President Biden calling for the development of a unified national strategy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. “I’m proud to say, just last night [Dec. 12, 2022] the White House heeded our call, announcing the formation of an interagency task force to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. And its first order of business is to develop a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism,” she said. She also outlined specific actions that the U.S. must pursue including addressing online antisemitism, allocating increased resources to provide physical security for Jewish institutions, educating students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, improving hate crimes data collection and reporting, and advancing a whole-of-government approach to combat this issue. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department reiterated the importance of international coalition building and multilateral institutions in coordinating responses to antisemitism. She highlighted that anti-Semitism is often inextricably linked to prejudice and violence against other groups and religions. “Anti-Semitism is not a niche issue. It’s not just about helping or protecting Jews. As you entitled this hearing, it’s also a danger to democracy. Jews are the canary in the coal mine. If something is – if anti-Semitism is manifesting itself, other hatreds cannot be far behind,” Lipstadt said. She also mentioned positive international developments, specifically in the Middle East, with the Abraham Accords, describing how countries are starting to rethink their attitudes about anti-Semitism. Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism and Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) described the steps OSCE governments should take to tackle this issue. He emphasized the importance of accurate data collection, securing Jewish community buildings, and expanding Holocaust education in Europe. He also described that preventing the spread of anti-Semitism online is perhaps the most difficult part of the problem to solve. “We are outnumbered and out-funded by the social media giants.  Content monitors are no match for algorithms designed to push grievance as the basic business model.” Members brought several concerns and questions to witnesses about the source of the recent rise of anti-Semitism, the importance of Holocaust education, how to best allocate resources to secure religious and community spaces, the value of hate crime distinctions, and the rapid spread of anti-Semitism online. For more information, please contact Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, at Janice.Helwig@mail.house.gov

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Saving Ukraine's Children

      SAVING UKRAINE’S CHILDREN Wednesday, December 14, 2022 2:30 p.m. Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8-FuUftg6w   Ukraine’s children are suffering serious injury and trauma due to Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine. Almost two-thirds of the country’s children have been displaced. Thousands have been injured and, although UNICEF has said more than 1,000 children have been killed, that number is likely much higher as there is no reliable way to verify how many civilians have been killed in the most decimated areas of Ukraine, like Mariupol, where, for example, Russian forces bombed a theater housing hundreds of civilians despite clear markings that children were present. And in addition to its immediate danger, the effects of war on children could have lasting consequences. Many Ukrainian children have witnessed unimaginable violence, including the murders of their own parents or family members. They have had to endure the stress of almost constant bombardment, in fear for their safety. Others have experienced hunger, cold, and weeks spent hiding in wet, frigid basements without daylight or fresh air and without sanitation or healthcare. Disruptions to education may never be fully recovered. Ukrainian children are also being forcibly taken to Russia and put up for adoption into Russian families in an apparent effort to assimilate them, a practice that genocide scholar Timothy Snyder has said could be considered genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The U.S. State Department has said Russian authorities have deliberately separated Ukrainian children from their parents during so-called “filtration” procedures and abducted others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia and estimated that the number may be as high as 260,000. Unaccompanied minors are also vulnerable to falling prey to human trafficking. This briefing will discuss ongoing efforts to evacuate and rescue Ukrainian children, including from Russia, and will examine how the international community can support organizations working to protect and heal children from the trauma of war. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Mr. Mykola Kuleba, Director, Save Ukraine and former Presidential Commissioner for Human Rights Mr. Dmytro Filipenko, International Government and Donor Relations Director, Save Ukraine Dr. James S. Gordon, MD, The Center for Mind-Body Medicine  

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing on Alarming Rise in Antisemitism

    Members of the Commission and their staff are respectfully invited to attend the following Commission hearing: The Alarming Rise in Antisemitism and its Threat to Democracy   Tuesday, December 13, 2022 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room SDG-50   Antisemitic speech and attacks are rising at an alarming rate in both the United States and Europe. Popular entertainers and public figures such as rapper and producer “Ye,” formerly Kanye West, are spreading antisemitic tropes to their followers on social media or through public statements. Antisemitic disinformation and conspiracy theories proliferated in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Statements by public figures and online disinformation not only serve to normalize prejudice and discrimination, but they also can incite extremism and violent attacks. Antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. Synagogues have been attacked in Colleyville, TX, Pittsburgh, PA, and San Diego, CA. The spread of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, blaming of minority groups, as well as replacement and conspiracy theories have also spread to the political arena where they threaten to undermine democratic institutions. President Putin has even tried to justify Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine through perversely antisemitic statements claiming the invasion was an effort to “de-Nazify” the country, notwithstanding its Jewish president. In response, Senator Cardin earlier this month convened an initial roundtable at the U.S. Capitol of high-level officials across the government and the non-profit sector who are actively engaged in countering antisemitism to encourage better communication across governmental agencies and between the government and civil society organizations. The goal is to promote a unified, whole of society approach, including a national strategy to fight antisemitism. In addition, strengthening efforts to fight antisemitism at home also raises the ability of the United States to engage successfully with other countries to counter rising antisemitism abroad. This hearing will follow up on the recent roundtable and examine how the United States can strengthen efforts to combat antisemitism, both domestically and abroad.  The following witness is scheduled to testify: Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism and Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) For more information, please contact Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, at Janice.Helwig@mail.house.gov

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