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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

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  • Who's Afraid of Civil Society?

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “How will you mark the anniversary?” That’s what Timothy Garton Ash asked dissident playwright Vaclav Havel 30 years ago, prior to the 70th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state. The answer? A symposium on the incidence of the number “eight” in Czechoslovak history: 1918 (the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state), 1938 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czech lands), 1948 (the Communist takeover), 1968 (the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring) . . . and 1988. As a junior Helsinki Commission staffer, I attended that symposium. It was my first solo trip for the Commission. At the time, the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act were meeting in Vienna to review the implementation of the Final Act, negotiate new commitments, and schedule future meetings. Czechoslovakia—the Czechoslovak Socialist Federal Republic, to be more precise—had proposed holding a future meeting in Prague as part of the Helsinki process work on economic cooperation. And why not? Budapest, the capital of another one-party communist state, had managed to become the host for a cultural forum in 1985. In Vienna, the Soviet delegation had boldly proposed holding a follow-up meeting on human rights in Moscow. However, Czechoslovakia—unlike Hungary, Poland or even the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—remained a firmly hardline communist regime through the 1980s, with significant restrictions on civil society.  According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, freedom of assembly was severely restricted. Efforts to hold independently organized meetings or demonstrations systematically resulted in arrests, criminal prosecutions, assaults on persons attempting to hold such events, sometimes using water cannon, dogs, tear gas and truncheons.  Nevertheless, as the Prague symposium approached, the United States had still not taken a position in Vienna on the Czechoslovak proposal. Earlier in the year, authorities in Czechoslovakia disrupted efforts by independent peace activists to hold a meeting in Prague by refusing to allow foreigners to enter the country to participate. If Czechoslovakia was unwilling to allow openness and access at such meetings, was it fit to serve as the host of a Helsinki process follow-up meeting? The November meeting would be kind of a test. My handler from the U.S. Embassy welcomed to my visit. The United States had recently declared a Czechoslovak diplomat in Washington persona non grata for actions inconsistent with his diplomatic status, a euphemism for spying. The U.S. Embassy, then led by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, assumed it was only a matter of time before the Czechoslovak regime would kick an American out of Prague in retaliation. The embassy thought it might avoid that outcome if it cut off ties with dissidents. My visit gave the embassy’s political officer an opportunity to resume those ties.  Still, he warned me, I might be the convenient target of retaliation. Czechoslovakian authorities allowed foreign participants to attend the symposium, but by the time my plane landed, the principal organizers of the event, including Vaclav Havel, had been arrested. I was deposited at the Hotel Jalta, along with  others who had come from abroad to participate. The small black and white television in my room had a neatly typed card in front of it that said in English, “Do not attempt to change the station.” I spun the dial at every opportunity.  This is where I first met Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and man of inestimable integrity who later became the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.  Eventually, Vaclav Havel was released, and I met with him and other dissidents before heading to a “parallel” symposium on “8s” organized by exiles in Vienna. In Vienna, I also reported to the head of the U.S. delegation to the Vienna Follow-up Meeting, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, about the events in Prague. On November 15, 1988, Ambassador Zimmerman announced the U.S. position on the Czechoslovak bid to host a follow-up meeting, noting that the lack of openness and access made U.S. endorsement impossible: . . . [T]he pattern of repression in Czechoslovakia, together with the persistent efforts of the Czechoslovak delegation to secure approval for Prague as host of an economic follow-up, lead me to state for the record the U.S. position on the candidacy of Czechoslovakia . . .  [A] prospective host should reflect commitment to openness and access, for its visitors and for its own citizens, that has been so well exemplified by the government of Austria at the Vienna meeting. By this simple and reasonable standard, the government of Czechoslovakia fails – and fails abysmally. For that reason, the United States will not join any proposal that any post-Vienna meeting be held in Czechoslovakia. That decision is irrevocable; it will not be subject to review or change during the life of the Vienna meeting. In June 1989, an American diplomat – my control officer for the November symposium – was declared persona non grata by the Czechoslovak authorities, in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of another Czechoslovak diplomat from Washington, and expelled one-month short of the end of his three-year tour. In November 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and brutally beat many student participants. They also planted a false story in the opposition that a student demonstrator had been beaten to death. The secret police thought they would be able to reveal that the opposition report of a fatality was false and thereby discredit the growing dissident movement. Their plan backfired. Instead, as journalist Mary Battiata wrote, “a half-baked secret police plan to discredit a couple of dissidents apparently boomeranged and turned a sputtering student protest into a national rebellion.” The United States continues to advocate for openness and access for civil society at meetings organized in the Helsinki process.  Hopefully, it will continue to do so with the same firmness and determination it did 30 years ago.

