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Commission on security and cooperation in Europe

U. S. Helsinki Commission

Mission

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

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Chairman

Senator Roger F. Wicker

Co-Chairman

Representative Christopher H. Smith

  • Our International Impact
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  • Roundtable on Illicit Trade

    Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable brought U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants discussed policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State discussed their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Senator Cardin Urge President Trump to Call on President Putin to Free Oleg Sentsov

    WASHINGTON—In a letter on Friday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged President Trump to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment. On May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, which he plans to continue until all Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia are released. The letter reads in part: “Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years. In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there… “As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country. In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him. Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world.” In April 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on Russia’s human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens, including Sentsov. The full text of the letter can be found below: The Honorable Donald J. Trump President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We hope you will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately and unconditionally to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment in Siberia. In light of Sentsov’s hunger strike, our request is urgent. Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years.  In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there. On May 14, 2018, Mr. Sentsov declared he had begun an indefinite hunger strike, stating that “the one and only condition for its termination is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.” With his health already weakened, it is uncertain how long he can survive. As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him.  Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world. Sincerely,

  • Our Impact by Country

  • High Crimes and Pipelines

    Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing reviewed the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers provided expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They also examined Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing offered policy responses to these issues.

  • Helsinki Commission to Host Roundtable On Illicit Trade

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ROUNDTABLE ON ILLICIT TRADE Thursday, June 21, 2018 1:00 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 485 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable will bring U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants will discuss policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State will discuss their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Discussion will follow each presentation. Participants include: Russ Travers, Acting Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence Convergence: How illicit trade networks fit in with other illicit networks Christa Brzozowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Trade and Transport, Department of Homeland Security Contraband: How to stop the flow of illicit goods Lisa Dyer, Director, Office of Intellectual Property Enforcement, Department of State Counterfeiting: How to combat the violation of IP protections Aaron Seres, Acting Section Chief, Financial Crimes Section, FBI Corruption and Organized Crime: How to counter those who facilitate illicit trade The event is open to the public.

  • Reality vs. Rhetoric

    Since President Trump’s inauguration, the administration’s Russia policy has been divided between rhetoric and reality. Two dueling narratives have emerged—one based on the conciliatory nature of the president’s words and tweets, the other arising from the hawkishness of implemented policy. The disparity has rendered difficult any objective assessment of administration policy toward Moscow.  During this briefing, the panelists examined this divergence and sought to contextualize the administration’s policy while providing recommendations for future action. According to the panelists, while rhetoric is undoubtedly important, for analysis it is far more useful to look to reality. In that regard, the Trump administration’s policy has been “the toughest since the Cold War.” This policy has taken two principal forms: increased military deterrence and an expanded sanctions regime. Militarily, the administration has instituted a tactical deterrence strategy that may serve as the foundation for a larger strategy of containment. Since 2017, the administration has initiated the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine, conducted air strikes against the Syrian regime and Russian private military contractors operating in Syria, increased funding in the NDAA for the European Deterrence Initiative from $3.7 billion to $6.3 billion, and enhanced the U.S. presence in Eastern Europe by expanding the size, scope, and frequency of allied training exercises in the region. The administration has supported this conventional deterrence policy with an equally strong political push against Moscow: a policy exemplified by the administration's imposition of the congressionally-designed CAATSA sanctions, which target oligarchs associated with the Putin regime. Beyond this, other political actions implemented by the administration include the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in history, further sanctions imposed on Russian firms and cyber groups, and the appointment of Russia hawks to roles of National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State. In addition to current policy, the panelists also looked to the future and gave their prescriptions on how the administration’s Russia policy should proceed. A discussion centered on two themes: further targeting President Putin’s support base and developing the United States’ ability to counter Russian hybrid warfare. The former is predicated on expanding the existing sanctions regime to better target the ability of Russian oligarchs to access the international financial system and targeting Putin's regime by exposing its corruption to the Russian people. The latter is a call for increased investment in cyber defense and eliminating the avenues by which Russian disinformation campaigns reach Americans. In response to a question from Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman regarding the role of Congress in future Russia policy, the panelists agreed that Congress could take the lead, serving as a check against the rhetoric of President Trump, and continue the strong policy the administration has implemented.    

