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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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  • Oleg Sentsov and Russia's Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

  • Helsinki Commission, Lantos Commission Announce Joint Briefing on Turkish Referendum

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, today announced the following briefing: TURKEY POST-REFERENDUM: INSTITUTIONS AND HUMAN RIGHTS Tuesday, May 2, 2017 10:30 AM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists will discuss how U.S. policy makers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Director, Middle East Program, Wilson Center Ebru Erdem-Akçay, Turkish political scientist Beata Martin-Rozumilowicz, Regional Director for Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems Nate Schenkkan, Project Director, Nations in Transit, Freedom House

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  The hearing examined the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation.

  • Chairman Wicker on Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Following the death yesterday of a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine –  in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker spoke on the Senate floor this evening to condemn the incident; express his condolences to the family of the victim, Joseph Stone;  and call for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in yesterday’s tragedy. “Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements, and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the [monitoring] mission to continue,” Senator Wicker said. “[The monitors] play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances…the tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists,” he continued. “I commend the Austrian foreign minister, who serves as OSCE Chair-in-Office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible … should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments,” Senator Wicker concluded. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing roughly 75 personnel and other resources to the mission.

  • Background: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor On April 23, 2017, the OSCE announced that a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had been killed when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine – in separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. Two other SMM personnel, from Germany and the Czech Republic, were also injured in the incident. What is the OSCE SMM? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine was established in 2014, to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia and Ukraine.  Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. The Mission has some notable achievements, including regular reporting on the near-constant ceasefire violations, as well as the humanitarian needs of the population struggling in the conflict zone.  It has also sought to bring the sides together on weapons withdrawals and demining, as well as working towards agreements to fix power and water lines in the conflict area. However, Mission personnel face regular and sometimes violent harassment by combined Russian-separatist forces, who seek to limit the SMM’s access to the areas they control.  The attacks have made the environment in which Mission personnel operate increasingly volatile and dangerous, a fact tragically underlined by the incident on April 23.  In addition to this harassment, the SMM has faced limits imposed by the Russian-backed separatists including denial of access to the Ukrainian-Russian border, as well as jamming or downing of the OSCE’s unmanned aerial vehicles, critical tools for maintaining a clear operational picture. What is the U.S. Position? The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing personnel (roughly 75 Americans, making it the largest national contributor) and resources to the mission. The U.S. also supports the SMM by pushing Russia to end the separatists’ obstructions.  Since the April 23 incident, the U.S. has reiterated its call for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, particularly by the Russian-led separatist forces who are most responsible for the threats to the SMM.  The U.S. has pushed for the sides to move towards a real and durable ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and disengagement from the line of contact, as well as safe, full, and unfettered access throughout the conflict zone for the SMM monitors. The U.S. Helsinki Commission has consistently upheld Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, including through support of the efforts of the SMM in Ukraine, and called for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in particular underlining Russia’s responsibility in ensuring that the separatists make verifiable and irreversible progress on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The latest incident must not only be fully investigated; it is a reminder of the urgent need for progress on full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, including a cease-fire and withdrawal of weapons.  