  • Chairman Wicker on Illegitimate Elections Scheduled for November 11 in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the sham elections scheduled to be held in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic on November 11, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: "These so-called elections do not offer a credible way forward for the people of war-torn eastern Ukraine, nor do they support the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Instead, they seek to legitimize the current unelected leadership and parliaments of the proxy authorities in these regions and delay the return to Ukraine of control over its sovereign territory. "The Minsk agreements call for local elections in the Donbas to be held in accordance with Ukrainian law and to be monitored by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Elections conducted according to these standards would calm the situation in Donbas and provide a path towards peace and reconciliation. Russia must stop stoking a conflict that has already taken over 10,000 lives and displaced a million and a half more.  Until the Government of Russia fully implements the Minsk agreements and ends its illegal occupation of Crimea, U.S. sanctions must remain in place.”

  • Our Impact by Country

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Nomination of James Gilmore as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s nomination of Gov. Jim Gilmore to serve as Representative of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I applaud the Trump Administration’s decision to appoint Gov. Jim Gilmore to this important post. Nominating someone of Gov. Gilmore’s stature sends a firm message to Vienna about America’s engagement in OSCE initiatives. I urge my Senate colleagues to move swiftly on this nomination.” Gov. Gilmore currently serves as President and CEO of American Opportunity Foundation. Previously, he served as Governor of Virginia, Attorney General of Virginia, and as Chairman of the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, a national panel established by Congress to assess federal, state, and local government capabilities to respond to a terrorist attack. Gov. Gilmore served in the United States Army for three years, where he was assigned to United States Army Intelligence in West Germany. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Law. Gov. Gilmore is the recipient of the Air Force Exceptional Service Award and the Joint Service Commendation Medal for Service to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  If confirmed, Gov. Gilmore will have the rank of Ambassador. With 57 participating States in North America, Europe, and Central Asia, the OSCE is the world's largest regional security organization. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Disturbed by Death of Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Activist

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent news of the death of Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handzyuk, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: I am disturbed by the death of 33-year-old Ukrainian anti-corruption campaigner Kateryna Handzyuk, who succumbed to injuries received in an acid attack. This young woman worked tirelessly to curb the corruption plaguing her country with the hope that Ukraine would one day realize the rule of law. Her torturous death reminds us that many Ukrainian officials have not yet lived up to the hopes of their citizens. Ukraine’s vibrant civil society remains its best hope for real reform, and it deserves the greatest possible protection. I hope Ms. Handzyuk's killers will be quickly brought to justice.” Attacks on civil society activists in Ukraine have escalated in 2018, accompanied by a disturbing lack of investigations. In October, Transparency International issued a press release calling on Ukrainian authorities to bring those behind the attacks to justice as quickly as possible. This was preceded by a September 26, 2018, open statement from a broad coalition of Ukrainian civil society representatives, recounting recent attacks and demanding investigations. These attacks follow a broader crackdown on civil society in Ukraine. Last April, Ukraine implemented an invasive NGO law, requiring civil society activists to declare assets down to the individual level. The United States and the European Union criticized this action.

  • A New Approach to Europe?

    President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II. With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations examined the historical context of the relationship and asked whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest, and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Invocation of Moscow Mechanism to Investigate Alleged Human Rights Abuses in Chechnya