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on the Trump Administration's Russia Policy

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: REALITY VS. RHETORIC: ASSESSING THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RUSSIA POLICY Friday, June 15, 2018 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The polarization of views surrounding President Trump and Russia continues to complicate an objective assessment of administration policy toward Moscow. Despite repeated comments by President Trump expressing a desire to improve relations with Russia, the U.S. Government continues to advance what is arguably the toughest policy toward the Kremlin since Ronald Reagan’s first term. This public briefing will discuss the relative value Vladimir Putin places on conciliatory gestures vs. actual concessions that seem increasingly unlikely to materialize. It also will assess the likely trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations for the remainder of the Trump presidency. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Mr. Herman Pirchner, Jr., President, American Foreign Policy Council Dr. Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution Ms. Yulia Latynina, Journalist, Echo Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta

  • Helsinki Commissioners Jackson Lee and Burgess Introduce Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act

    WASHINGTON—Today, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess, M.D., (TX-26) introduced the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) in the House of Representatives. Named for Russian whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the bipartisan legislation establishes civil remedies and criminal penalties for doping fraud crimes affecting U.S. athletes and companies at international sports competitions. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) also co-sponsored the bill. “Meeting Dr. Rodchenkov and witnessing his courage in the face of Putin’s brutal regime inspired me to introduce the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act,” said Rep. Jackson Lee, who sponsored the bill and serves as the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. “The unprecedented level of doping he exposed at the Olympics, where American athletes compete and U.S. companies are sponsors, demonstrates how countries engaging in clean sport are being defrauded by criminals. In particular, athletes’ livelihoods suffer when prize money and sponsorships are awarded to cheaters.” “International competitions should be the pinnacle of human physical achievement—a chance for those who have trained harder than anyone to go head-to-head and demonstrate their skills to the whole world,” said Rep. Burgess, the bill’s lead co-sponsor. “There should not be an opportunity for states to engage in misconduct. Athletes who compete honestly must not have victory seized from them by an opponent who has used performance-enhancing drugs.” In 2016, Dr. Rodchenkov exposed the Russian state-sponsored doping scandal that took place during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. By deceiving international anti-doping authorities and swapping athletes’ samples, Russian officials cheated U.S. athletes out of Olympic glory and U.S. corporations out of honest sponsorships. These corrupt officials used bribes and illicit payments, sometimes through U.S. financial institutions, to commit this fraud. Unfortunately, the masterminds behind the Russian doping operation escaped punishment for their actions because there was no U.S. legal mechanism to bring them to justice. The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act will: Establish criminal penalties for knowingly manufacturing, distributing, and using PEDs. This section applies to all major international competitions in which U.S. athletes or U.S. entities participate, so that international fraud against Americans will not go unpunished. Penalties will include fines of up to $1,000,000, or imprisonment of up to ten years, depending on the offense. Establish a private civil right of action for doping fraud, giving clean athletes and defrauded corporations and entities legal recourse to pursue civil action against deceptive competition that has deprived them of medals or financial awards. Protect whistleblowers from retaliation, to ensure that intimidation tactics will not be tolerated against those who do the right thing and expose fraudulent schemes. Any person who has experienced retaliation because of exposing Doping Fraud may sue the retaliating party in United States district court. Empower the U.S. Attorney General to develop regulations by which the U.S. Department of Justice will help private litigants to obtain foreign evidence, in compliance with the Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad in Civil or Commercial Matters. In February 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing featuring Dr. Rodchenkov’s attorney, Jim Walden, on combating fraud in sports and the role of whistleblowers in safeguarding the integrity of international competitions. In March, Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), and Rep. Jackson Lee met with Dr. Rodchenkov to discuss the threat posed by Russia to the United States, corruption in international sports bodies, and how the United States can contribute to the international effort to counter doping fraud. “It is both gratifying and humbling to see the introduction of the “Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act in the House of Representatives today," said Dr. Rodchenkov. "I would like to thank Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Rep. Michael Burgess, and the rest of the Helsinki Commission for taking the time to hear about my role in the Russian doping scandal that marred the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Although doping continues to pervade international athletic competitions, I am encouraged that the U.S. Congress has chosen to protect clean athletes and fair sport. This bill stands to correct a broken and corrupt system, and I sincerely hope that other Members of Congress will support this endeavor.”