  • Earth Day 2017: Eyes on the Arctic

    By Paul Massaro, policy advisor and Jordan Warlick, staff associate On the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans volunteered and demonstrated across the country to celebrate the importance of the Earth and environment for the very first time. Founded by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and co-founded by Republican Senator Pete McCloskey, and supported by Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, Earth Day demonstrates a bipartisan commitment to protection of the environment. By the end of that year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded and three key pieces of legislation were passed by Congress: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Today, Earth Day is observed internationally and is considered the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated by over a billion people every year. Since its inception, the OSCE has recognized environmental issues as fundamental to European peace and security. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act reads, “efforts to develop co-operation in the fields of trade, industry, science and technology, the environment and other areas of economic activity contribute to the reinforcement of peace and security in Europe, and in the world as a whole.” Economic and environmental issues make up the second of three core baskets of the Helsinki Final Act, also known as the OSCE’s second dimension: the Economic and Environmental Dimension. In 1997, OSCE participating States established an Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OCEEA), dedicated to promoting international cooperation on these issues. The OCEEA, led by Dr. Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden since February 2013, identifies OSCE environmental goals and priorities; organizes the meetings of the Economic and Environmental Forum; and supports field missions on environmental initiatives in areas such as water management, waste management, and sustainable energy. Although there are many areas of environmental concern that are often overlooked, the Helsinki Commission has recently spotlighted one issue in particular: the Arctic. In November 2016, the Helsinki Commission held a congressional briefing on nuclear pollution in the Arctic. The total catalogue of nuclear waste in the Arctic is staggering, and while most of the waste originated from Soviet-era Russian dumping, the United States and the United Kingdom are also responsible for some of the legacy waste. The panelists at the briefing, including expert Nils Bøhmer of the Bellona Foundation, Julia Gourley of the State Department, and Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, considered approaches to handling nuclear waste in the Arctic and working with international partners on this issue. Nuclear pollution is only one of many concerns facing the Arctic region. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the last 20 years atmospheric temperatures have increased at a rate at least three times the global average, and as of 2011 sea ice thickness was 42 percent below what it was in 1979. If trends continue, summers may produce ice-free waters in the Arctic Ocean by the late 2030s. The melting of Arctic ice will likely have an impact on sea levels and ocean currents, and produce other environmental changes. Warming waters may also open up opportunities for new shipping routes and other development, which will transform the region’s geostrategic environment.

  • Our Impact by Country

  • OSCE Convenes Regional Mayors on Local Approaches to Global Challenges

    By Ambassador David Killion, chief of staff Paul Massaro, policy advisor Janice Helwig, representative of the Helsinki Commission to the USOSCE Jordan Warlick, staff associate​ and Jackson Lines, intern From March 30-31, 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted the conference “Creating inclusive, safe and sustainable cities: Local approaches to global challenges” in Vienna, Austria. This unique conference brought together a diverse group of mayors and other senior officials from cities across the OSCE region to discuss their achievements and challenges in building integrated societies, countering violent extremism, creating sustainability, and constructing coalitions for change. The “Cities” conference was one of several “Security Days” conferences held by the OSCE each year. The OSCE launched these conferences in 2012 to provide a platform for prominent experts from government, think tanks, and academic institutions, civil society, youth, and media to engage with one another and official representatives from OSCE participating States. Community Engagement From battling violent extremism to building green energy capacity and resettling refugees, individuals, familial groups, and community units were put forward as the most effective change agents. Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam in the Netherlands opened the conference by observing, “It is not the police or the army that brings peace. It is the citizens.” The idea that citizens are the driving force behind community transformation was underscored by Park Won-Soon, the Mayor of Seoul, Korea (an OSCE Asian partner) who elaborated upon his pride in the people of Seoul who stood up for core values when protesting President Park Geun-hye. Many of the participating mayors believed that promoting citizen participation must begin with engagement at the individual level, and offered recommendations to engage different stakeholders in the community. Suggested programs ranged from efforts in Poznan, Poland to retain youth in the community, to having women-only days within municipal departments, where women are given the opportunity to address issues or play sports in an exclusively female environment. Local policies must have the support of the community to be successful. For example, on the subject of sustainable development through green policies, Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, Albania, discussed his town’s “car-free days” initiative. He observed that success in Albania means owning a car, making it quite difficult to “green” the city. However, after car-free days were promoted as opportunities for children to play without fear of vehicular accidents, participation increased substantially. Building coalitions through engagement on good policies on an international level is an important next step. In the final session of the conference, Vice Mayor of Helsinki, Finland, Pekka Sauri, called for creative solutions to engage youth, suggesting, among other ideas, the OSCE version of the EU’s Erasmus student-exchange program to familiarize young people with the OSCE and the diverse cultures of its participating States. Countering Radicalism Due to Europe’s recent experiences with terrorism, participating mayors also were deeply interested in addressing the issue of radicalism in their cities. Many mayors felt that, although  radicalism has quickly become a fact of life, it is not necessarily a negative development. For example, Mayor Aboutaleb suggested that not all radicalism must be destructive, because it is possible for “radicals” develop new ideas and think in a different way.  Integration was of particular interest when dealing with radicalization. Jørgen Kristiansen, Vice Mayor of Kristiansand in Norway, promoted the idea that treating radicalization as “regular crime” helps promote integration. Other mayors, including Tanja Wehsely, Chair of the Vienna City Council Committee on Finance, Economy, and International Affairs, discussed building a dialogue through extracurricular activities and organizations such a sports clubs. Wehsely perhaps captured the founding idea behind these programs best when she stated, “You must give trust to gain trust”. Other solutions put forth focused on youth engagement to prevent radicalism from taking hold of the most vulnerable population. Participants also shared their ideas for implementing programs specifically designed to target the radicalization of criminals and prisoners. Rather than focusing on a single subset of their cities’ populations, a number of mayors advocated community-wide approaches. One of the most popular ideas was a Norwegian “buddy system,” where citizens “host” refugee families in their homes to build trust and help integrate refugees into the community. With each city acting as a testing ground for different approaches to solving Europe’s radicalism problems, idea-sharing events such as this conference are of great importance to promote a peaceful and safe Europe.  It is important to frame both community engagement and radicalism solutions in the current political climate by acknowledging the wave of populism sweeping across OSCE nations. Conclusion Many issues discussed at the OSCE – including fostering inclusive, safe, and sustainable societies – require innovation and cooperation at the local level, with the active input and interest of municipal governments. By sharing best practices, mayors and other city officials are better equipped to understand and deal with persistent problems, such as countering violent extremism, in the OSCE region and partner countries. Because mayors, diplomats, and parliamentarians have a variety of perspectives to offer on the challenges that face the OSCE region, an eventual inter-branch “Security Days” that brings them all together could offer additional insights, ideas, and best practices.