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement that 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States have invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Senate Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “It is long past time for a credible, independent investigation into the allegations of human rights abuses in Chechnya. The OSCE can no longer ignore reports of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and other gross violations of human rights, and should hold the perpetrators of such vicious crimes accountable. Impunity for such crimes creates an increasingly unsafe and unstable environment in an area already fraught with violence, terrorism, and fear. “We encourage the Government of Russia to cooperate fully with the fact-finding mission and look forward to the mission’s report.” At a human rights meeting convened in Moscow in 1991, the OSCE participating States established a mechanism to establish short-term, fact-finding missions in response to specific human rights concerns. To date, the Moscow Mechanism has been invoked only seven times: in the cases of Russia (2018), Belarus (2011), Turkmenistan (2003), Serbia and Montenegro (1993), Moldova (1993), Estonia (1992), and Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992). The 16 OSCE participating States that today invoked the mechanism are the United States, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In June 2018, Sen. Wicker and Sen. Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to invoke the Moscow Mechanism to investigate events in Chechnya. In April 2017, a Helsinki Commission hearing examined escalating human rights abuses in Russia, including roundups of hundreds of men accused of being homosexual by Chechen authorities. Some of the men were tortured and killed; others fled the country or remain in hiding. In 2017, Sen. Cardin asked President Trump to investigate the perpetrators of abuses against gay men in Chechnya for possible Global Magnitsky sanctions. On December 20, 2017, the U.S. administration imposed sanctions on Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya.

  • Beyond Tolerance

    Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and many western European countries. As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have repeatedly affirmed that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and committed to respecting it. But over the past few decades, there have been shifts to language and attitudes of “tolerance” regarding faith in the public square. This briefing examined faith in the public square as a good in and of itself, a social good, and essential for modern democracy. Panelists discussed the interplay between public expressions of faith and law, policy, culture, society, and human flourishing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They also discussed philosophy underpinning original and shifting understandings of faith in the public square.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Shifts in U.S. Approach to Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: A NEW APPROACH TO EUROPE? U.S. Interests, Nationalist Movements, and the European Union Thursday, November 1, 2018 10:00 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II.  With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations will examine the historical context of the relationship and ask whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity.   Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Ted R. Bromund, Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Paul Coyer, Research Professor, The Institute of World Politics Jeffrey Rathke, President, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Johns Hopkins University

  • Faith in the Public Square to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: BEYOND TOLERANCE Faith in the Public Square Monday, October 29, 2018 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and many western European countries. As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have repeatedly affirmed that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and committed to respecting it. But over the past few decades, there have been shifts to language and attitudes of “tolerance” regarding faith in the public square. This briefing will examine faith in the public square as a good in and of itself, a social good, and essential for modern democracy. Panelists will discuss the interplay between public expressions of faith and law, policy, culture, society, and human flourishing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They will also discuss philosophy underpinning original and shifting understandings of faith in the public square. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016); current Director, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator, Dutch Parliament, and Professor of Religion, Law and Society, Radboud University

  • What’s Next in Putin’s Crosshairs?

    Since 1999, Vladimir Putin has led a Russian government that tramples on human rights and international norms. His government increasingly restricts freedom of the press and censorship is pervasive, especially for opinions critical of the government. Putin and his cronies are linked to murders of numerous political dissenters and journalists. Russian authorities persecute religious minorities that they deem “nontraditional,” such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tatar Muslims. The Kremlin tacitly approves the Chechen authorities’ continued gross violations of human rights including disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings based on suspected sexual orientation. Russian forces actively fight in eastern Ukraine, and earlier this year, the Kremlin further tightened its control of Crimea as it finished the illegal construction of a bridge crossing the Kerch Strait. Russian troops occupy the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and continue to occupy the Transnistria region in Moldova against the government’s wishes. Moscow continues to prop up Bashar Al Assad’s regime—who uses chemical weapons against civilians—by providing weapons and thousands of troops.Russian cyberattacks disrupt democratic institutions around the globe. Additionally, Russia still denies its involvement in the downing of Malaysian Flight 17, resulting in the deaths of 298 people. The United States and the European Union have responded to Putin’s provocations with sanctions designed to curb the Kremlin’s aggression. Despite these sanctions, which have damaged Russia’s economy and major corporations owned by Putin’s cronies, Putin has brazenly persisted in shattering international law and civilized norms. Today, it appears that the Kremlin is less interested in sanctions relief and is after something less tangible: moral equivalence. The more nations that accept that Russia’s actions are morally equivalent to those of Western countries, the more the world will overlook Putin’s disregard of international norms and human rights. Moral equivalence secures his public approval—and therefore power—within his own country and gives him impunity abroad. Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Sean McAndrews, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Confirmation of New Human Trafficking Ambassador-at-Large