  • Corruption in Ukraine's Energy Sector Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: HIGH CRIMES AND PIPELINES: CURBING CORRUPTION IN UKRAINE’S ENERGY SECTOR Monday, June 18, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G11 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing will review the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers will provide expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They will also examine Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing will offer policy responses to these issues. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Bill Courtney, Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan and career foreign service officer Ed Chow, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies Nataliya Katser-Buchkovska, Member of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada

  • Chairman Wicker Acts to Protect Religious Freedom in Europe and Central Asia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. Key targets of the legislation include the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Russia, as well as Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine. “Our founding fathers made religious freedom a cornerstone of our country, and President Trump carries that legacy forward by making religious freedom a cornerstone of his presidency. This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts,” said Chairman Wicker. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.539 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. John Boozman (AR), and Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), along with Sen. James Lankford (OK). S.Res.539 targets governments of participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that have not complied with specific OSCE commitments to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The resolution urges President Trump to: Re-designate Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern”—nations that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention—and take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Designate Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey as “Special Watch List Countries” for severe violations of religious freedom, and designate Kazakhstan if it continues to tighten restrictions on religious freedom Block entry to the United States and impose financial sanctions on individual violators in these countries, including but not limited to: Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been unjustly jailed since October 2016 Kremlin officials responsible for Russia’s forcible, illegal occupation of Crimea Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine Instruct the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback, to develop a U.S. government strategy that promotes religious freedoms in these countries, especially prioritizing support for ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan S.Res.539 is supported by prominent international religious freedom advocates, including: Dr. Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, and founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Dr. Kent Hill, Executive Director of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (2001-2008) The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Frank Wolf, former U.S. Representative (VA-10), and Distinguished Senior Fellow, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative Nina Shea, Director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Dr. Daniel Mark, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2014-2018; Chairman 2017-2018), and Assistant Professor of Political Science, Villanova University Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016), and Program Director for Cardus Law Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Member of Parliament, Grand National Assembly of Turkey (2011-2015) Dr. Elijah Brown, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance Dr. Byron Johnson, Director, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University Dr. Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

  • Inaugural PADWEEK Addresses Racial Discrimination across Europe

    On May 19, 2018, African-American Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Black culture was celebrated throughout the event: Queen Elizabeth II’s first female black chaplain offered prayers, a black British choir sang African-American Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Chicago-based African-American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry quoted civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. during his wedding address, preaching on “the power of love.” However, the public discussion leading up to the wedding was riddled with racial stereotyping and prejudice spurred by Markle’s biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black. British news outlets were heavily criticized for racial insensitivity after commenting on Markle’s “unconventional family,” and using phrases like “unlikely pairing” to further differentiate between the prince and Markle. Unfortunately, racial bias is not confined to Markle—now Duchess of Sussex—but instead extends to many black people in Europe. According to four comprehensive reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Open Society Foundations, a significant percentage of the estimated 15–20 million people of African descent living in Europe have experienced high rates of prejudice and discrimination. Just days before the wedding, racial equality advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels to address this problem. At the inaugural People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), organized by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, Each One Teach One, and the European Network Against Racism, more than 100 black European activists discussed current racial injustices in Europe and recommended ways for European leaders to respond to increasing hate and discrimination across the region. Attendees included black policymakers, business leaders, and human rights activists from across Europe. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) were two of nine honorary hosts. “Whether in America or Europe, we must all do more to uphold the democratic values of our nations,” Commissioner Hastings said in a statement. “Skin color should not determine one’s access to rights, protections, and opportunities in a democracy.” Though the agenda was full with discussions ranging from BREXIT to migration to Africa-EU relations, PADWEEK addressed issues of racial discrimination head-on and introduced new ways to find solutions. It called for change to a well-ingrained European system that has left black people by the wayside for centuries. Race and legal issues were raised repeatedly in discussions. German legal expert and human rights activist Thomas Ndindah called for justice for Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker who burned to death in a German police cell while handcuffed to a mattress in 2005. Participants also questioned a so-called “Marshall Plan” for Africa, the name of which alludes to the American-European economic plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Participants voiced concerns that African countries were not being viewed as equal partners in the negotiations or consulted on the name. Instead, many attendees viewed the plan as Europeans paying African governments to keep unwanted African migrants from reaching Europe, while at the same time purposefully attracting Africa’s highly skilled professionals to Europe. This raised one question: how would Africa benefit from this “Marshall Plan” for Africa if Africa’s brightest and best were contributing to countries elsewhere? The week ended with a list of recommendations from participants and a passionate speech by Mirielle Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of twentieth century philosopher Frantz Fanon. She called on European institutions to deliver on longstanding promises to address the ongoing impact of colonialism and slavery on the present-day well-being of black Europeans. Recommendations from PADWEEK included: Recognizing the history of past injustices by adopting a European Black History Month and a Remembrance Day for victims of colonialism and enslavement Supporting empowerment and anti-discrimination initiatives by funding black-led civil and human rights organizations Adopting legislation in the European Parliament on an EU Framework for National Strategies for Equality and the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Europe

  • Chairman Wicker and Co-Chairman Smith Welcome Release of Bitkov Family from Prison

