The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) was established in 1991 to offer opportunities for engagement between parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission has become central to the organization of bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA annual sessions and other meetings, and provides for substantial interaction between Commission staff and the Assembly’s secretariat on issues of common concern.
U.S. objectives and interests in the OSCE region are advanced through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in the following ways:
With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the Assembly. Even when actual delegations are smaller, the active yet measured involvement of Members of Congress in debates and dialogue assures all other states – including not only allies and friends but those with which there is a more adversarial relationship – of a strong U.S. commitment to security in the OSCE region. This engagement was perhaps best exemplified when Washington, DC, hosted the 2005 OSCE PA annual session.
Members of the U.S. Congress have consistently held leadership positions in the Assembly since its inception.
Senator Roger Wicker currently serves as an OSCE Vice-President, and chaired the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Political Affairs and Security Committee from 2014 to 2017. In addition, Representative Christopher Smith is the current Special Representative to the OSCE PA President on Human Trafficking Issues and Senator Benjamin Cardin serves as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. Representative Richard Hudson is a vice-chair of Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee serves on the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration.
In the past, Representative Alcee Hastings served as a committee officer, as President of the Assembly from 2004 to 2006, and for many years was the OSCE PA Special Representative on Mediterranean Issues Affairs. Senator Benjamin Cardin and Representatives Steny Hoyer and Robert Aderholt have all served as committee officers as well as Vice Presidents of the Assembly, and former Representative Hilda Solis served as a committee officer while in Congress.
U.S. Delegations have found the OSCE PA to be a useful venue for introducing new issues and concerns that ultimately need to be addressed by the OSCE itself in Vienna. Efforts to combat trafficking in persons or to respond to anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of intolerance in society became central to the OSCE’s work as a result of initiatives coming from the Parliamentary Assembly. The Assembly also encourages the OSCE to further develop its partnerships with Mediterranean and Asian states. While the OSCE operates on the basis of consensus decision-making, meaning just one of the 57 participating States can block a decision, the OSCE PA operates on majority voting, allowing for adoption of resolutions on more challenging and sometimes controversial issues that need to be confronted directly.
Central to OSCE diplomacy is the notion that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is part of a comprehensive definition of security, and that raising concern about violations of these rights and freedoms in other states does not constitute interference in the internal affairs of that state. Still, many states resist discussion of their human rights performance. The United States has generally been more responsive to the concerns raised about its record, including the conduct of elections, use of the death penalty or treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Both diplomatic and congressional representatives have accepted legitimate concerns raised, even if the motivation appears to be less than genuine, clarified the picture when necessary and acknowledged shortcomings that do exist. Members of the U.S. Congress, however, have the additional ability to speak their own minds on these issues, rather than reflect official policy. The diversity of opinion expressed by Members of the U.S. Congress is lacking in many other parliaments and therefore sets an example for others hopefully to emulate.
The Helsinki Commission has observed scores of elections in other OSCE participating States ever since contested elections first occurred in the formerly one-party communist states of Eastern Europe and then-republics of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For most of that time, including today, the observation missions of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly represent the most effective way to deploy Commissioners and Commission staff to observe elections in order to encourage their free and fair conduct.