    WASHINGTON—Following the confirmation by the U.S. Senate of John Cotton Richmond to be Ambassador for Trafficking in Persons and the Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements:  “Ambassador Richmond brings a wealth of expertise, commitment, and compassion to his new role leading the federal government’s domestic and global response to human trafficking,” said Chairman Wicker. “He understands how to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and prevent future trafficking.” “Ambassador Richmond has demonstrated a strong commitment to thorough research and evidence-based action on sex and labor trafficking,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who also serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly President. “These traits will serve him well as he oversees the development of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report—our most successful diplomatic tool to promote best practices and ensure accountability.” Most recently, Ambassador Richmond was the director of the Human Trafficking Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., devoted to empowering police and prosecutors to stop traffickers. He also has firsthand experience as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit and has served as an expert on human trafficking for the United Nations and the European Union.  Additionally, he was the director for the International Justice Mission’s anti-slavery work in India. In his new role, Ambassador Richmond will coordinate federal government agency efforts to combat human trafficking and assist victims in the United States, as well as assist other countries in meeting their commitments under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol). Ambassador Richmond will also oversee the development of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which lays bare the record of 189 countries, summarizing a country’s progress and offering concrete recommendations for progress.  Both the report and the Ambassador-at-Large position were created by Co-Chairman Smith’s Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 and its reauthorizations.  

  • 2018 Annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    Umer Ibrahimov was one of the 750 civil society participants at the HDIM.  He came to the HDIM to advocate on behalf of his missing son, Ervin Ibrahimov.  Ervin is one of many Crimeans who have disappeared since the Russian occupation of Crimea began in 2014. Crimean Tatar activists like Ervin have been particular targets of the Russian authorities, as have other residents of Crimea who refuse to accept Russian citizenship and integrate into the Russian-imposed social and political system. Ervin disappeared in May 2016.   By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law From September 10 to September 21, 2018, approximately 1,500 representatives of governments and civil society from OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) under the leadership of its director, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.    The HDIM is the world’s largest regional human rights meeting and allows OSCE participating States and non-governmental representatives to take stock of countries’ implementation of OSCE human rights commitments. Each year, participants review the performance of participating States in areas including respecting fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion or belief; safeguarding the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, and democratic elections; and countering racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. Each year also includes three subjects chosen for special focus.  In 2018, those topics were freedom of the media; the rights of migrants; and combating racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination. The meeting consists of opening and closing plenaries bracketing 18 working sessions. During the three-hour formal sessions, governmental and nongovernmental representatives speak on a first-come, first-served basis. At the end of each session, governments may make rights of reply.  Why Review Implementation? When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "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" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” describes the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Signatories to the Helsinki Final Act agreed to systematically review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-Up Meetings” as well as through smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic* Human Dimension Implementation Meetings to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Over time, a three-week annual review meeting in Warsaw was shortened to two weeks but augmented by three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” in Vienna on subjects to be selected by the Chair-in-Office. The HDIMs are intended focus specifically on implementation review and are not intended as venues to draft or negotiate documents. Strong participation by non-governmental organizations is one of the most notable features of the HDIM. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. The United States has consistently advocated for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. The United States has also supported webcasting the HDIM sessions. Videos of the plenaries and working session have been posted on the ODIHR Facebook page, and statements and other documents from the HDIM are available on ODIHR’s website.  