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s release of Irina and Anastasia Bitkov from prison in Guatemala and their reunification with Igor and Vladimir Bitkov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements: “By freeing the Bitkov family, the government of Guatemala has demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law. Every effort must now be made to protect this family from further retribution by Russian authorities and to expedite the process of clearing their names, so that their long nightmare can end and they can live in peace,” said Chairman Wicker. “This will not be the last time that the Kremlin attempts to abuse the world’s courts and legal institutions to settle a vendetta. We must find ways to defend our international organizations from Russian propaganda and manipulation.” “We should all rejoice with the Bitkovs that they are now no longer in prison—and keep working to secure their release from house arrest, and then bring to an end their persecution by the Russian government and CICIG,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who chaired an April 27 Helsinki Commission hearing to examine the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in the family’s imprisonment. “There must be accountability for the evident injustices they have suffered—but the top priority must remain the Bitkovs’ own safety and welfare.” Chairman Wicker first raised the issue of the Bitkovs’ plight in a 2015 letter to the then-president of Guatemala, Alejandro Maldonado.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Annual International Religious Freedom Report

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and the announcement that the State Department will host a Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this July, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and Ambassador Brownback for their strong commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad. Religious freedom is a fundamental right enshrined in our constitution; it is also vital to our national security and economic prosperity. “I hope Secretary Pompeo will consider inviting the Government of Uzbekistan to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Uzbekistan—like several other countries in Central Asia—has been among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. However, the new government led by President Mirziyoyev has taken significant steps to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom, and we should encourage further progress.” In February 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief issued comprehensive recommendations to help Uzbekistan improve its protection of religious freedom. In May 2018, Uzbekistan’s parliament released a “road map” directing government offices to implement all of the recommendations within one year. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report describes the status of religious freedom in every country. The report covers government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • 2018 World Cup: The Beautiful Game and an Ugly Regime

    The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has created an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s kleptocrats to enrich themselves. Just as he did with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has hijacked a world sporting event in an attempt to burnish his own image and enrich the Kremlin elite, rather than to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in Russia. However, unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics, the World Cup has required multiple infrastructure projects in not just one, but eleven, host cities. Oligarchs, as well as regional and national officials, have worked together to embezzle assets from the tournament stadium construction and refurbishment to side projects of accommodation and transport. Mistreated and forced laborers have completed this work. Contractors have used and manipulated Rus-sian and migrant workers to erect the stadiums and other structures that are essential to hosting a World Cup. For example, Russia has continued its unscrupulous use of North Korean forced labor to build St. Petersburg Zenit Arena, opened by President Putin himself in March 2017. Russia presented the World Cup to the FIFA voters in 2010 as a wholesome tournament, bringing the world together for a festival of sport. Instead, President Putin will give the world a corrupt tournament, built on the backs of forced and mistreated labor, and expose fans to a real risk of soccer violence and hatred. Although troubling trends in each of these areas can be seen in countries throughout the OSCE region, the offenses of the Kremlin are particularly egregious. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Michael Newton, Intern and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

  • Sanctioning Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to sanction the world’s worst human rights abusers and most corrupt oligarchs and foreign officials, freezing their U.S. assets and preventing them from traveling to the United States. Sanctioned individuals become financial pariahs and the international financial system wants nothing to do with them. Before proceeding, ask yourself: is Global Magnitsky right for my case? The language of the Global Magnitsky Act as passed by Congress was ex-panded by Executive Order 13818, which is now the implementing authority for Global Magnitsky sanctions. EO 13818 stipulates that sanctions may be considered for individuals who are engaging or have engaged in “serious human rights abuse” against any person, or are engaging or have en-gaged in “corruption.” Individuals who, by virtue of their rank, have ordered others to engage or have facilitated these acts also are liable to be sanctioned. Keep in mind that prior to the EO’s expansion of the language, human rights sanctions were limited to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” as codified in 22 USC § 2304(d)(1). The original language also stipulates that any victim must be working “to expose illegal activity car-ried out by government officials” or to “obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” As for sanctions for corruption, it identifies “acts of significant corruption” as sanctionable offenses. This is generally thought to be a stricter standard than the EO’s term “corruption.” It may be worthwhile to aim for this higher standard to make the tightest case possible for sanctions. As a rule, reach out to other NGOs and individuals working in the human rights and anti-corruption field, especially those who are advocating for their own Global Magnitsky sanctions. Doing so at the beginning of the process will enable you to build strong relationships, develop a robust network, and speak with a stronger voice. Download the full guide to learn more.

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