  • Chairman Wicker Decries Russian Ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s decision by the Russian Supreme Court to declare Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an “extremist organization,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Russia’s failure to respect religious freedom is yet another inexcusable violation of Moscow’s OSCE commitments. People who practice their faith peacefully should never be in danger of being harassed, fined, or jailed. The court order to seize organization property owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses adds insult to injury. I am hopeful that this case will be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.”

  • Helsinki Commission To Hold Briefing on Russia’s Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: OLEG SENTSOV AND RUSSIA’S HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST UKRAINIAN CITIZENS Thursday, April 27, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 210 In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – an outspoken opponent of Russia’s takeover of his native Crimea – disappeared from his hometown of Simferopol only to resurface in Russian custody in Moscow. Convicted on charges of terrorism that the human rights community has condemned as fabricated, Sentsov is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. His case not only stands as a marker for Russia’s reach in silencing dissent abroad, but also illuminates broader issues of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present three perspectives on this disturbing situation and its broader context: from Sentsov’s cousin and chief champion; from a human rights defender investigating cases in the region; and from a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and journalist in Kiev Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament; former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests Halya Coynash, Spokesperson, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • Russian Military Aggression in Europe: A Resurgent Threat to Stability

    On March 21 and March 23, 2017, expert witnesses—including Gen. Curtis M. Scap-arrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander-Europe—testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. The impact of Russia’s military aggression and its failure to uphold fundamental international agreements were of paramount importance to Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also a Helsinki Commissioner and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. Three key themes emerged in the Commissioners’ questioning: the challenges Russian military activities, including exercises, pose to the stability of the European security environment; Moscow’s flaunting of its security-related commitments; and the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in addressing these violations Download the full report to learn more.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms

    The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world. For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first. I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold. I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect. The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law. The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law. Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble. Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

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