A Draft Agenda In 2018, for the first time, the HDIM was held without an agreed-by-consensus agenda tailored specifically to this meeting. According to past practice, preparation for each HDIM includes the adoption of three consensus decisions by the OSCE Permanent Council: first, a decision establishing the dates for the meeting; second, a decision selecting the three “specially selected topics” for in-depth focus; and third, a decision on the final meeting agenda. Unfortunately, negotiations to adopt the HDIM agenda often drag on for months, impeding the ability of governments and NGOs to adequately prepare for the meeting.  The Government of Russia is particularly adept at throwing up roadblocks designed to undermine the meeting without actually blocking it. This year, Turkey added an additional complication. After walking out of the 2017 HDIM to protest the registration of an NGO it claimed was a “terrorist” organization due to its alleged connections to Fethullah Gülen, the Government of Turkey refused to agree to the 2018 HDIM agenda unless it was allowed to veto the participation of any NGO it disfavors.   Although there were no objections to the substance of the agenda, at the final Permanent Council meeting before the HDIM, Turkey blocked consensus over to the separate question of NGO access to the meeting. As the HDIM is a standing meeting mandated by previous consensus decisions and Italy had already secured decisions setting the HDIM dates and special topics, the draft agenda was used as the basis for organizing this year’s HDIM. NGO Participation Earlier in 2018, responding in part to Turkey’s concerns, the OSCE Permanent Council established an informal working group to consider issues related to NGO participation in OSCE meetings. Speaking rights for NGOs on an equal footing with governments has long been a hallmark of the HDIMs. Not surprisingly, some governments chafe at the participation of independent critical voices and have sought to curtail them in various ways. Uzbekistan, for example, denied an exit visa to former political prisoner and leading human rights defender Akazam Turgunov, preventing him from attending the 2018 HDIM.  There were also reports in Tajikistan of pressure against civil society representatives to prevent them from participating in the HDIM as well as reprisals against family members of those who did participate. 2018 Highlights Almost all OSCE participating States sent representatives to the 2018 HDIM. For the second year in a row, Turkey boycotted the meeting in the face of its inability to obtain the right to block the participation of NGOs to which Turkey objects. (San Marino was the only other participating State that did not attend.) The official delegations were joined by 750 nongovernmental representatives. The U.S. delegation included Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; Michael J. Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; Chargé d’Affaires Harry Kamian, U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Kristina Arriaga, Vice Chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Kyle Parker, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission. U.S. statements focused heavily on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, including abuses by Russia-led forces in the Donbas and occupation authorities in Crimea, as well as Russia’s serious human rights violations against its own population; the shrinking space for civil society and persecution of human rights defenders; and repressive measures against peaceful members of ethnic and religious groups, and hate crimes.  During the opening session, the United States noted that it had joined 14 other participating States on August 30 in invoking the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, requiring Russia to respond to reports of abuses by Chechen authorities against persons for their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as against human rights defenders, lawyers, and members of independent media and civil society organizations. The Kremlin’s unwillingness to address these serious human rights violations has contributed to a climate of impunity for authorities in Chechnya. The United States and other speakers also welcomed human rights improvements that have taken place in Uzbekistan over the past year and urged the government to continue sorely needed reforms. As in past years, on the closing day the United States revisited the reasons that the Moscow Mechanism was invoked with Turkmenistan 15 years ago, noting the lack of adequate information on many individuals—including former OSCE Ambassador and Foreign Minister Batyr Berdiev and former Foreign Minister Boris Shikmuradov—who were arrested by authorities and subsequently disappeared in state custody,.  This year, the U.S. statement was made jointly on behalf of Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In connection with the HDIM, ODIHR held workshops with civil society focused on combatting trafficking in persons and on the special topic of racism, xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination with a focus on hate crimes. There were approximately 100 other side events focused on specific countries or issues.  Side events may be organized by governments, nongovernmental organizations, or international organizations.  The United States also held bilateral meetings with government representatives and robust consultations with civil society. Between the first and second weeks of the HDIM, 24 members of the U.S. delegation visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. January 27, 2019, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp by Soviet forces in Nazi-occupied Poland.   *In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of a Review Conference which precedes the summit and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.  The last OSCE Summit was in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2010.

  • Fighting Racism and Xenophobia against People of African Descent

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Senior Policy Advisor From September 10 to September 21, 2018, the OSCE participating States held their annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland.  Organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, bringing together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  During the 2018 meeting, three specially selected topics were the focus of a full-day discussion: freedom of the media; the rights of migrants; and combating racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination.  As part of its efforts to fight racism and xenophobia, ODIHR, with U.S. support, organized a workshop for activists addressing racism and xenophobia against people of African descent. During the two-day event, 18 participants of African descent from Europe and North America focused on the OSCE and other international human rights instruments that address discrimination. U.S. participants included Johnetta Elzie, who led calls for justice following the police killings of unarmed African-American men, including in Ferguson and Baltimore, and David Johns, who called for police to address hate crimes targeting transgender African-Americans.  The group discussed efforts by civil society to collect and report hate crimes data to ODIHR, coalition-building among diverse groups, strengthening advocacy in international fora, and building information exchanges in various countries.  The discussion also touched on the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). Activists at the HDIM On September 20, the HDIM agenda focused specifically on racism, xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination. Workshop participants were invited to join government representatives and NGOs to discuss a broad set of challenges in both formal sessions and during side events. Canadian NGOs advocated for expunging marijuana drug charges disproportionately impacting Black men as part of legalization efforts in their country. Polish activists reiterated concerns that police are not adequately investigating hate crimes and, in some cases, have arrested undocumented migrants when they came to police to report a hate crime. A Hungarian participant sought support to address negative perceptions of refugees following the adoption of laws imposing criminal penalties on Hungarians who assist asylum seekers. A French participant spoke of discrimination impacting Black Muslims and the need to address racial and religious bias.  One participant questioned when a Swedish national plan addressing anti-black racism or “Afrophobia” would be implemented. A defamation case launched against European Parliamentarian Cecile Kyenge for calling the Italian political party The League “racist” led participants to question how racial prejudice and discrimination could be addressed if activists faced retribution for simply naming the problem.  Participants also expressed concern about a forecasted decline in diversity in the European Parliament that will follow a post-BREXIT loss of UK parliamentarians, at a time when political parties espousing “anti-foreigner” views are predicted by some to increase in power. Several countries responded to issues raised by the participants during the meeting. A representative for Sweden thanked civil society members for participating in HDIM and highlighted the government’s recent increase in funds and national plans to address racism, stating plans to address “Afrophobia are underway.” A U.S. representative indicated support for civil society participation in the meeting, calling civil society “brave,” and admonished the excessive use of force by law enforcement, particularly when linked when racial discrimination. The representative detailed the legal proceedings taken against the city of Ferguson by the U.S. Department of Justice that have resulted in implicit bias, community policing, mental health sensitivity, and other training to improve relations between police and the African-American community in Ferguson. Canada thanked participants for sharing their experiences and reiterated its commitment to addressing racism and discrimination.  Recommendations from participants in the September 20 session included: Increasing the representation of people of African descent in OSCE institutions and leadership positions Adopting national action plans to improve the situation of people of African descent, including implementing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Decade for People of African Descent Collecting disaggregated data on hate crimes and discrimination in housing, education, employment, and other sectors impacting people of African descent Targeting programs for refugees and migrants of African descent, including an increased focus on integration Training initiatives to improve police interaction with African descent populations, including migrant and refugee populations Increasing support for civil society and work in partnership with civil society  

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Release of Pastor Andrew Brunson

    WASHINGTON—Following the court-ordered release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest in Turkey today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of Pastor Brunson from house arrest and look forward to his return to the United States. The charges against him are baseless, and he should never have served a single day in jail. Thousands of Americans have been praying for this outcome. While this is a positive step by the Government of Turkey, I again urge the administration not to lift the Global Magnitsky sanctions currently in place on Turkish officials involved in the ongoing, unjust detention of American citizens and consulate employees. There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking.” Pastor Brunson was first detained by Turkish authorities on October 7, 2016, and subsequently charged with supporting a terrorist organization and committing espionage. He was transferred to house arrest this July after more than a year in prison. Several other American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates have also been detained and charged with terrorism offenses with no evidence to support the claims. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges. In September 2018, Chairman Wicker called for U.S. sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers to continue until all wrongfully detained Americans and locally employed staff of U.S. consulates in Turkey are free. Ending these unjust detentions would be the next step in reestablishing positive relations between the United States and Turkey. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. Turkey ended its two-year-long state of emergency in July 2018, but shortly thereafter the Grand National Assembly approved legislation enshrining many of President Erdogan’s controversial emergency decrees. Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens and locally employed staff jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated.

  • The Backpage.com Bust

    By Felicia Garcia, Max Kampelman Fellow On April 6, 2018, customers in search of sexual services on massive ad marketplace Backpage.com were met with U.S. law enforcement agency logos and the words “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized.” Backpage.com, the world’s second largest classified advertising website—which operated in 97 countries and had an estimated value of more than $500 million—was seized for allegedly promoting and facilitating sex trafficking of adults and children. The website company has been accused of not only knowingly advertising sexual services, but also of turning a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of women and children. In all, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged seven individuals in a 93-count federal indictment for facilitation of prostitution and money laundering.  The seizure of Backpage.com occurred just days before President Trump signed a new law that allows trafficking victims and state prosecutors to target websites that create a market for human trafficking. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA)—referred to jointly as FOSTA/SESTA—were written to curtail online sex trafficking by making it “a federal crime to own, manage, or operate a website with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.”  The legislation allows state prosecutors to levy charges against individual websites without relying on the intervention of federal law enforcement. It also ensures that trafficking victims who were advertised on such websites can sue the websites that profited from their exploitation. With the combination of the Backpage.com seizure and FOSTA/SESTA, Bradley Myles, CEO and executive director of the Polaris Project, found that “the online sex market has rapidly transformed from centralized and crowded to dispersed and sparse. Drop in Online Sex Ad Volume One of the biggest victories of the Backpage.com seizure and SESTA/FOSTA law has been the immediate reduction in ads.  According to data collected by web search tool Memex and analyzed by Rob Spectre, CEO of childsafe.ai, commercial sex ads dramatically decreased immediately after the Backpage.com seizure.  According to Spectre, over the past several months there has been a marked downward shift in the online sex market, with an analysis of North America showing a 62 percent reduction in sex advertising online. Spectre found that nationwide, these ads dropped from approximately 2,750,000 in March to 1,000,000 ads in April—and many of these remaining ads are duplicates. Prior to the closure of Backpage.com, law enforcement agencies struggled to sift through millions of sex ads posted in search of likely trafficking victims using tools like Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight.  Their job was made even more difficult by the efforts of Backpage.com and others to hide the telltale signs of human trafficking—such as words or images that conveyed that the victim was a child—in the ads.  Traffickers risked posting their victims online because they could hide like a needle in the haystack; now they have less “haystack” to hide in. Buyers are also feeling the haystack effect. Previously anonymous because of the crowded marketplace, they can no longer easily hide from law enforcement—and this fear of discovery seems to have depressed demand. In attempts to fight trafficking, the New York Police Department Human Trafficking Team has operated a demand deterrence program where they posted fake ads every day and recorded the number of responses. After the Backpage.com seizure, responses to decoy ads dropped 64 percent. “Perception of risk in this population [of buyers] is now at an all-time high,” said Spectre. More Victims Coming Forward The dramatic decline in the online sex trafficking market also seems to have created conditions where sex trafficking victims are coming forward for services. In his research, Spectre found that "all victims' groups are reporting increases in self-referrals with some shelters indicating in the immediate aftermath that demand [for services] doubled. Beds have always been scarce in every American market—now LE [law enforcement] agencies are reporting they are almost impossible to find."  New Challenges While the dramatic decline in online sex ads is a remarkable accomplishment, the change in online slave markets will require law enforcement and NGOs to adapt to effectively continue the fight against human trafficking. For example, the seizure of Backpage.com left a market with buyers looking for a place to go.  Some more daring sex service websites are now competing fiercely for customers and finding ways to attract more traffic onto their sites by duplicating ads and soliciting first time buyers. Monitoring efforts by law enforcement that were previously focused on Backpage.com now must be scattered among dozens of smaller websites. Analyzing data collected from a diffuse market rather than a centralized one makes the process even more difficult—but not impossible. Since April, Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight have been updating their law enforcement tools to be effective in a post-Backpage.com market.  Companies also are finding creative ways to manage the new risks of selling sex online. Some online website companies that profit from prostitution and trafficking are moving offshore to reduce the risk of government interference, to continue their connections with their current customers, and to extend their reach to new customers. Such offshoring makes it more difficult—but not impossible—for U.S. law enforcement to prosecute these websites. Experts are also watching for any other unintended side effects of the Backpage.com closure, such as an increase in risky or illegal activity. For example, law enforcement agencies in Riverside County, CA, report that prostituted individuals are forced by their pimps or traffickers to meet the same quota as they were when they were advertising online, putting them in an even more dangerous situation as they are forced to work on the streets, private residences, and at truck stops. Adapting to these new challenges in the United States may require action from Congress, including funding to properly equip law enforcement agencies with efficient monitoring tools and dedicated staff to use those tools; promotion of cooperation and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and governments at the local, regional, and federal level; and demand reduction through preventative action and prosecution of buyers and traffickers. Since many companies are offshoring their business in fear of being sued by trafficking victims or prosecutors in the United States, other OSCE participating States must be vigilant to ensure that their State—and population—do not become the new victims of exploitative websites. In 2017, the OSCE Ministerial Council called on participating States to hold accountable those who misuse the Internet Communication Technologies to knowingly or recklessly facilitate access to children for sexual exploitation or child trafficking—such as by advertising children on websites—highlighting that such individuals should be prosecuted as traffickers.

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